Family Systems

In recent years it has become increasingly clear that we do not operate as autonomous individuals but are psychodynamically intercon­nected. “Family Systems Theory, which, unlike psychoanalysis, sees human beings – young or old, married or single – as elements in a structure of interlocking relationships rather than as autonomous psychological entities.” This does not discount psychoanalysis but provides another view of human interaction by which we achieve greater understanding of how we affect each other and society. “Increasing one’s ability to distinguish thinking from feeling, in oneself and others, and learning to use that ability to direct one’s life and solve problems is the central guiding principle of family psychotherapy [Dr. Michael E. Kerr, Director, Georgetown Family Center].” What are the effects of the family system on the individual? Using the Bowen Scale of Differentiation we can deduce the effects on the basic and functional level. The specific ramifications to the individual are to wide in scope to examine here so we will only address general behavior patterns at variant levels on the scale.


  • High self-esteem
  • Low chronic-anxiety Independent thought
  • Rational
Bowen describes two types of function. The Basic-Level which is fairly static and the Functional-Level which is dynamic.


Weaker handicaps

Easier to achieve

Weak dependence

Driven by intellect

These levels are characterized by levels of anxiety and coping mechanisms in the individual. The type and degree of abuse incurred in the family-of-origin or societal- family determines Basic-Level. The ability to understand and overcome the handicaps of the basic level comprise the characteristics of the Functional-Level.


Stronger handicaps

Difficult to achieve

Strong dependence

Driven by emotions

By recognizing these two levels as separate but interactive to each other, we see how we are capable of severe mood swings. One might have a low Basic-Level but is able to maintain a high Functional-Level. Under certain circum­stances, the Functional-Level can deteriorate and that individual will act out in a manner characteristic of the low Basic-Level.


Low self-esteem

High chronic-anxiety

Dependent thought

Irrational (psychosis)

It is the awareness of these levels and the motives behind them that enable the individual to understand and thereby develop better coping mechanisms to improve overall behavior. Such improvement may be considered substantial as it is based on in depth understanding as opposed to merely attempting to improve the coping mechanism. It is reasonable to assume that such improvements will have systemic results



In the field of behavioral reinforcement the work of Dr. James Dobson stands out exceptionally having proven to promote higher individuation i.e. healthier individuals with highly functional coping mechanisms. From the day a child is born, instinct drives each little human to explore its’ environment. Where does food come from? Where does nurturing come from. What are all these sounds? How do I get what I want and need to survive? The desire to discover and achieve desire seems to be the primary motive. Instinct drives the will to explore the limitations of the surrounding environment. How can the child’s behavior influence and manipulate the world around him/her. In other words what can I, as a child, do to get my needs met, extend the range of my boundaries and desires, and have them fulfilled.

Without knowledge of how the child manipulates the envi­ron­ment the parents are handicapped in their ability to understand and cope with the circumstance. Without healthy behavioral reinforcement the child’s coping mechanisms may become severely handicapped. This combined with some form or degree of Systemic Social Dysfunction in the family-system proves detri­men­tal to the development of the child. This occurs to the degree and signi­fi­cance of the dysfunction and role in the family-of-origin. Healthy behavioral reinforcement has also proven to help in recovering at risk youth and those with bio-chemical disorders.

Knowledge and understanding of these factors empowers parents to cope with and give healthy boundaries to the developing child. This also helps reduce the effects of the system of dysfunction.

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself [Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet].”

Parenting a child needs to be viewed as a responsibility – not merely a right. Children are not the property of parents to do with what they will. They have intrinsic rights as do all human beings. We need to adjust our point of view to realize that just because we have the physical capability to have a child does not automatically mean that we have the knowledge, patience and wisdom required to protect that child’s rights and nurture that child into becoming a healthy adult. The United Nations has put forth a document describing these human rights. Many nations have ratified this document. This is a step in the right direction, but as we know, ratification is not enforcement and efforts must be continued in this area.


