Extraodrinary Relationships (Gilbert)

Roberta M. Gilbert, MD

Ch. 1:Dr. Bowen’s extraordinary way of thinking.
Based primarily on the work of Murray Bowen, MD, a psychiatrist who died in 1990. He dedicated his life
to producing a remarkable theory of human behavior – family systems theory – also known as Bowen theory.

He had an idea that the basic unit of emotional functioning might not be the individual, as previously thought, but the nuclear family.

 Systems thinking replaced cause and effect thinking.Looking at the functioning and emotional processes of several generations gave a greater understanding of the ‘big picture’ so important to thinking systems.

Ch 2: A theory about relationships.


Individuality and Togetherness forces: One of the most fundamental features of the human condition is the struggle that arises out of the need to strike a balance between two basic urges: the drive toward being an individual and the drive toward being together with others in relationship.

 The individuality force pushes toward defining one’s self as separate from others.It is ever-present in human beings.It reminds one constantly of boundaries that are non-negotiable in personal relationships.

 The togetherness force urges us toward others for attachment, affiliation and approval – found in companionship, family and society.

 Togetherness is sometimes called fusion.This refers to the taking on or giving up of self in a relationship.Fusion is automatic at lower levels of maturity or at any level of maturity when anxiety is high.

 Ideally, people at high levels of emotional maturity (differentiation) would enjoy relationships but would have little need to complete themselves or route their anxiety through another person.

The more emotionally mature, or more highly differentiated, person has a greater amount of self with which to negotiate the problems of life – including those of relationships

 At lower levels of emotional maturity people tend to seek comfort in relationships – they are trying to make a self out of two or more selves.

 The state of being alone should not be mistaken for individuality.

Ch. 3: Differentiation of self.

 Individuals vary in their ability to adapt/cope with the demands of life and to reach their goals.People range from high levels of differentiation to low levels – depending on how much basic self (the solid part of self that is on-negotiable
in relationships) is present.

 Lack of emotional attachment does not imply emotional distance from family members.On the contrary,
with less emotional attachment, openness in the emotional system is more characteristic.Many people reach
adulthood without ever developing an ample amount of basic self.Because they separated out less self from
the original family emotional system, they act automatically and without being aware of it.In adulthood they tend to
try to complete or compensate for the lack in relationships with others.This tendency toward attachment is automatic
and outside conscious awareness.

Sometimes relationships are an attempt to complete the self the same way it was completed in the original family system.Human beings will attempt to complete the self in relationships to the degree that it is incomplete by itself.The effort to make a complete self out of two undifferentiated selves results in a fusion of selves.

 Two inner guidance systems affect the basic self:

  • automatic, emotional or instinctual processes necessary to maintain life
  • processes of thought, reasoning, judgment and logic.

At higher levels of differentiation of basic self, people have more choice about whether to follow the guidance of the thinking self or the emotional self.At lower levels of differentiation the intellectual and emotional guidance systems are fused – allowing little or no choice.

 The basic self is surrounded by a greater or lesser amount of functional or pseudo self. It is the functional part of self that is negotiated when anxiety in the system rises.  The higher the level of differentiation, the less concern there is about being loved and accepted, or about what others think of one.Living is oriented more around principles, so relationship concerns do not dictate behavior to the same degree they do for those at lower levels.

 Highly differentiated persons have a superior ability to calm their emotional states rather than be immobilized by emotion.

They have less difficulty in decision making because they have more choice between thinking and feeling

They are not in a constant search to complete their ‘self’.

They have less concern over being loved and accepted, and “what will someone think???”

They have less anxiety on a daily basis.

·        Most people remain at the level of differentiation attained by the time they left home.Adults can improve that level with hard work. Any change in the level of differentiation makes for a radical difference in functioning in all areas of life, particularly in relationships.(p25)

Ch. 4:Thinking systems, watching process.

 Bowen theory postulates that the basic emotional unit is the nuclear family.In order to understand the individual you have to understand the family.“Thinking systems” involves becoming aware of as much of the
total relationship system as possible.

Bowen states: “A two-person emotional system is unstable in that it forms itself into a three-person system or triangle under stress.”The more we can see the systems-of-triangles perspective, the less prone we will be to take sides, to take things personally, to take thoughtless positions, or to assign blame.

