Love, Bowen Theory, and COVID-19

  • April 15, 2020
  • Ann Depner, LCSW

“People speak glibly of love as if it is a well defined entity.”
Murray Bowen, Family therapy in Clinical Practice, p. 419


That clutch in my gut when my son called to say there were three COVID deaths and a shortage of masks at his workplace – was that love?  And how about that urge I felt to call him back the very next day? Recalling the fearful tone in his voice, I could almost feel the whirling blades over my head, outing me as a helicopter parent.  Was my baby okay??

But I opted not to call.  My “baby” is 32 years old and a competent occupational therapist, well able to manage his spike of anxiety.  And I knew he could do it faster if I contained my own anxiety rather than lobbing it back at him. Hmm… Maybe that restraining insight was love.

Murray Bowen, the psychiatrist who developed Bowen Family Systems Theory, was not one to make arbitrary statements about a squishy concept like love.  And while I also try to avoid arbitrary statements, I’ve thought a lot about love since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its potential for “flattening the curve.” So in this time of coronavirus, and with Bowen theory as my backdrop, allow me to share my thoughts on the matter:

  • The human experience of love is based on mammalian instincts we’ve inherited to mate, form pair bonds, and care for our young.  Raising our young is a long-term, demanding affair, which makes the two-parent family well suited to the task. The hormonal dance between committed partners and between parents and children keeps the whole process going.  Instinct is the ground of my energetic protective response to my son. But that instinct feels like love.
  • Most often I think of love as a feeling.  It can flare dramatically, as in “falling in love,” infused with fiery passion but prone to quickly fading. Or it can develop in a less gripping but more enduring form such as fondness or admiration.  Bowen saw feelings in general as the conscious awareness of the body’s state of arousal or “emotional state.” We humans share such emotional states with our mammalian ancestors. But perhaps they lack capacity to identify and manage particular feelings like love or fear.
  •  Ah, there’s the rub.  With some effort, I can identify and manage my feelings.  Unlike the mama bear who is biologically bound to protect her threatened cub, I can notice when I’m feeling urgently protective and decide if enacting that urge will actually help my son (or whoever might be the object of my solicitous attention!)
  • Then again, sometimes love is not about feeling at all. It’s a deliberate assessment of the greatest good for the greatest number. Early in the corona pandemic, I reluctantly moved to cancel a dinner party my husband and I had planned.  I didn’t really think that we or any of our invited guests were much less apt to contract COVID-19 as a result. But by sacrificing what would probably have been a harmless and enjoyable evening for a few, I played a part in helping the many.
  • And because I live and socialize in a relationship system, when friends and family saw me taking a principled stand – even on a relatively trivial matter like a dinner party – it affected them.  As Bowen described human systems, each member continually affects every other member. Thus I have reason to believe that my stand on the dinner party may have influenced others to take similar, deliberately loving stands.  Like a virus, love is contagious.
  • Love calls me to temper my instinctually-based feelings with thoughtful planning for constructive results. Recently, I was excited to see an old friend on my weekly trip to replenish groceries.  I swooped in for a hug, then backed off in horror as I realized I had totally blown the social distance contract. My aim is to learn from this, maybe laugh at it, and at some point in the future, to deal with my instincts spontaneously before they take over the show. Bowen would call this the “integration of differentiation of self.”

I would call it love – in the time of coronavirus, or any other time.

Ann Depner, LCSW
WPFC faculty member

12 Replies to “Love, Bowen Theory, and COVID-19”

  1. This was helpful. Ann. I can relate. A good start is managing self as well as you can. We can set an example for others in the way we respond.

    1. Thanks, Margie! As people who work to manage self while staying in respectful contact with those having other agendas, we can send our individual examples out into our social circles, confident that some ripple effects will occur.

  2. What a pleasure to read this! Such a down to earth way of relaying the essence of what BFST aims to trace. Especially since the anxiety, worry and fear that can arise regarding a child can be difficult to section out; where anxiety begins and where love begins.
    Thank you for organizing what can feel like a messy process/feeling as a parent in such a legitimate and simple way.
    As a parent and as a student of BFST, Truly enjoyed!

  3. Thank you, Michelle. I remember hearing a Bowen quote once; he was apparently responding to someone asking, “What can one person do to stem the tide of regression in society?” He said something like, “Shine your own little light to the best of your ability in your own corner of the world.” Down to earth, for sure!

  4. I appreciated the way you separate our instinctual feelings from love. As a millennial, my generation doesn’t know how to separate feelings from an idea like love very well, and consequently we can be so wishy-washy when it comes to what we love and what we believe in – it changes as our feelings change often enough. Thinking of love as an act you think about, reflect on, and commit to is not only more accurate, but more meaningful as it’s harder to do than simply “feeling love” for someone. A good model to live and love by!

    1. Thanks, Luke. As a millennial, you may be prone to mash feelings together with ideas about love. But as the son of a family systems therapist, you’ve obviously picked up some Bowen theory along the way! I appreciate how you’ve worked over the years at reflecting on feelings and using those reflections to guide your actions.

  5. Ms. Depner, very well said. Your narrative reminded me of the Dorothy Canfied Fisher story Understood Betsy and how Elizabeth Ann functions when with Aunt Harriet or when she moves in with Uncle Henry. It is straight Bowen theory. Your use of current situations and the thoughts as to how to find one’s way in them is effective and appreciated. Best definition of love that I’ve ever read.

  6. Thank you, Ms. Rakow! I don’t know the story of Understood Betsy. Now you’ve got me interested to look it up.

    1. Just as you wrote about how to figure out who you are in changing circumstances, the book shows the impact of attitude on relationships, how a person is part of what exists in the moment and how different responses set a tone for another to respond back.

      1. Just looked it up on Amazon. Sounds like the kind of book I would have loved as a child, right up there with Anne of Green Gables and Heidi. And since it’s never really too late to have a happy childhood, i ordered myself a copy!

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