Bowen Family Systems and the Enneagram

Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory is one of many treatment models enhanced by the Enneagram. The following article gives a brief overview of Bowen’s theory and suggests ways the Enneagram may be applied to strengthen clinical outcomes. It is written for the reader who is already familiar with the Enneagram.

Before the mid-1960s, mainstream psychiatric treatment followed a medical model. The psychiatrist on the team treated the identified patient. The patient’s family was given to the care of the Social Worker, and hierarchy dictated the direction information flowed.

Some pioneering psychiatrists, Carl Whittaker for one, noticed that the family process was often more relevant to their patient’s progress than the individual work. Positive changes in the patient were either supported or thwarted by the family dynamics. This inspired a new paradigm of family system therapies.

Murray Bowen was a Family therapy teacher of this era. He considered the dynamics of the system to be more powerful than the individual members and he mapped his observations using a genogram. His school of thought lives on because his theory is straightforward and his methods are teachable as well as effective.

Bowen’s style was more like that of the modern coach than a psychotherapist. He consulted with individuals, giving strategic suggestions for them to ignite changes in their extended family. He advised anticipating; observing and containing one’s own emotional reactivity while engaging in this effort.

Like the Enneagram, Bowen’s Theory has a uniquely descriptive language. Bowen was probably an Ennea-Five. He placed a high value on developing the capacity to discern between facts and feelings.

He taught eight concepts necessary for understanding and working with systems:

  1. Differentiation of Self
  2. Triangles
  3. Nuclear Family Emotional System
  4. Family Projection Process
  5. Emotional Cut-0ff
  6. Multigenerational Transmission Process
  7. Sibling Position
  8. Emotional Process in Society

Following is a brief introduction to these concepts and some associations to the Enneagram:

Differentiation of Self: A key concept in Bowen theory. The healthy individual needs to differentiate from his original system. A person’s basic level of differentiation is seen under stress. Functional differentiation is what appears under ordinary circumstances. It is difficult to change your basic level.

The pseudo-self is negotiable with others and is not as genuine. The greater the person’s level of differentiation, the more they are able to act from their own core under any circumstances. A less differentiated person is more affected by pseudo-self characteristics. What Bowen terms the pseudo-self is called the false self in transpersonal schools including the Enneagram.

The differentiation process requires learning to think for oneself, independent of pressures, loyalties, and groupthink of the family system. This is more difficult for one who has a major role to play in the family’s anxiety currents. The capacity to discern between emotionality — “it feels good to believe as I do, don’t confuse me with the facts” — and “the facts are the truth regardless of what I prefer them to be” is associated with a high level of differentiation.

The more comfortable a person is with his or her differences, the more they are able to have authentic intimacy. The Enneagram calms anxiety by normalizing differences among people. It also suggests ways to be true to oneself, regardless of social pressures.

Nine different ways the levels of differentiation are filtered and expressed through each personality style are taught in the Enneagram. A higher level of differentiation evolves from not getting caught in the passion or fixation of type. Also, when spiritual gifts embedded in each personality are revealed, a higher level of basic differentiation is nurtured.

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Triangles: The theory of Triangles is a basic key to understanding Family Systems. When conflict develops between two people, a third is brought in for reinforcement. Think back to the playground, when your best friend became friends with someone you did not like or vice versa. You looked for someone to soothe you and support your side. In Bowen’s terms, you triangulated.

When a parental relationship cannot contain and resolve differences and stresses, in-laws, children, friends, and the community are subtly seduced for balance. This can be conscious but is often unconscious. Family Systems are hotbeds of original triangulation.

Differentiation is compromised to the extent that triangulation is used to manage anxiety. Triangulation can be carried out with a person, activity, or object. For example, if one partner is over-involved with another family member, the other might become over-involved with work, activities, or substances. Some Ennea styles are apt to balance their relationship stress with objects while others seek out people.

When an individual learns to contain, observe, and transcend personal anxiety without triangulating, one’s basic differentiation level rises. The Enneagram provides a map and suggests spiritual resources for staying present and acting with greater awareness.

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Nuclear Family Emotional System: One’s family is the original learning lab. The healthy family system nurtures and protects in developmentally appropriate ways. It encourages each member to his or her highest potential as a separate person. Ideally, both the individual and the family are non-competitive, non-manipulative, and free from hidden agendas.

However, in real life, all functioning systems, including families, have to manage some level of chronic anxiety. The family of origin is the unconscious sourcebook for handling relationships. When caught in re-enactment, it seems like the same people are wearing different disguises over and over.

Once a role is established within a group, there is a pull toward stability, especially when re-entering original territory, which Bowen calls the emotional field. Anyone who has attended a high school reunion or similar event knows the power of the group to modify self-perception. One enters the old gymnasium as an adult, yet somehow the role — whether it is a bad girl, geek, or cheerleader — is reborn.

This is similar to the power of old family roles. Though difficult, delaying the habitual anxiety reactivity opens the self to a healthy creative potential. The capacity to observe one�s role in the system can support emotionally mature choices. To this end, the systemic view of the Bowen model is empowered by Enneagram insights.