 The ability to see your own position and also the position of the other and how they two fit together enables one to conduct your part of the relationship better.

 Ch 5: Relationship patterns and postures.

 Relationship difficulties seem to be the rule in human interactions rather than the exception.Usually what people do in a relationship crisis is more of the same thing they have been doing, only more intensely and more anxiously.

 Ch. 6: Emotions in relationships.

 Emotions are important to all life, firing the strong, quick reactions necessary to survive the dangers of existence.Feelings color life with fun, acceptance and warmth.Emotions are intense reactions, physiological and mental, including instincts.They are hard-wired into the nervous system.They include warding off
danger, establishing territory, procreation and nurturance of the next generation.

 Emotions are often patterns that became established early in one’s personal history, and may or may not be relevant to the present.Feelings are emotions that have come into awareness. While they are necessary, desirable and pleasurable, feelings and emotions also lead to most of the difficulties in relationships.Emotional intensity and feelings can create
disasters in relationships partly because so many hardwired emotional patterns are counterproductive to relationships.

 Anxiety is part of the human condition.Anxiety is a powerful teacher and motivator.When one anxious person
excites another the first is often relieved. The problem that triggered the emotions is never addressed – emotions
are generated and then circuited through the system.

The lower the overall level of differentiation in the relationship system, the more passing of emotions occurs.Emotionally
mature (highly differentiated) people seem able to absorb a large amount of stress or be around other excited people without themselves becoming emotionally excited or passing it on.

 In order to manage anxiety, partners posture themselves in recognizable ways, and certain relationship patterns form.Bowen’s five are:

·        Conflict
·        Distance
·        Cutoff
·        Dysfunctional spouse (also called overfunctioning /underfunctioning reciprocity)
·        Dysfunctional child( also called triangling)

These patterns form to ‘solve’ the problem of relationship anxiety.

Ch. 7 – Conflict

Relationships in conflict experience a high level of pain, and they poison their environment with distressing regularity.Conflictual partners often deliberately avoid other people, fearing their conflict might embarrass others.Paradoxically, between episodes of conflict, they often have a gratifying closeness.At times of greatest intensity, their relationship may be punctuated by physical abuse.

Other people, watching the chronic nature of the problem, may come to the conclusion that they enjoy this state.However nothing is further form the truth.They are intensely aware of their pain.Of all the relationship patterns, people caught in conflict are most likely to seek help because of the awareness of their pain.Although they may blame the current partner, people in conflicted relationships may not be strangers to conflict – they may have grown up with

It is not necessary to learn conflict.Conflict patterns are automatic, given certain triggering circumstances.

People in conflict tend to show tendencies to:

·        Become critical when anxiety is high

·        Become embroiled in blame for perceived problems

·        Project their own problems on other people

·        Focus more on the other than on the self

·       Fight rather than switch, have fun, or do anything useful

·       Behave abusively.

Partners in a conflicted relationship are completely unable to get from where they are to ay kind of rational involvement with one another, even with lists of rules.

 Since patterns of conflict are highly resistant to change, Bowen asked people to take their patterns back into the family of origin.Often that effort produced more worthwhile results toward differentiation of self than efforts within the present primary relationships system.

Ch. 8 Distancing

Part of the difficulty with distance is that people often equate it with the idea of giving each other ‘space’ or relieving togetherness tensions.Often a person whose partner is distancing cam become very jealous, convinced there is a triangle or that he/she is unloved.

Distancing partners often take refuge in overwork, substance abuse, or jobs requiring travel.

 Signs of distancing include: (p.55)

·        Excessive periods of non-communication when one is
emotionally reactive
·        Workaholism

·        Overuse of substances such as alcohol

·        Excessive time spent on hobbies

·        Tendency to be quiet when anxiety rises

·       Talk that includes nothing of personal importance

·        Inability to relate to some of the people in one’s immediate or original family

 Distance can provide some temporary emotional calm, but over time distancing actually intensifies feelings.

Ch. 9Cutoff

Cutoff is a distant posture carried to the extreme, a nonfunctioning relationship.Often the cutoff is so old that all the people involved have forgotten the original trigger.

