Your Family is an Emotional System

Q:  My husband and I are having a lot of problems lately.  I asked him to come to marriage counseling but he says I’m the one with the problem so I should just go by myself.  How can we work on our relationship if he won’t even admit he has a problem?

Q:  My daughter, Estelle, is 17 years-old.  She’s causing the family a lot of trouble.  She’s failing her classes, missing school, and hanging out with kids I don’t trust.  She is very rude to me and her sister and she won’t do any of her chores.  She also seems depressed because she’s mad all the time and spends a lot of time alone in her room.  Should I send her to therapy?

My answer to both questions is the same; if you are the person in your family who is the most motivated for change, come in by yourself and you can work toward your goals.

  1.         Coaching (Bowen Family Systems Theory refers to therapy as Coaching) is always an individual effort.  Even when two people come in together, the goal of treatment is to focus on yourself to find out what behavior patterns you are stuck in that continually give you unsatisfactory results.  It is human nature to focus on others, to figure them out, convince them of your perspective, get approval from them, etc.  Coaching helps you to highlight what you are doing in the relationship that isn’t working for you-or probably anyone else. 
  2.        Every family is an Emotional System.  This is a profound concept and, if understood, one that can help any motivated individual to initiate positive change in his or her entire family.  Essentially, what affects any individual in the family affects every individual in the family.  Think about how sensitive you are to the moods of your loved ones, how invested in their approval and appreciation, and how upset you can get when you sense that something is wrong with one of them, but they won’t say what it is.  When there is enough anxiety in an emotional system, people get stuck in habitual patterns of relating to one another.  These patterns form the characteristic postures of conflict, distancing, overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity, and triangling (for more on these postures view my web page or go to  With time and effort, you can learn to be an effective observer of the patterns in your family, and your role in these patterns.  Once you understand how your anxiety and the anxiety in the system is causing you to act, you can start behaving less reactively and automatically to the system, and start making healthier decisions based on your own values and beliefs.  When you get more mature (yes, mature, hopefully we never stop maturing!) the entire system will rise to a more mature level of functioning. 

 By focusing on yourself, and the role you play in your family emotional system, you can create change in every member of the family, maybe without them even knowing it!  Of course, this takes time and serious effort, and things don’t always play out the way you’d like, but the theory holds-the better you’re doing, in time, the better everyone will do.

A note to parents:  Most Bowen Family Systems Therapists do not work with kids.  This is because the parents are the leaders of the family and the most influential members of the family emotional system.  Dependent children, and this is probably true for most kids even through and after college, don’t have the emotional resources to work on themselves in the midst of the powerful emotional field of the family.  When good-hearted and well-meaning parents take their kids to therapy, they are often essentially saying, “We don’t know what to do with her and we need an expert to fix her.  She’s the one with the problem.”  This posture generally results in further cementing the problem rather than resolving it.  Which is not to say that children never need treatment-there are times when that is the best course of action, but it will never be effective without the willingness of the parent(s) to look at what is happening in the family dynamic to exacerbate or perpetuate family problems.  For a more detailed analysis go to

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