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Participation in the WPFC Continued Study Seminar – Martha Markoff, WPFC student

WPFC offers an excellent Basic Seminar on Bowen Family Systems Theory. It’s an intensive course, and among many other things, it helped me think about how to observe emotional process in my family. In fact, I wanted more!  Fortunately, there is also an opportunity to continue in a less intensive way: The Continued Study Seminar. It is so good that I’ve been in it for the past 10 years.


The general goal of students in the CS Seminar is to become more objective about the functioning of self and family. Before the CS Seminar, I really had a vague, intellectual idea about what being more objective meant and about how I function in relationships. Now, I am more aware about the fact that some intense feelings I experience are my emotional reactivity to family members or others in my emotional field. That is especially noticeable when a hot issue “lights up” imbedded emotional triangles. With this awareness comes the ability to identify automatic responses and to delay them. The result is calming down and allowing time for a more thought-based response.  The CS Seminar is very useful in providing frequent reminders of how BT can provide a frame of reference for how relationships work.


How did my self-awareness increase?


Early on, one of the CS Seminar guidelines suggested by Cindy Larkby, the instructor, was to keep track of where one’s thinking is focused: on oneself, or on others. From my own observations, added to those of BT presenters, I have come to believe that humans and other animals are evolutionarily wired to look at someone else as the source of one’s own problems. If that is indeed so, then it is difficult and counterintuitive to look at the role self pays in significant relationships. It is difficult to avoid blaming others and blaming self, and I do not claim to have acquired such a skill. What I claim is that now there are times when I can avoid that automatic response when under stress. Better thinking gets better outcomes. During preparation for repeated CS Seminar presentations over the years, when my reactivity got in the way of a thinking response, I eventually could more readily ask the questions:

What am I contributing to these relationship struggles?

What would better functioning on my part look like?


The seminar structure provides a way to answer those questions. The instructor’s feedback and the other participants’ feedback after each presentation are very useful in developing more objectivity.  It’s a lot easier to observe emotional process in someone else’s family than it is in one’s own. When the family belief system is examined to determine what is factual, that is a step toward more objectivity. Now, I pay much more attention to see if there is a contrast between what I say I do, and what I actually do. That is also true when I observe others.

Best of all, I find that even a little more objectivity has helped me make changes in my behavior.

“Gombe Chimpanzees” Celeste Compomizzi, WPFC faculty

Dr. Bowen based his theory of the family on evolution. This means that his theory of how the human family functions is based on processes which developed prior to the cognitive functions of the frontal cortex. If this is accurate, evidence of processes should be visible in other forms of life. Dr. Bowen read widely and convinced himself of this before moving on to other aspects of his theory. Others have taken up the question.

Dr. Bowen based his theory on observable facts – on what humans do, not on what they say. This distinguishes Bowen family systems theory from other theories of human behavior. It also means that processes are defined in observable terms that can be looked for in other species.

The Chimpanzees of Gombe have been continually observed since 1960 when Jane Goodall started to record their behavior. There are a variety of ways in which this chimpanzee community exhibits behavior which appears to be similar to that of the human. These include:

  1. Differences in community functioning during changes of leadership (when relationships are less predictable),
  2. Differences in females functioning as mothers and the subsequent functioning of their offspring,
  3. Increases of aggression to females, juveniles and infants during times of increased stress, and
  4. The formation of coalitions to gain or maintain high positions in the male hierarchy.

An example of the differences in females functioning as mothers follows. Flo was a mother who birthed 8 offspring. All but the last of her children, who was born when she was quite elderly and was thought to be intellectually impaired, Flo functioned as a capable, loving mother. She weaned her offspring at the appropriate age and dealt with protests firmly, but with attempts to distract the baby and with comforting gestures. Likewise, she moved her infants from a ventral to dorsal carrying position while traveling at age appropriate times. She was social and allowed other members of the community to hold, examine and play with her infants while avoiding exposing her infants to danger.

As Flo’s infants grew older, she allowed them to associate with peers. Thus, she encouraged increasing age-appropriate independence. Her female offspring appeared to have gained the knowledge which allowed them to grow and become capable, loving mothers. Her sons grew up to become capable leaders. From 1978 to 2014, her sons and grandsons have held the alpha position in the male hierarchy the majority of the time.

