Since my days as a counseling graduate student, I have ALWAYS been a fan of Bowen Family Systems theory.
Bowen Family Systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally.
Often people feel distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.”
People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support and react to each other’s needs, expectations, and upsets. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence, but it is always present to some degree (Bowen Center, 2019).
Bowen really explores the differences between healthy functioning families and dysfunctional families.
There are several characteristics that are generally identified within a healthy, well-functioning family. Some include: support; respect is abundant for all, privacy is respected, love and caring exists for ALL family members; an emotionally safe environment is present, new members are welcomed, people go gentle on the teasing and sarcasm, the family provides security AND a sense of belonging; OPEN lines of communication exists; the family system ALLOW members to change and grow, and the family makes each person within the family feel important, valued, respected and esteemed.
A dysfunctional family, on the other hand, is a family in which conflict, misbehavior, and abuse (physical or emotional) occur continuously and regularly, leading to other members to accommodate such actions. Dysfunctional families don’t cope with stress in a healthy manner. Blame is plentiful in a dysfunctional family. Poor communication is the norm. Boundaries are disregarded and habitually crossed. Rather than dealing with the stress that is causing problems, dysfunctional families lash out at each other.
If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you are more likely to struggle with self-differentiation than if you were raised in healthy family systems unit.
Some signs you are part of a dysfunctional family unit (from Wikipedia):
- Lack of empathy, understanding, and sensitivity towards certain family members, while expressing extreme empathy or appeasement towards one or more members who have real or perceived “special needs.” In other words, one family member continuously receives far more than they deserve, while another is marginalized
- Denial(refusal to acknowledge abusive behavior, possibly believing that the situation is normal or even beneficial; also known as the “elephant in the room”
- Inadequate or missing boundaries for self (e.g. tolerating inappropriate treatment from others, failing to express what is acceptable and unacceptable treatment of self and others)
- Disrespect of others’ boundaries (e.g. physical contact that other person dislikes; breaking important promises, not respecting someone’s wishes; purposefully violating a boundary another person has expressed)
- Extremes in conflict (either too much fighting or insufficient peaceful arguing between family members)
- Unfair or unfair treatment of one or more family members due to their birth order, gender, age, family role, abilities (may include frequent appeasement of one member at the expense of others, or an uneven/inconsistent enforcement of rules)
- Disrespect towards family members including shaming, displays of contempt, bitterness, ridicule, judgmental statements, demonization/dehumanizing, belittling, hypocrisy, excessive criticism, excessive gossip
Mind you, no family is perfect, even the functioning ones. Dysfunction exists on a spectrum.
Yet often in dysfunctional families members are very often enmeshed. Enmeshed families are rigid systems where boundaries are generally not respected. People in enmeshed families don’t know where they end and another family member begins. This is a hinderance to the differentiation process.
In an enmeshed family, control is usually an ongoing issue. Enmeshed family members often try to control how other family members think and act while simultaneously fighting off perceived attempts of feeling controlled themselves in how to think and act. Live and let live is NOT a mantra in an enmeshed family.
Have you ever heard someone complain about the “drama” in his or her family? Chances are that the family fits the profile of the enmeshed family, in which each family member feels obliged to react to whatever is going on in the lives of other family members, effectively multiplying the tension.
In an enmeshed family, you will be made to feel guilty even if you didn’t do anything wrong. Any step outside the unspoken rules of the family system will be met with resistance.
Guilt, shame, abandonment, ostracism, and rejection are all seen in a dysfunctional family as methods of keeping members “in line” with conforming and behaving within the family systems unit.
Ask yourself the following…
Do you ever catch yourself defending yourself to other family members (your choices, beliefs, feelings, decisions)? Are you expected to defend such? Are new members welcomed in? Is everyone with the family system overly involved in the lives of each other with little privacy? Is change frowned upon? Does a parent tell one child that they are their favorite? Are emotions contagious–if someone is angry, it rubs off on other family members? Do people form coalitions and gang up on other family members? Are you made to feel guilty for saying no? Are parents best friends with their (still underage) children? Are parents overly involved with their children and their activities? These are all signs of enmeshment.
What happens if you are the process of self-differentiation and de-enmeshment from your family? You will in all likelihood be met with resistance. Often anger and guilt to follow.
The truth is some people live their whole lives UNdifferentiated from their family of origin.
It can be too painful to self-differentiate, depending on the level of dysfunction, within the family system.
When you attempt to begin the process of differentiation, the reaction you receive from family members can be too much for you to handle, depending on where you are at in your personal development.