Undifferentiation leads to fusion of selves, which produces anxiety, which gets triggered around a given issue.Issues such as money, divorce or religion may provide the battleground, but undifferentiation in the members of the family is the real problem. Immediately following the cutoff, people involved in the relationship begin to experience an intensification of depression and anxiety.They are unable to cope with life’s problems.Cutoff, linked with poor relationships, means that relationships in the workplace, friendships, and even romances will not be as smooth for people who are cut off from their families of origin.

Working with the anxiety itself may be more productive than trying to change the distancing or cutoff pattern that is only the symptom of the anxiety.

Ch. 10.Overfunctioning / underfunctioning reciprocity

In a relationship of overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity, one person of the pair does quite well in life, standing in happy contrast to the despair and dysfunction of the other.

If overfunctioningis present you might see:

¨       Advice-giving
¨       Doing things for others that they could do for themselves
¨       Worrying about other people
¨       Feeling responsible for others, knowing what is best for them
¨       Talking more than listening
¨       Having goals for others that they don’t have for themselves
¨       Experiencing periodic, sudden ‘burnouts’

In underfunctioning:
¨       Asking for advice when what is needed is to think things out independently

¨       Getting others to help when help really is not needed.
¨       Acting irresponsibly

¨      Listening more than talking

¨       Floating without goals much of the time

¨       Setting goals but not following through with them

¨       Becoming mentally or physically ill frequently

¨       Tending to become addicted to substances.

 Both partners often think the overfunctioning partner is healthier.Actually this is not the case.The overfunctioner is just as caught in the relationship process as the underfunctioner.

 Family systems theory tells us that each partner in a relationship is exactly as differentiated or emotionally mature as the other, otherwise the two wouldn’t attract.When either partner takes the initiative fore being responsible for self,
and only self and communicates that to the other, protest can be expected from the other.Although it may become
intense, it will be brief if the initiating partner stays on course and continues to take responsibility for changing his/her contribution to the problem.

To begin the work of changing a relationship like this the question is: “What is my contribution to this relationship pattern? ”The task is one of teaching yourself to be responsible for yourself and only for yourself. That rules out taking responsibility for doing for someone else anything they can easily do for self.

 Responsibility for feeling good or bad, for your own thoughts and behavior, rests solely with yourself.

Ch. 11 Triangles

A two-person relationship is a delicate thing, prone to collapse in several different ways. Triangling – bring into focus a third party, rather than solving the relationship problem of the original twosome – is one of the many ways primary
2 person relationship problems can be avoided.

 Some common manifestations of triangling:

¨       Talking against the boss, minister or teacher to people other than the boss, minister or teacher

¨       Gossiping or talking about someone who is not present

¨       Having an affair

¨       Takinga morbid interest in other people’s problems

¨       Thinking more about a child or anyone else than about one’s marriage or oneself

If partners in a triangled relationship want to be more direct, they need to see the triangle and how it enables the partners to avoid each other.

It is automatic that when anxiety rises between two people, they turn to a third and include that person in the situation in some way.Triangles are present in everyday life, at work, social groups, churches.

 Basic principles of managing yourself in a triangle:

¨       Stay calm – open communication with the other parts

¨       Manage your own emotions

¨       Avoid taking on the anxiety of the other two

 To be alive is to have problems.Worrying about them does not solve the lack of differentiation of self.

Triangles are neither good not bad – they just are, everywhere.

Ch. 12 Repetitions

Repetitions are patterned behavior or feeling states formed in early relationship triangles in the family of origin.

The tendency to repeat old patterns.Repetitions are experienced and acted out throughout life unless and until the individual acquires replacement patterns of reaction or moves to a level of differentiation that gives more choice of
response.In a well- differentiated person, fewer repetitions occur – fewer emotional reactions from old patterns
can be triggered by stimuli from others.

Ch. 13 Family constellation and
sibling positions

 Sibling position has a great deal to do with how two people in a relationship behave toward each other.

