Bowen theory views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. In families, members are intensely emotionally connected. Although people often report feeling distant or disconnected from their families, this is more of a feeling than a fact. Family members so profoundly affect each other's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that it’s as if they are living under the same "emotional skin." People solicit each other's attention, approval, and support and react to each other's needs, expectations, and distress. The connectedness and reactivity make family members interdependent, so that a change in one person's functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others.
For example, when a family member gets anxious, the anxiety can escalate by spreading infectiously among the rest of the family. As anxiety goes up, family members become more distressed than comforting. Eventually, one (or more) member feels overwhelmed, isolated, or out of control. It is this member who tries hardest to reduce tensions in others. This accommodating member literally “absorbs” the family’s stress, and is therefore most vulnerable to problems such as depression/anxiety, addiction, affairs, or physical illness.
Dr. Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist, originated this theory and its eight interlocking concepts (triangles, differentiation of self, nuclear family emotional system, family projection process, multigenerational transmission process, emotional cutoff, sibling position, and societal emotional process). He formulated the theory by using systems thinking to integrate knowledge of the human species as a product of evolution with knowledge from family researchers.