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Family Projection Process: Parents transmit their own emotional immaturity and unresolved family dynamics to their children. This results in parental over-involvement or fusion with the child who is the subject of the projection. It is more difficult for the child who is over-involved with his parent to differentiate. He or she has a perceived job within the family.

In these relationships one member of a dyad over functions as the other under functions. Anxiety is contained as long as the roles are stable. Over-involvement of some members allows emotional disengagement of others in the system. Emotional current habitually circumvents the member who is disengaged and heats up around those who are unconsciously fused.

An example of a triangle containing these dynamics would be a disengaged husband/father and a wife/mother who is over-involved with a child identified as difficult in some way. Another child in the family may be symptom-free. One might work effectively with the family together or with any of the individual members. However, understanding the emotional system gives a more complete picture.

Relationship triangulation muddies interpersonal boundaries and often adds burdens to future generations, making healthy differentiation more difficult. A closed system a chaotic system, or an unhealthy combination, may be set in motion.

When family boundaries are too open it is hard to tell who belongs. Affairs, for example, easily demonstrate emotional triangulation. Boundaries around the family system become unclear. Affairs allow the participants to feel free as they send out ripples of chaos.

A closed family system may be demonstrated by the idealization of self or system. First, a collective story is covertly enforced and next, external boundaries around the system are rigid. The one who tells a less positive version of the collective story is likely to be the scapegoat. This may be the acting-out teenager or the classic “skeleton in the closet” relative.

When roles become rigid in this way some Ennea styles gravitate to particular roles: The scapegoat is often an Enneagram Four, Eight, or Counter-phobic Six. Occasionally, a One’s propensity to insist on their version of the truth at any cost will land them a negative role. The family superstar is often an Ennea-Three, Seven, Two, or One. Nines, Fives, and phobic Sixes are candidates for disengagement.

However, system dynamics tend to overrule personality style when it comes to role allocation.

The Bowen model maps how multigenerational projections are enacted. Enneagram character style shows how roles are filtered and made meaning of by the individual.

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Emotional Cutoffs: Emotional cutoffs occur when the anxiety of one’s role in the system becomes intolerable. Unfortunately, as good as it can feel to break free of a painful group, cut-offs have a way of repeating and misplacing unhealthy expectations. Unresolved wounds left by cut-offs invite projection and repetition. False intimacy and unreasonable expectations are given to current relationships.

When one or both sides of a person’s family of origin have been demonized, children, colleagues, and friends are given the burden of supporting the story of the one whose side they are on. Such emotional reactivity is the root of wars as in, “you are either with us or against us.”

Mark Twain’s gallows humor illustrates the taking of sides in Huck Finn’s conversation with his friend Buck about his family’s feud.

“Well,” says Buck, “a feud is this way: A man has a quarrel with another man, and kills him; then that other man’s brother kills him; then the other brothers, on both sides, go for one another; then the other brothers on both sides goes for one another; then the cousins chip in, and by and by everybody’s killed off, and there ain’t no more feud, but it’s kind of slow, and takes a long time.”

“Has the one been going on long, Buck?”

“Well, I should reckon! It started thirty year ago, or som’ere around there. There was trouble ’bout something and then a lawsuit to settle it, and the suit went agin one of the men and so he up and shot the man that won the suit, he would naturally do, of course. Anybody would.”

Stories are told to support the emotional truth behind family cutoffs. A cutoff allows emotional truth to go unchallenged. Rashomon is a famous Japanese play in which several parties to an alleged rape tell conflicting and equally believable stories, demonstrating how powerful emotional truth can be. The Rashomon effect is human but not so healthy.

Some types may appear the more obvious initiators of cutoffs. For example, Ones and Twos both hide their needs, hoping others will understand them. Both hold resentments about their roles in overworking and giving/pleasing. Cutoffs can surprise others. Certainly, the story of each player will be filtered according to Ennea style. Following are a few scenarios I see in my practice:

  • Ones may try ever harder and simmer on resentments until the “earth is scorched”.
  • Twos may explode when they have had enough of giving with no return in a “flight to be free”.
  • Threes may initiate cutoffs when they feel betrayed and wounded, or they may be mystified by cutoffs others initiate. Either can help them efficiently avoid painful feelings. “I pay attention to what is important to me” — it is about efficiency if it requires too much feeling.
  • Fours may withdraw in shame and sometimes move geographically to avoid a painful emotional field.
  • Fives would likely avoid emotional scenes and manage appearances by being remote and compartmentalized.
  • Sixes might stay out of loyalty or leave after self-confirming their worst suspicions.
  • Sevens will re-frame as much as possible but, if they feel cornered, they can attack and cut off those who seem to want to “trap” them in some way.
  • Eight’s preoccupation with vengeance can certainly lead them to punish others by cutting them off.
  • Nine’s detachment and reluctance to recognize, much less express conflict, can precipitate sudden leaving. However, they often stay, disengaged, out of ritual.

