Abbey Bookshelf: Family Systems

I didn’t end up finishing a post for yesterday because I have been getting ready for a two-week trip I am leaving on this Saturday.  For several months now I have been studying and working with Bowen Theory and some genealogical work as well.  I first started seeing a Jungian analyst for spiritual direction about a year ago, mainly to move more deeply into dream work.  The unexpected gift of our work together has been exploring family systems theory and then having an opportunity to participate in a workshop on it where I was able to go even deeper into the work.

Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist in the twentieth century who developed 8 concepts about how anxiety is dealt with in relationship systems.  These include: Differentiation of Self (the most important concept), Nuclear Family Emotional System, Triangles, Family Projection Process, Multigenerational Transmission Process, Emotional Cutoff, Sibling Position, and Societal Emotional Process.  Engaging the work means creating a genogram, which is essentially a family tree using specific symbols to represent different qualities of relationship within the system.

The central idea is that patterns of relationship are transmitted from generation to generation and once you become aware of the ways your family system has operated, you can change the system by not participating in the established responses to anxiety.   This work has applications to larger systems of relationships as well and has been used a lot for congregations and helping pastors to deal in healthy ways with the community members, rather than falling into their own established relationship patterns.

Through the concept of Multigenerational Transmission Process, Bowen believed that patterns are passed down genetically and that an essential part of the work is to establish relationship with as many living family members as possible to hear their stories.  One level of this work that has captivated me the most is the idea of our sacred stories being woven into a much larger tapestry of the generations that came before.  We live in a very individualistic culture where not much honor is given to our ancestors and very little attention is paid to the stories that ripple through our very genetic code from generations that have gone before.  I see our stories as embedded within the multiple layers of ancestral stories as well as the larger cultural stories of which they are a part, and then even more broadly, the sacred story of the earth and the cosmos.

I am starting to see how I am affected in a profound way by the strands of these stories — my ancestry can be traced back through four main lines: Austrian and Latvian on my father’s side and English and Puritan New England (back to the 1600’s and England before then) on my mother’s side.  I am beginning to see how the trauma of war ripples through time, especially World War II for my father, and World War I and the Civil War on my mother’s side as I have family members killed in both.  My spiritual director has a colleague who works with veterans and believes that the trauma of the Civil War is still affecting descendants of that tragic event today.  And I have to say I believe him.

The two books I started with to understand this work are both by Roberta Gilbert, a psychiatrist who works at the Center for the Study of Human Systems: Extraordinary Leadership and Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory.  Bowen Center for the Study of the Family is also a good source of information online.

Recently I have been reading Becoming a Healthier Pastor: Family Systems Theory and the Pastor’s Own Family by Ronald Richardson.  He has an earlier book which I have not read yet titled Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life.

So the trip I am taking is essentially a solo pilgrimage for me.  I will be traveling from Maine all the way down to Maryland, and along the way I will visit with some extended family members and several old friends, I will go to see three cemeteries where ancestors are buried, and I will spend time revisiting the neighborhood where I grew up in New York City.  Part of understanding these patterns is going back to the places that trigger memories.

This work has been by far some of the most significant personal work I have done in my adult life, it is sacred work and the work of a lifetime.  This is only the first pilgrimage of many to come.

** Make sure to visit this week’s Poetry Party and come back tomorrow for our next Sacred Artist Interview with Kate Iredale **

-Christine Valters Paintner @ Abbey of the Arts

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