I was at the Bowen Center in DC again this weekend for more training. In the clinic’s hallway I found this picture, and I thought it was a great introduction to Bowen Theory and this new way of thinking.

Bowen Theory places relationship and emotional problems into a broader perspective – much broader than high and low desire partner dynamics, power struggles, emotional manipulation, and all the other ideas I’ve been exploring historically here on the blog. The broader perspective involves an understanding of man as animal and places him/her in the broader landscape of the animal kingdom – with what we have in common (and not) with the lower animals.

Quite simply, we share a significant susceptibility to anxiety. We have brains just like they do. We have a limbic system and we have a more reptilian system. We have complex sensors for everything from danger to sexual desire to emotional nurturing.

Consider a herd of cattle – of mammals – of families. When danger spooks one cow, the anxiety spreads like wildfire through the rest of the cows. Then their “herding” instinct kicks in and they pull in tighter and closer.  If anxiety really gets going they stampede. While this is adaptive for cows, it causes a few problems for humans.

When anxiety gets high in a human family for any number of reasons – financial, health, births, deaths, marriages, etc. – it tends to heighten our reactivity to each other. When the anxiety has thoroughly spread through the “herd” it has a way of pulling us in tighter and tighter to each other via the emotional reactivity. We become fused into a kind of herd – not separate entities, but one big, fat, black and white spotted organism. Pretty soon, when the anxiety is sufficiently intense, all someone has to do is chew their cud the wrong way, and you’ve got a war on your hands. We begin to think the inconsiderate chewing is the problem rather than the rapid spread of anxiety and its resulting emotional fusions.

Longstanding problems set in when we are more controlled by the systemic flow of anxiety than by an internal direction, value, or principle. This is what is meant by the term differentiation – it means to develop that broader lens – to step back from our myopic view of marriage or parenting, or parents, etc. to incorporate greater awareness of things like:

  • The rapid spread of anxiety through the herd
  • The rapid spread of anxiety from the herd of origin down to the nuclear herd
  • How does it spread, and what relationships does it spread through?
  • What relationships does it spread through the most intensely?
  • What makes you susceptible to it?
  • How is your personality involved? (For example, are you an over achiever? This personality profile could make you vulnerable to becoming symptomatic – mentally, physically, and socially – in an emotional system.)
  • How are current or historical events in your or your spouse’s lives (or families’ lives) influencing how close or distant you tend to be in relationship?
  • What is the flow of money across generations? Financial dependencies or distances have the potential to increase anxiety and then decrease one’s functioning.

I could go on and on about the broader lens. When we can step back and make a study of the emotional forces at work all around us and then start interacting with those emotional forces differently, anxiety tends to dissipate and so does the neurotic obsession with feelings and conflicts and agonizing symptoms that so many suffer through day-to-day.

Take a minute to read this article: http://discovermagazine.com/2013/may/13-grandmas-experiences-leave-epigenetic-mark-on-your-genes#.UwvR29NOnFp . It adds a significant new lens – a genetic one – to this broader picture. It makes getting a thorough family history significant in a way we’ve never thought important before!