Families in Psychiatry

Helping patients find balance between self and other


Dr. Bowen’s eight concepts

1. Nuclear Family Emotional Process

2. Differentiation of self

3. Triangles

4. Emotional cutoff

5. Family projection process

6. Multigenerational transmission process

7. Sibling position

8. Societal Emotional Process

According to Dr. Bowen, the B-self makes decisions on facts, principles, and intrinsic motivation and decides what they are willing to do/not willing to do based on their own internal ethics. On the other hand, the R-self goes along with everybody else, even when the person internally disagrees. He considered the R-self as wanting acceptance in relationship, possibly changing beliefs to find approval, and striving to be liked. Carmen Knudson-Martin, PhD,3 explored the relationship between the B-self and the R-self and suggested that they exist along two dimensions, both of which are important. My contention is that the R-self is undertheorized and deserves much more exploration.

Developmental psychologists and psychiatrists have focused on understanding the process of psychological maturation of the individual throughout life. However, there is little study of the development of a healthy relationship between self and other. We have, instead, gathered examples and descriptors of the pathological examples of the “other.” We can readily call out enmeshment, the manipulations of the borderline personality disordered, the cold withholding mother – to name the most vilified. What do we know about the healthy R-self?

Measuring the relational self

We have understood the R-self mostly through the study of pathological relationships. For example, pathological parenting has been shown to “result” in individual pathology and as a factor in the development of psychiatric illness. The measurement of the relationship between patient and family member/partner is aimed at elucidating pathology. The supreme example is emotional overinvolvement (EOI).

EOI is an integral part of the construct called expressed emotion and is often measured using the Camberwell Family Interview.4 High EOI has been identified routinely as predictive of worsening of psychiatric illness.5 However, exceptions are found (when you look for them)! In African American families, for example, high EOI is predictive of better outcomes in patients with schizophrenia.6 Jill M. Hooley, DPhil, also has identified that patients with borderline personality disorders do better in families with high EOI.7

A shorter equivalent research tool is the 5-minute speech sample (FMSS). The FMSS analyses 5 minutes of the speech of a parent/family member who is asked to describe the identified patient. EOI is identified by expressions of excessive worry or concern, self-sacrifice, or exaggerated praise. In a study of 223 child-mother dyads, 56.5% of which were Hispanic, use of the FMSS found high EOI predicted externalizing behaviors.8

More recently, psychiatry has sought to identify and measure positive factors, such as family warmth. In Puerto Rican children, high parental warmth was found to be protective against psychiatric disorders.9 In a study of Burmese migrant families from 20 communities in Thailand (513 caregivers and 479 patients with schizophrenia, aged 7-15 years), families were randomized to a waitlist or a 12-week family intervention that promoted warmth.10 The family intervention resulted in increased parental warmth and affection and increased family well-being.

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