Is there a therapist alive who has never tried harder to solve a client problem than his or her client? Dr. Murray Bowen’s family research spoke to this dilemma and led to the surprising conclusion that families asked to simply explore and describe their functioning (“research families”) made more therapeutic gains than those who specifically sought therapeutic help (“therapy families”).
Recently, fellow WPFC faculty member Carl Jensen, MDiv, MSEd, emailed me (Catherine Rakow, MSW), searching for a Bowen quote on the issue:
I’ve been looking for a Bowen quote for some time and haven’t been able to find it. I recall reading that Dr. Bowen found that research families did better than therapy families. This was associated with the idea that researchers don’t try to change families, but that therapists often do. I imagine that the anxiety that goes with being a change agent rather than an observer is related to this. If Dr. Bowen actually said something like this, I’d love to have the source. If not, then I’ll just chalk it up to my creatively inaccurate memory
Reply to Carl,
In Bowen’s research at Menninger, he discovered that people who had families involved in their treatment did better than those who did not. Those families received casework support from the social worker, and Bowen saw some of the families too.
At NIMH, where families were involved, Bowen found that research families who were outpatients did better than the in-patient families. While he tried to structure the ward as free- form as possible and leave decision making within the family, the reality was there were certain requirements of the hospital that made the environment less free than living on their own.
I had not heard or read the piece about “researchers don’t try to change families…..”. You are actually touching on the origin of differentiation of self there. When Bowen was doing his research at Menninger, the treatment method at the time was resolving the transference. After several modifications in treatment, Bowen worked to avoid forming the transference, leaving that in the family. (1951).
Having a neutral other who is present, interested but not moving toward or away from you, was important to the innate development of being more of an individual. That remains the basic treatment method of Bowen theory.
Reply to Catherine,
Thanks for getting back to me, Catherine. The piece about “researchers don’t try to change families” was my thought. Here’s how I put some things together for myself:
One of the frequent issues with therapy is therapist anxiety to deliver on a contract for change. This is especially true when therapists are seen as having primary responsibility for results, whether by their organizations, their treatment models, or their personal sense of things.
Although researchers may have their own task-related anxieties, changing the people who are subjects of research normally is not a goal. As I tried to make sense of what I thought I had read, I thought that research families would benefit from considering the questions of researchers, but would not be burdened by therapist anxiety about change, as families in treatment might be.
Regardless of where I got this idea, it helped me to remember to take an “observer” position as a coach, to avoid over-responsibility/overfunctioning, and to monitor my own anxiety for results in a process that inherently did involve change in one way or another. I agree that this relates to your description of what differentiation of self means in practice.
Reply to Carl,
I appreciate how you used your own thinking and were able to find a way to not interfere in clients’ efforts to change. I hear exactly what you are describing in professionals with whom I have consultation. There is definitely anxiety in the question about what is helpful and what is expected, and in finding one’s self when “hired” by a family or family member for problem resolution.
Catherine Rakow, MSW & Carl Jensen, MDiv., MSEd
WPFC Faculty Members