See: Toman’s Sibling Position Data: Page 199

 Based on sibling position alone, without taking differentiation into consideration, some relationship patterns seem to come up more frequently than might be expected by chance along.A partnership of oldest siblings, when it gets stuck, often tends toward conflict.An oldest paired with a younger, may go toward overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity – with the oldest in the overfunctioning position.A pair of youngest can flounder for lack of decision-making capability – no one wanting to take the lead.All sibling positions carry with them certain benefits and limiting aspects.The goal is to preserve the natural strengths while finding a way to go beyond the restrictions.People of high levels of differentiation can form successful partnerships with people in any of the sibling positions because sibling position becomes less relevant to forming and maintaining a successful relationship.

Ch 14. When relationships go off course

Relationship patterns provide a certain amount of relief from relationship anxiety.Apparently, it is easier for the human to focus on another triangled person or on peripheral issues than to see the relationship problems that exist behind those

The real problem is, to some degree, that the partners in a difficult relationship are “no-selves”.Too much of each self has
been absorbed into the relationship. People stuck in patterns are often quite aware of how they give up self.

 When so much life energy is taken up with a relationship, little is left over to pursue a life direction; there is a definite sense of being off-course.Possibly part of what makes a new relationship exciting is the fact that, at least as far as it
goes, both parties still have some self intact.They have not yet taken part in the borrowing and lending that leads to relationship anxiety and patterns.

 What one can learn about oneself, beliefs, preferences, the way one’s emotional reactivity gets triggered and is managed – all become valuable first steps toward differentiation of more self.As the people in a relationship become more
differentiated, they will have fewer relationship problems.Relationship issues as well as people peripheral to the relationship are kept in perspective.

 The trading of self that happens in patterned relationships is a function of undifferentiation.If each person will be true to the task of working on his/her own differentiating of self, the relationship will improve in time.


Portrait of an Extraordinary Relationship(p95)


Stable, satisfying relationships do exist.The best relationships seem to enhance rather than hinder the individuality of both people.Complementary sibling positions increase the odds that a relationship will require less effort to run smoothly.Even more important than sibling position and emotional patterns is one’s level of differentiation.

What it takes to improve a relationship is two people working to improve their own emotional functioning as autonomous selves.

 Two total and complete individuals, fully aware of self and the other, in open communication with each other – that is the ideal.

Ch. 15. The ideal – separate, equal
and open

To the degree that each partner is an individual (emotionally differentiated from the other and others in general) the
relationship will be successful

Characteristics of highly differentiated selves in a ‘separate, equal, and open’ relationship:

¨       Each is responsible for and only for self. It’s not that they don’t do things for each other, but doing for the other is not carried to the overfunctioning pattern.Neither is dependent on the other for happiness or emotional fulfillment.Being emotionally responsible includes managing one’s emotions so as not to burden the relationship with them.

¨       The individuals are “in contact”.Present with one another a sufficient amount of the time – develop an understanding of personal meanings of self to the other. Speaks for only oneself.

¨       Awareness marks the ideal relationship arising from increased differentiation.Accurate awareness of the emotions of other people grows out of immense work of understanding and taking responsibility for one’s own emotions.

The three most important:

¨       Separateness, emotionally, of the partners

¨       Equality in their postures

¨       Openness in communications

Partners in an ideal relationship lose no self into the relationship because their self boundaries are intact and
their inner guidance systems are well developed.They function as autonomous, individual selves in or out of the
relationship.Neither relies on the other for “support” or expects the relationship to complete a part of the self
perceived as lacking.If two people are emotionally separate, any anxiety one may experience does not escalate into
painful interchanges nor settle into emotional patterns.

In high-level relationships, equality is not based on tallying up individual assets; it is a relationship stance, a
posture assumed by the individuals. Each accepts the other as not more and no less talented, responsible or
free than him/her self.Respect for each other – essential for relationship success, is based on the equal posture.

An open relationship system, which is the opposite of an emotional cut-off, is one in which family members have a
reasonable degree of emotional contact with one another.(Murray Bowen)

Communication is less a problem than a symptom: The problem is the relationship itself.The simplest form of relationship that exists is a feeling-emotional relationship, based more on feelings and less on thought.To move
a relationship past the simple emotional level, verbal communication is necessary.

It is possible for a distanced couple to appear to be open in communication, talking much but saying nothing really
important to each other, carefully avoiding meaningful issues.

