Gilbert Simplifies Family Systems Theory

Gilbert_review_03042015Roberta M. Gilbert. 2006. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory:  A New Way of Thinking about the Individual and the Group.  Front Royal (VA):  Leading Systems Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Families matter.  How much they matter to our health and well-being is sometimes shocking.  Frequently in patient visits in an emergency room, physical and psychiatric problems could be linked to problems elsewhere in the family, such as a death or trauma.  This might be obvious when a young mother comes in complaining of chronic headaches, but it might also be a significant factor explaining backache, heart attacks, stroke, ineffective medication, and drug addictions.  Of course, as a chaplain one needs to ask.


Family systems theory helps to make sense of these connections by focusing on “the family as an emotional unit”, rather than on particular individuals (3). This focus runs counter to most counseling approaches which assume the clinical model where the individual is treated as autonomous. Problems with their origin outside the individual obviously cannot be solved by treating the individual alone but that is the common practice.  The systems approach often yields counter-intuitive results[1].  Family systems theory is often applied to other “emotional units”, like offices, churches, and groups, where relationships are intense and span many years.


In her book, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, Roberta Gilbert outlines 8 principles of family systems theory which outlines her chapters. These chapters include:

  1. Nuclear Family Emotional System;
  2. The Differentiation of Self Scale;
  3. Triangles; Cutoff;
  4. Family Projection Process;
  5. Multi-generational Transmission Process;
  6. Sibling Position; and
  7. Societal Emotional Process (4).

These chapters are preceded by an introduction and followed by an epilogue.  Murray Bowen developed family systems theory in the 1950s working as a psychiatrist at the National Institute of Health in Washington DC; he elaborated this theory as a faculty member at Georgetown University[2].  Roberta Gilbert was one of his students.

In her explanation of emotional units, Gilbert write:

“My grandfather’s herd of cattle…Say the cattle are peacefully grazing…but…one cow gets too close to the electric fence, sustaining a shock, she may jump, vocalize and even jump or run, showing that she is in a very anxious state.  How long does it take for the other cows in the pasture to ‘catch’ the anxiety?  Of course, it happens almost immediately. Their behavior soon becomes agitated, showing they have taken on the anxiety of the initial individual.  The cattle are showing, by the movement of anxiety through the herd, that they are an emotional system.” (6)

Anxiety is Contagious

Anxiety transmission is a flag for the limits of an emotional system.  Gilbert classifies anxiety as acute—in response to stress—and chronic—the background anxiety in a group (7-8). Relational responses to anxiety come in 4 patterns:

  1. Triangling;
  2. Conflict;
  3. Distancing; and
  4. Overfunctioning/underfunctioning (11-12).

Anxiety is infectious (7).  Anxiety transmission is more rapid and intense in tightly “fused” groups where individual are relatively close and unprocessed emotions run wild, so to speak (21). Anxiety transmission is less rapid and intense in groups with individuals who are “differentiated” where individuals are able to separate feelings from thinking and emotions are less readily shared (33). Gilbert’s grandfather attempts to be a “calming presence” when he is working with his cattle (22).

Family Systems Concepts

Family systems theory focuses on how a particular group resolves anxiety.


An important therapeutic result from family systems theory arises in how anxiety is resolved.  If a parent is anxious, then the other parent picks it up. If a child is nearby, they too will become anxious—the child becomes the third corner in a “triangle”.  If this situation is repeated, then the child may develop a symptom (48).  This symptom could be simple things, like sleep problems or bed wetting, or it could develop in social problems, like acting out, fighting, etc.  If the child’s symptom developed in response to parental conflict (think about divorce or separation), then sending the child out for counseling will not resolving the problem.  However, the child’s problem could be resolved by dealing with the parental conflict.


Gilbert defines conflict as: “when…neither [party] gives in to the other on major issues.” (15) Obviously, conflict has the potential to generate a lot of chronic anxiety.

Distancing and Cutoff

When people resolve conflict or anxiety through leaving—either temporarily or permanently—nothing is resolved—only deferred.  Gilbert writes:

“Distanced persons think about each other, the relationship and the conflict that led to it, a great deal.  By distancing, they are far from free of the problem.  They are still emotionally bound and defined by it” (16).

To see this effect, think about a reunion that you have attended—what did people talk about?

Gilbert speculates that because grief is, in part, the result of emotional cutoff (distancing), remaining in contact with the deceased persons extended family can help mitigate at least some of the grieving process (62).  This is part and parcel of a traditional funeral.


Gilbert writes:  “the overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity describes partners trying to make one self out of two.” (17)

The overfunctioner:

·       Knows the answer,

·       Does well in life,

·       Tells the other what to do, how to think, how to feel,

·       Tries to help too much…

The underfunctioner:

·       Relies on the other to know what to do,

·       Asks for advice unnecessarily,

·       Takes all offered help, needed or not, becoming passive,

·       Asks the other to do what he or she can do for self… (18)

Gilbert notes that in the workplace, leaders can be overfunctioners (19).

An important outcome of family systems theory is that differentiation-of-self functions as a shock absorber on the emotional system.  High functioning leaders lead through principles (not emotion), stay grounded in facts and thinking, and remain in good contact with appropriate individuals in the system (43).


Gilbert’s The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory is a helpful book.  In my case, I was already aware of the principles of Bowen theory, but had not fully absorbed their significance.  Gilbert’s presentation simplified my learning process.


[1] My last two published papers working as a financial engineer applied the systems approach in risk management (Responding to Systemic Risk (; Putting the System Back in Systemic Risk (

[2] Murray Bowen (1913-1990;

Gilbert Simplifies Family Systems Theory

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