Rites of passage are the celebration of new understandings; significant symbols that empower our progression from one human life stage to another; a method of indoctrination that gives us a sense of belonging in our society. It is an individual’s rite to belong to the whole–otherwise we’re alone in the universe. In pre-industrial societies i.e. agrarian, and hunter/gatherer societies, rites of passage were ceremonially celebrated to emphasize significance. Basic human rites include birth, puberty, marriage and death. Other rites can be indoctrination into a new life stage, caste, occupation or responsibility in society.

As we progressed in our evolution, moved out of the forests and off the farms, we abandoned and altered these rites. In a sense we watered them down and like watered down alcohol the result was diminished; not as intoxicating and thereby not as effective.

These rites centered around food supply, fertility of Earth and man, with a god, or gods as provider/ controller. If food became scarce or the season was barren they could only blame themselves or God. Knowing they did the same amount of work as last year, God usually had to take the heat. However, since God is perfect (usually), someone must have messed up down here to provoke such wrath, hence the need to sacrifice. This influenced people to pray – seeking forgiveness through atonement. Ceremonies were developed to appease the gods in the hope of a good season, abundant harvest and fertile women to build the tribe. In the hunter/gatherer and agrarian ages we had a unique tie to mother Earth. This tie was incessantly confrontational and symbiotic. The majority of our energy was spent hunting, planting, and fighting the elements of nature. During this time we were profoundly caught up in the life and death of the seasons of time. We planted seeds, nurtured fields, harvested food, and witnessed the death of Earth with every autumn and the gestation of new life with every winter. Then spring, a rebirth, life renewed, and the cycle of life goes on. We also planted the seeds of life in each other, had offspring, nurtured those offspring into adulthood, grew old, and died in the autumn of our life. Each new birth a celebration of spring, and the knowledge of continuance.

Since modern society expends little energy on hunting and farming… what is a human race to do? Humankind, in its spare time, has left the boundaries of Earth with spacecraft and began building machines one atom at a time. Exploring boundaries and the unknown is intrinsic to the nature of humankind from the day we are born.

The seasons used to have deep meaning to us since our survival was so connected to them. It is hard to connect with the seasons of nature from our centrally heated and cooled condo when for sustenance it’s a quick jaunt in our car to the supermarket.

Do we understand life and death as we did in the pre-industrial ages? Apparently not. We seem to fear death more and it seems to be affecting us in unusual ways. The lack of ceremonial rites has caused people to seek their own rites of passage.

Consider the modern proliferation of special interest groups and their initiations; clubs, socially oriented gatherings of specific mores, youth gangs, organized religions and political groups. It seems there is no end to the diversity of the human mind. But this makes our society more complex. With the gangs and drug cultures, as well as racist and sexist systems, it also makes the world a more dangerous place. Anxiety increases with the population.

In this day and age the basic tenets of human rights are hard for many to understand because they have not been indoctrinated into these ideologies in a healthy atmosphere. We still need symbols, ceremonies and spiritual events but more than that, these must mean something to us. There must be acceptable forms of progression from one life stage to another. In the ancient rites, life is seen as a journey–from birth to death. We leave one life stage for another until the end or beyond. Somehow, we must address the metabiological-self and tie it to the biological-self and our social environment. We must reacquaint ourselves with mother Earth and her seasons. We must face death and embrace its nature. “The heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world [Joseph Campbell from Myths, Gods, Heroes, and Saviors].”

“In most cultures men are not born – they are made. More so than for women, cultures traditionally demand puberty and initiation rites for boys. It is almost as if the biological experiences of menstruation and childbirth are enough wisdom for women. Invariably men must be tried, limited, challenged, punished, hazed, circumcised, isolated, starved, stripped and goaded into maturity. The pattern is nearly universal, and the only real exceptions are the recent secular West. Boy Scouts, confirmation classes, Lions and Elks clubs have tried to substitute, but with little spiritual effect. Historically, patterns of initiation are so widely documented that one is amazed we have let go of it so easily. Gangs, romanticization of war, aimless violence and homophobia will all grow unchecked, I predict, until boys are mentored and formally initiated by wiser men [Richard Rohr & Joseph Partos, The Wild Man’s Journey. ]”. Equally important – the issues of female rites of passage will also be addressed in the research and implementation. The development of male/female and human psycho-sociological needs and desires will be dealt with as is appropriate to the individual and culture.