 Communication of ideas is dependent on an emotionally calm brain state for reliable thought production.In
conflict there is a great deal of interaction and what might even pass for communication, but “thinking” is so emotionally based in conflict that what is really shared is emotion and not ideas.

 Optimal communication in an emotionally significant relationship is direct, verbal, mutual and non-reactive
give and take of relevant ideas.


  Listening is 50% of the communication process in an ideal relationship – listening is active. At high levels of relationship functioning communication could have any or all of these characteristics:

¨       Thinking-based conversation where each processes his own feelings, with less emotional triggering and produces the best thinking on the subject

¨       Creativity when the thinking of each is stimulated by the thinking of the other.

¨       Self-definition
– explaining one’s thought to another or accurately hearing the thinking of another can be a rigorous exercise in defining self.
¨       Meaningfulness
– when two people experience each other as separate selves and equals and are free to communicate accurately their definitions of self to the other – including where they stand on issues.

Part III

Toward Better Relationships

Relationship work is a solitary project.It is not necessary, important, or even possible to work on the other person..
As each does their work, they can reach a new level where both have different attitudes about togetherness and individuality.They say things like “We are much more separate but we are closer.The old love is gone, I miss it sometimes, but the new love is calmer and better.I know it sounds crazy, but that’s how it is.” (P115)

Ch 16. Growing a Self

Highly differentiated people show two prominent attributes: Well-defined self boundaries and a well-developed thinking inner guidance system.

They have a fairly clear idea of what they believe and why they believe it.A life lived according to the principles of a thought-out inner guidance system has an entirely different quality, course and outcome than a life lived according to principles implicitly or explicitly set by one’s environment.This characteristic is what makes it possible for one to say
“no” when that becomes appropriate. The inner guidance system of well-differentiated individuals makes it
possible for them to be less concerned about what people think of them, whether or not they are loved, and how they appear to other people.They no longer need parents or parental love, so they don’t have to spend their lives seeking
nurturing from others.

Further, emotionally mature or highly differentiated people have a well-developed ability to choose between the thinking and feeling systems.The importance of this ability cannot be overstressed, for when emotions are aroused, clear thinking is impossible.

 After seeing how emotions are processed in one’s family a thoughtful plan can be made as to how to relate to that emotional system in a more mature way.This is crucial to one’s success.

Ch 17. Managing the Emotional Self
in Relationships

“Those whose intellectual functioning can retain relative autonomy in periods of stress are more flexible, more adaptable, and more independent of the emotionality about them.They cope better with life stresses, their life courses are more orderly and successful, and they are remarkably free of human problems.” Murray Bowen

 When a more relaxed, poised, alert, sensitive way of life becomes habitual, it no longer needs to be consciously practiced – it becomes a way of life.(discussion of biofeedback
– p 128-132)

Ch 18. Processing feelings and dealing with crisis.

How exactly does one process a feeling reaction?

1.       Observing the feeling state: step away mentally to see and feel what is going on inside.

2.        Calming the feelings as soon as possible.As soon as a feeling is located physically, let it go physically.Don’t prolong any emotional intensity.Breathe, relax muscles, exercise to help restore a calm feeling state.

3.       Thinking:

What is the feeling that has been triggered?

What was the trigger?

Is it a pattern?

Is this an appropriate response for an adult?

4.       Are there other options?

5.       Repetition of the new response in real life as well as in the head helps it become a more automatic response.

Ch. 19. Ten misconceptions that can defeat a relationship and ten ways to promote success:


Most people bring a few misconceptions into their relationships.Here are some common ones:

¨       The other person will make me happy. Happiness (and the pursuit of it) is and individual matter.
¨       I can change the other – a serious boundary intrusion

¨       A differentiated person must be cold and unfeeling.

¨       It is my right to respond from my emotions to my partner’s anxiety

¨       This relationship will never get any better

¨       I’ve changed myself all I can and things aren’t any better – to be alive is to change – keep changing!

¨       Whenever one “needs” to talk it out or get feelings out, the other must agree to listen.