The therapist who understands how energy moves in family systems is not likely to encourage cut-offs. This does not mean suggesting a client subject himself to extended visits with abusive relatives. Working to find healthy individual boundaries is important. To this end, understanding family system dynamics compliments the Enneagram as a resource to avoid getting caught in counter-transference traps and unintended consequences.

Both Enneagram and Bowen teachings recommend that one seeking personal growth be willing to examine their personal, family, and cultural stories.

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Multigenerational Transmission Process: The multigenerational transmission process means family patterns repeat through generations. Specific roles and triangles reappear. Examples are the scapegoat/superstar sibling dyad, depression, substance abuse, or a “big secret”. Any family dynamic is subject to being re-enacted.

It can be very powerful to recognize these unconscious patterns. I met with a woman years ago who presented with wanting a divorce. She was not sure why, other than feeling a little bored. She was her mother’s first child, and her mother was also the oldest in her family of origin. Family history revealed both her mother and her grandmother had divorced when their first child was exactly the same age as my client’s first and only child, also a daughter.

I did not know the Enneagram at the time, but in retrospect would guess she was a Four and her husband a Five. Both had abusive childhoods and did significant work in therapy. However, the transformative moment in this case seemed to be when she saw this family pattern. She became motivated to work on her marriage rather than act on her compulsion to leave.

A therapist can begin drawing a multigenerational genogram or family map during the client�s first session. This gives a good diagnostic picture of the emotional field. Special attention should be paid to the losses, stresses, illnesses, dates, and coincidences. At least three generations should be included if possible. Include birth order and family roles. If your client knows the Enneagram, include what he/she believes family members’ Enneagram Styles are. It is also relevant to note the family’s relationship to the larger systems such as the Great Depression, immigration, or the cultural revolution of the 60s. A genogram provides a larger view of patterns and places them in context.

The Bowen model transfers to other systems. A facilitator can map the organizational family in a similar way. Members usually know and enjoy naming who is in what roles and what the generational patterns of the organization are. They also will have some insight into how they transfer their own family of origin patterns.

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Sibling Position: It is worth noting sibling and gender and Ennea style along with other major commonalities as part of the gestalt. Bowen sites Walter Toman’s research on the impact of sibling position on personality and relationship dynamics. Some sibling positions are more vulnerable to having family anxiety projected on them. For example, the firstborn has a certain focus of attention and expectation. The firstborn male in a patriarchy probably carries high expectations. This firstborn child might become a star performer.

However, all hypotheses need to be considered in the context of the individual. For example, if both parents are younger siblings of a firstborn male sibling who was abusive, their own child in the first-born male might be subject to negative projections and anxiety. If the older brother and identified child share an Ennea style, or other significant similarity, the projection will be stronger. Two people with the same Ennea style will have some common personality traits that can mask individual differences.

Eldest siblings are often in an over-functioning role and the youngest are more likely to under-function. However, this varies with the meaning of the role to the larger system and the number of children. It is interesting to note that the youngest of nine siblings often functions as the eldest.

The comfort level of an adult with the opposite sex is also influenced by family history. For example, an oldest sister of five sisters married to an eldest brother of five brothers might be predicted to have conflicts over authority because both have claimed it in childhood and have trouble understanding the opposite sex because they were not raised with peers of the opposite sex.

Enneagram insights suggest more hypotheses worth considering. For example; if one partner is an Eight and one a Three, you might guess there are some big power issues to negotiate. If the wife from that same couple came from a matriarchy and the husband from a patriarchy, it would be very interesting to know how leadership is negotiated.

Naturally, many factors affect how people integrate their character and their family of origin scripts including culture. Cultures and sub-cultures value particular character strategies over others, and this is also reflected in how individual strengths and limitations are perceived. For example, the competitive and success-orientated Ennea-style of Three is highly valued in the United States, while the emotional qualities of an Ennea-Four child may instill family anxiety.

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Emotional Process in Society: All of the principles above can be applied to any functioning system.

The system may fuse together in pseudo mutuality, project its own shadow, and split apart in exterior triangles. This traps anxiety and invites ill health. The United States offers a current example of a system under stress. Bowen theory would predict a crisis. This may be reflected in nationalism, as well as what is sometimes referred to as a “culture war”. Societies also take on the cloak of Enneagram styles that match their cultural norms. This, of course, may be manifested in healthy or unhealthy ways.

Family Systems Theory and the Enneagram complement each other. Both provide psychological maps for predicting behavior. Each offers ways to see past behavior to underlying positive motivation. Each is intuitive and, therefore easy to learn. Each predicts how anxiety, fear, and maladaptive emotional reactivity are managed. Both map ego traps and explore the authentic and false self. Both offer transference and counter/transference maps. Both offer transference and counter/transference maps. Family Systems Theory and the Enneagram complement each other.

The Mark Twain quote is from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from the chapter Why Harney Rode Away for His Hat.

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I’m attaching the following writing by the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, because it speaks elegantly to a spiritual understanding, which underlies Systems Thinking at its best:

The Five Awarenesses

Carolyn Bartlett, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Ft. Collins, CO. She is the author of The Enneagram Field Guide, published by Nine Gates Publishing.