Am example is the following. Imagine you grew up with a mother who wanted to know EVERYTHING about your life–a behavior that continues well after you are into adulthood. Maybe your mom feels ENTITLED to know anything she wants about you (She is your mother after all! As she would readily point out if you resisted–ie the GUILT tactic). Mom repeatedly asks you personal questions about all aspects of your life–despite the fact you are 45 years old with your own wife and kids. Mom’s MO is to grill you with questions regardless of how personal they may in fact be. There is no line mom won’t cross!
Maybe you begin counseling to figure out a way to set boundaries with mom. The therapist gives you strategies to how to better manage the relationship. Next time, you see mom for Sunday dinner, she, BEING the woman she is, asks you a question on a topic you feel uncomfortable with discussing (your income, your marriage, how you are parenting your kids, insert uncomfortable topic here). Maybe you usually answered whatever question asked by her (ie the path of least resistance) but this time you respond by saying you feel uncomfortable. Maybe your mother replies you are being too “sensitive” (a common rebuttal in enmeshed families when you set a boundary). She may even ask why you are being so “difficult.” You reply calmly to mom that you understand why she is curious but you are not interested in talking about said topic today (or EVER for that matter but today works in this example).
After Sunday dinner, a few days pass…you start to feel relieved that you were able to set the boundary with mom.
But then your sister calls. Your sister shares with you that your mom has been complaining about you being “overly sensitive” and “difficult” lately with her (in dysfunctional families “triangulation” is common).
Mom, you see, is annoyed with you, for setting a boundary. For not playing her game as usual. Thus she is now venting to your sister about you, hoping your sister relays her displeasure with you. That such displeasure will get you back in line because change destabilizes dysfunctional family systems.
This is a prime example of triangulation.
Triangulation is a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, instead using a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle. Triangulation may manifest itself as a manipulative device to engineer rivalry between two people, known as divide and conquer or playing one person against another (Bowen Family Center).
Being labeled something disparaging is par for the course in enmeshed families when you start the differentiation process. Change and growth are NOT welcome in such family systems. Often, once you stop playing the family system game, you are criticized. This is part of trying to get you to change back and not continue self-differentiating.
If you are wondering how self-differentiated you currently are, I copied and pasted Bowen’s Scale of Differentiation below.
Bowen’s Scale of Differentiation:
Can’t distinguish between fact and feeling
Emotionally needy and highly reactive to others
Much of life energy spent in winning the approval of others
Little energy for goal-directed activities
Can’t say, “I think….I believe….”
Little emotional separation from their families
Dependent marital relationships
Do very poorly in transitions, crises, and life adjustments
Unable to see where they end and others begin
25-50 (many people are here)
Some ability to distinguish between fact and feeling
Most of self is a “false self” and reflected from others
When anxiety is low, they function relatively well
Quick to imitate others and change themselves to gain acceptance from others
Often talk one set of principles/beliefs, yet do another
Self-esteem soars with compliments or is crushed by criticism
Become anxious when a relationship system falls apart or becomes unbalanced
Often make poor decisions due to their inability to think clearly under stress
Seek power, honor, knowledge, and love from others to cloth their false self
Aware of the thinking and feeling functions that work as a team
Reasonable level of “true self”
Can follow life goals that are determined from within
Can state beliefs calmly without putting others down
Marriage is a functioning partnership where intimacy can be enjoyed without losing self
Can allow children to progress through development phrases into adult autonomy
Function well–alone or with others
Able to cope with crisis without falling apart
Stay in relational connection with others without insisting they see the world the same
75-100 (Few function at this level)
Is principle oriented and goal directed–secure in who they are, unaffected by criticism or praise
Is able to leave family of origin and become an inner-directed, separate adult
Sure of their beliefs but not dogmatic or closed in their thinking
Can hear and evaluate beliefs of others, discarding old beliefs in favor of new ones
Can listen without reacting and communicate without antagonizing others
Can respect others without having to change them
Aware of dependence on others and responsibility for others
Free to enjoy life and play
Able to maintain a non-anxious presence in the midst of stress and pressure
Able to take responsibility for their own destiny and life
Maybe you are reviewing this scale and finding your are less differentiated then you would have previously thought. What to do now?
Counseling is a great outlet to pursue in beginning the differentiation process.
Once again, please excuse grammatical, writing errors. This blog is more about the content (I am not Charles Dickens here).
To schedule a counseling session with me (AND if you are a reader who lives in New Jersey):
Erin Doyle Theodorou, M.Ed, LPC, NCC
Anew Counseling Services LLC
617 Oradell Avenue, Suite 3, Oradell, New Jersey, 07649
If you find yourself struggling with enmeshment, I find the following articles to be helpful resources of starting the process of de-enmeshing.