¨       Excessive worry about the past, your own or the others, is often defeating to relationships

¨       “If you don’t love me like my mother did, you don’t love me”

¨       I can cut off from my extended family and still have good relationships

Ten ways to promote relationships success:

¨       Working
toward my own emotional calm and intellectual objectivity enables me to think more clearly and speak and act more constructively.It is not necessary to be a victim of the emotional climate of others.

¨   I am at my best in relationships when I can observe myself in a relationship pattern and change my part without expectations of the other.

¨       Staying in contact, maintaining 1:1 relationships with the individuals in my system is important for me.

¨       It doesn’t matter who make the contact (is the initiator) or if one person makes more than his/her share of contacts – what matters is that they are made.

¨       If I can remember to look for the anxiety behind the boundary intrusions of the others, I can be less reactive, managing myself better around them.

¨       It is not necessary for me to take on the emotions of the people I am around.I have a choice.

¨       I do not need to be loved, liked, approved of, accepted or nurtured by the environment.It is nice, but not the
primary motivation.

¨       Keeping my focus primarily on my self at least 51 % of the time, I can usually find a way to manage my emotional self in and out of relationships just a little better without being critical of myself or blaming anyone else.

¨       Important relationship decisions, if made calmly and thoughtfully, usually stand the test of time better than those that are impulsively feeling oriented.
¨       I work toward needing less togetherness. I can choose companionship and cooperative group effort when that is the
best use of my life energy.

Ch. 20Living out the theory

Why is it that friendships follow a smoother course than relationships between parents and children, employers and employees, spouses? One possible explanation might be that in friendship a sense of play is preserved, affording relaxation and lowering the emotional intensity and subsequent anxiety present in the
relationship.When anxiety is lower, each person can maintain equality, openness and separate self boundaries more
easily.Ideally friends treat each other as equals.

Friendships will last only when the friends are at the same level of differentiation.If the level of differentiation changes, even a little, some friendships may be lost because of the disparity that develops.

Love relationships:

Love is an interesting word.People think they know what they mean by it, but the problem comes in defining love and assuming everyone is using the same definition.It is probably one of the most ambiguous words in our language because of its emotional loading with old patterns that each person specifically attributes to it.

Love is used as a reason to stay together, and lack of love as a reason to terminate a relationship.This level of thinking is indulged in most often by people who are living their lives based more on emotions than on thinking or inner guidance by
principle.At high levels of differentiation, emotions would be chosen more often rather than dictating the

A loving relationship requires effort to keep the big picture, the process, the system and one’s principles constantly in mind.Perhaps the highest form of loving is, through all the emotional excitement of togetherness, simply to be able to
maintain a separateness that focuses on being the best self one can be and defining that self, while remaining in calm, thoughtful, meaningful contact with the other, accepting the efforts of the other at being the best self he/she can be over time.

 Relationships between parents and children:

Being a parent may be the most difficult, anxiety producing and important role in life.Having a relationship with each child is vitally important.The ideal parent-child relationship is characterized by equality, separateness and openness.
Open communication is different from what one normally sees.The preoccupation with feelings often promoted is absent.Speaking is done for the self and the self only.It is perfectly possible for a parent to clearly define his/her principles – without telling them what to do.A parent can define the self, while still respecting boundaries and the right of people to be different.With open communication, children will have the advantage of growing up around a self.

 The Single life:

At high levels of differentiation people can be comfortable in or out of relationships.(p 157)Single people must sometimes work to provide enough relationships to test out their individuality.It is only in relationship to one’s emotional system that one can differentiate a self.

 Professional Relationships:

The professional /client relationship is at risk for all the relationship patterns, but by its very nature, is especially vulnerable to the overfunctioning/underfunctioning reciprocity pattern: One person is trained to ask for help and the other is trained to give help.

 The primary emphasis in the workplace is on competency for completing the work.Difficulty in the relationship system often means that personal competency and efficiency suffer, interfering with production.Poorly functioning interpersonal relationships at work interfere with work output and perhaps cause more stress than any other single factor.

After competence ( for which there is no substitute), relationships at work are the greatest single determinant of career
success.Management of the self toward higher levels of functioning and working for emotional calm are especially
useful at work.Emotionalism at work, far from solving anything, disrupts and interferes with getting the work done
and can block career progress.


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