Bowen postulated that the family is an emotional unit that regulates development and behavior of its members. He hypothesized that the process between emotionally attached individuals could be characterized, like relationships between individuals in other living systems, in terms of a force for individuality and a force for togetherness, and he defined eight theoretical concepts describing how the interplay of these forces operates in families and impacts the ability of the individual and the group to adapt successfully in life.
First and foremost there is Differentiation of Self, which is the ability to separate thought and emotion and to act mindfully rather than in reaction. This capacity is shaped by the intensity of emotional fusion with others, which determines how much personal freedom a family member has to be an individual and to choose their own course when togetherness pressures impinge. Stress and anxiety increase togetherness pressures and symptoms of all kinds are more likely to emerge. Family Psychotherapy done with individual members or with more of the family group is directed toward decreasing anxiety and increasing differentiation of self in the family unit.
The Multigenerational Transmission Process describes how the level of differentiation and the intensity of unresolved attachment to the past is a product of the multigenerational family history.
Nuclear Family Emotional Process describes how and where and in which family members or which relationships symptoms come to reside in the nuclear family.
Sibling Position describes how certain functional characteristics of personality are shaped by a person’s position in the sibling order.
Emotional Cutoff describes the pattern of dealing with unresolved attachment to the past by cutoff and the long-term consequences of doing so.
The concept of Triangles defines patterns of anxiety transmission and anxiety binding between people and the control of the individual by the group.
Family Projection Process defines the transfer of the multigenerational problem from parents to children.
The concept of Emotional Process in Society describes how in society, as in the family, there are progressive and regressive periods characterized by higher and lower levels of functional differentiation. In regressive periods when there is high chronic anxiety, society is more mob-like and counterproductive for the long term.
Bowen began but never completed his effort to describe a systems concept of spiritual phenomena as a ninth concept of his theory. His beginning effort to work on the concept includes the emotional function of belief.
Change occurs in the family emotional system when anxiety goes down, or one of its members assumes responsibility for their part in the patterns, changes their part, and deals with the reactions without distancing or counter attacking. The differentiating one becomes the de facto family leader.
Differentiation of Self is the leadership principle for improvement in all human systems, according to Bowen theory.