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A  review of Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families, by Michael E. Kerr

I first came across Bowen family therapy around 1980 in graduate school when we studied a trio of therapy theories and methods – Bowen, Minuchin, and Satir. At the time I was working at a state psychiatric hospital and the lead psychologists would periodically travel to D.C. to study with Bowen and come back and tell us beginners all about it. I have been a believer in systems theory ever since and was delighted to come across Michael Kerr’s update to Bowen.

Kerr was both a student and a colleague of Bowen beginning in the 1960s. Bowen required that one look at one’s own family history in terms of systems, and genograms are the tool for doing this. Kerr includes genograms in the families he explores in this book, so you have an idea of how to do one. I find them very helpful in looking for patterns, but I also found they could get fairly complex in nontraditional families and when people didn’t have much information on prior generations. Still, you could find relationship patterns of the interplay of over functioning and under functioning in the triangles of family members.

We are a species that look for patterns and usually that takes the construct of cause and effect. Systems is not linear cause and effect. It is more of a process dance among the participants and plays out over generations. Kerr gives us many examples of this dance in exploring the dynamics of several families including Theodore Kaczynski, Gary Gilmore, Adam Lanza and John Nash. There is even a look at President James Madison’s family, which is quite interesting. Public functioning and private functioning can be quite different. He also delves deeply into his own family relationships, particularly with his mother and with his brother who was diagnosed schizophrenic and who eventually committed suicide. Throughout, Kerr approaches and examines these relationships with compassion.

At least to some degree we are all looking for safety and to care for those we love. This can lead to patterns of overfunctioning and underfunctioning. These become “a problem if chronic anxiety intensifies the emotional reactivity (overly sympathetic, overly caring, overly controlling) and drives the relationship interaction.” The anxiety distorts one’s perception of self and others. I like the Bowen definition of maturity, “People who assume responsibility for themselves, do not distance from others if they are distressed, and do not anxiously intrude and try to control others are whole or mature people.”

Anxiety and differentiation of self are the two main variables in the theory. Anxiety itself is not a psychiatric disorder in Bowen theory and all living things have some degree of anxiety. Anxiety is evolutionary and becomes a problem when it is overly active. Kerr writes, “What psychiatry textbooks term anxiety disorders are but one of myriad symptomatic manifestations of overly active evolutionary ancient anxiety systems.” We see in some of the families examined that when anxiety becomes overly active, for example a parent becoming excessively worried and protective of a child, what one seeks to prevent many times happens. When we become enmeshed in a relationship, we can lose our “differentiated self.” Kerr does an excellent job of explaining differentiated self, which he says is the most misunderstood of the eight concepts in Bowen’s theory. You can read further about the eight concepts here.

Kerr points out how Bowen adds a framework to Skinner’s behaviorism and to cognitive behavioral theory. You look at the behaviors in the contexts of the relationship system. Our behaviors feed back on each other.

Kerr includes a chapter on societal emotional process which was once called societal regression. Human culture has always been susceptible to this, but I think it would be especially helpful today if as a culture we become more aware of this process. Progression and regression occur all the time in cultures driven by both emotional and psychological processes. Emotions drive our behavior and heightened chronic anxiety can drive us to dysfunction. Kerr even suggests that with our vulnerability to emotional triggering and irrational thinking that our species be renamed from Homo sapiens (wise man) to Homo dysrationalis. Kerr looks at the housing bubble and financial crisis of 2009 as an example and for ways that we could improve functioning.

I found the chapter on unidisease especially intriguing. Kerr suggests including this in Bowen theory. The chapter begins with a quote from Peter Libby’s “Inflammation and Atherosclerosis: A Translational Tale” – “We all study the same disease.” Kerr suggests that “the core of the symptom-generating forces is the subcortical emotional system.” Internalized anxiety shows up in mental and physical symptoms, while externalized symptoms show up socially in behaviors like substance abuse.

There is also a chapter on spirituality, supernatural phenomena, belief systems, and mind-body interaction. Kerr includes a quote from Bowen’s 1987 address to the conference “Implications of Bowen Theory for Catholic Theology.” Kerr includes the quote because he feels it gives an aspect of differentiation that is often left out when talking about or trying to understand differentiation. Bowen said, “A major quality in the differentiation of self is complete selflessness in which doing for others replaces personal selfish goals. Jesus Christ has been a model for total selflessness.” I wonder how embracing that concept, which is present in many other religions and philosophies, would affect the level of anxiety in our current culture.

I highly recommend this book. It is a welcome addition to works on Bowen theory, family therapy, and systems theory. If you have never studied Bowen before, this is a good book to begin your study. It draws from a broad realm of research, is clearly written and will make you see the world, your family and yourself in a different way if you are not familiar with systems. And even if you are, its depth will give you more perspective. Even with studying Bowen all those years ago and following the concepts of systems, reading this gave me a deeper understanding of my own family relationships.

Bowen Theory’s Secrets: Revealing the Hidden Life of Families, by Michael E. Kerr