In contrast, another female, Passion, functioned less capably as a mother. She weaned her offspring either prior to the appropriate age or allowed her infants to suckle after they should have been weaned. She tried either to move her infants from a ventral to a dorsal riding position or stopped them from riding dorsally before they were old enough to manage. Her young toddlers had difficulty keeping up with her, and were exposed to danger. She seemed oblivious to the fact that she exposed her offspring to danger in this and other circumstances. Her young chimpanzees, who should have been walking, were observed to be riding on her back. This added weight made it more difficult for her to function and deprived her offspring of necessary learning experiences. Likewise, she appeared to be fearful of other chimpanzees and prevented her juveniles from interacting with other peers and adults. Her female offspring also grew up to be less capable mothers.

(I have accumulated data on Gombe and other chimpanzee communities. Anyone who is interested in doing research on these chimpanzees is welcome to the data.)

“Getting out of the Middle,” James E. Davison, WPFC Board member

Years ago now, I was serving on the ministerial staff of a large congregation.  I was finding myself struggling, because my supervisor regularly avoided making important decisions. Sometimes, too, he would tell one group of people one thing; and others, the opposite.  These groups, in turn, tended to approach a colleague and me to help them resolve the issue. Needless to say, I was becoming increasingly frustrated putting out the fires that arose. My anxiety was rising too, as I also sought to avoid angering my supervisor by raising these issues.

Over lunch one day, I described this situation to a good friend, who also happened to be a psychologist. He offered me some tapes from lectures he had recently heard by Edwin Friedman. In his humorous way (You’ll have to listen to the tapes to hear his anecdote!), Friedman advised a man in a similar situation NOT to solve such problems for people, and NOT to confront the supervisor directly. Rather his advice was simply to keep the supervisor informed of the concerns, saying something like, “I don’t know what you will want to do about this, but I thought you should know that….” The point, Friedman emphasized, was to avoid being triangled into the situation. Rather than taking on anxiety, the intent should be to leave the responsibility (and therefore, the anxiety) with the appropriate person – in this case, the supervisor.

At another lunch, I told my friend that Friedman’s advice was very helpful, but I was concerned that, when I didn’t step in to help solve the problems, the supervisor’s inaction or mixed messages would hurt some people. Wouldn’t it be ok to help, I suggested, since I was  aware of what was going on in terms of triangling? My friend just smiled and suggested that I had missed the point. For me to continue helping out would also mean that I would be taking away the responsibility of the people to deal with their concerns directly. I would be shielding them when I should be encouraging them to stand up for themselves.

As you might guess, I have not always found this approach comfortable. When I declined to handle their problems for them, some folks became upset with me. That created its own level of anxiety. I also didn’t always recognize in time that I had slid into old patterns of helping out. Over time, though, as I became more adept at following Friedman’s advice, my work at the church became less frustrating, and my own sense of self began to increase. As I said at the beginning, this scenario took place years ago, but often enough I still find myself needing to relearn Friedman’s counsel. In other words, I often still need to remind myself about the importance of “getting out of the middle.”

Moving Bowen Theory towards Science, Jim Smith, WPFC Director

Bowen was clear about basing his ideas in science. In moving Bowen theory towards science, I think it is central to define what is meant by being scientific.  I came to Pittsburgh in the late 1960s to study European phenomenological philosophy as an alternative approach and method for doing psychological research. I believed  then, as I do now, that historically the founders of psychology borrowed the scientific method from physics in order for psychology to be scientific. The focus on the scientific method in doing psychological research focused largely on those aspects of human functioning that can be quantified.  In recent years qualitative research has become acceptable, if not fashionable, for including subjectivity in psychological research. Most methods of qualitative research lack a definable theoretical base. I began doing qualitative research based on the phenomenological philosophy of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty in the early 1970s, using a method that is still being used and taught by Amedeo Giorgi. This method has a theoretical base that most other approaches to doing qualitative research lack. One of the many things that was attractive to me about Bowen’s thinking which I also came upon in the early 1970s was his unwillingness to reduce what he observed in his NIMH study to the then prevailing methods of psychology. He was scientific in a way that remained true to what he observed. Central to this was his detailed descriptions of what he observed. I saw – and see – Bowen’s work as being a paradigm change in the study of the human, just as I saw – and see – phenomenological thinking being a paradigm change in doing human scientific research.