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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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16 Responses

  1. Your courage ripples out to us as well. Thanks for sharing this journey with all of us.

  2. May God bless you on your journey
    May your mind be open to memories long concealed
    May your body be filled with the exhilaration of blessed insight
    and may you return to all of us safely and freshly invigorated by the opportunity that you’ve so wisely grasped to explore your heritage


  3. kigen — thank you, what an extraordinarily kind thing to say. I am grateful to know this space is a welcoming one. Hospitality is one of the richest monastic virtues in my mind.

  4. Christine, your Abbey of the Arts has been for me the freest community I’ve posted to, the most nurturing, the one open to the most diversity of thought. Perhaps your ability to lead in this marvelous way, is derived in part from this gift of an extended and diverse family heritage!

  5. Anna, thank you for the lovely blessings.

    Thanks Tess, I think you would really enjoy this work as well. And it will definitely bring me to your land in the near future.

    Karla, I only recently learned about Family Constellations and have to say I am most intrigued. I’d love to hear more about your experience when you have the time.

    PG, you are most welcome. Yes, the depression affected my maternal grandparents pretty deeply, so many layers to this work.

    Suz, I do find this work more engaging than other theories, it seems so practical. I recently found out that my maternal grandmother’s sister received electroshock treatment for depression as well. I never met her but hope to eventually meet her children. Finding out the family secrets is a key part of the work, you can discover so much by learning what people have been invested in hiding! Thanks Suz, I will definitely be having some fun along the way.

  6. Thanks, Christine. I had so little of this in grad school and I think it is more relevant to me and my family and any theory of personality. Maybe this can be my chance to learn more.

    I had a “family shock” recently (hope this isn’t too inappropriate to put here). When I was quite young…ok, make this fifty years ago, my grandparents used to go to Mexico. I was so proud that my grandparents spent a month in Mexico…at that time this wasn’t done by fellow South Dakotans. I found out about a month ago that they were going there so that my grandfather (a war veteran who’s father had abandoned the family when he was young) was getting electroshock treatments for his depression! My youngest brother knew and thought we all knew. Go figure. He was a dear man.

    Family secrets!

    Christine, I hope you have a valuable trip…and some fun time, as well.

  7. Thanks so much for this post! I have long believed that my life today is still affected by what my grandparents endured. (for me, the aftereffect of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression of the 30’s, most profoundly).

    I will want to checkout these books and the Bowen Theory.

  8. Neat! This sounds like an exciting journey that has brought/is bringing many blessings!

    A new foray since participating in Immersion for me has been Family Constellations work. Though not the same as Family Systems, there are similar themes and concepts. Family constellations was a new concept to me, and it took me awhile to grasp any “real” difference between Constellations and Systems. I’ve been doing a little reading on it, and really reflecting on my Immersion experiences last summer. is Bert Hellinger’s website that has the basics on Family Constellations.

  9. Christine, this journey and process both sound pivotal for you, and I’m delighted you are having the opportunity for this exploration.
    I had a quick look at the Bowen Theory last time you mentioned it, and will have to make time to read about it more thoroughly now – you have piqued my interest.

  10. Blessings to you on your journey Christine, and may you be enriched by your discoveries.