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Said Robert Aylmer, a Bowen student: "Bowen was the first to realize you can't translate the individual psychoanalytic concepts into the language of families, and the first to see the family as a structure in itself, which had its own wiring." The family wasn't, as previously believed, just a collection of mutually influential but separate psyches living together under the same roof. Rather, the submerged ebb and flow of family life, the simultaneous push and pull between family members, both for distance and togetherness, was the driving force underlying all human behavior. While Bowen didn't invent systems thinking, he was the first to conceptualize the family as a natural system, which could be fully understood only in terms of the fluid but predictable processes between family members.

Unlike most family or individual therapists, Bowen conceived of personal growth and family interaction as part of an indivisible whole, and he created a therapy that involved both the self of the individual and the multiple relations in the family. He introduced a form of family therapy based on one family member's researching and coming to terms with his or her own family of origin. Finally, Bowen gave family therapists a new way to know themselves. Said Carl Whitaker: "He transformed the psychoanalytic process of finding yourself into something particularly appropriate for family therapy. He showed family therapists a way they could look at themselves and their own lives, analogous to Freud's self-analysis." Bowen, alone, made it a critical point that therapists differentiate themselves from their own families before trying to help others do the same.

Bowen's ideas have been used to improve the functioning of businesses, religious congregations, and other organizations, applied to ethical, cultural, economic, and gender issues, and synthesized with object-relations and other psychodynamic models. But these variations from his orthodoxy gave him no pleasure. Toward the end of his life, he went so far as to dismiss family therapy as an "evolutionary misadventure," a mere grab bag of marketable new therapy techniques.

For Bowen, therapy was of a single cloth with his entire theory; tear out this or that piece as a "technique" and the whole tapestry became a tattered rag. "He wasn't very happy with what most of us were doing," said Philip Guerin, a former student of Bowen's. Yet it was his very devotion to pure theory that made it possible for him to give so much to so many.

In 1975, Bowen summarized the fundamental insight from which his theories evolved: "Far more human activity is governed by man's emotional system than he has been willing to admit, and there is far more similarity than dissimilarity between the ‘dance of life' in lower forms and the ‘dance of life' in human forms."

Not a flattering idea, perhaps, but an idea that has proven tremendously fruitful.

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