Multigenerational Transmission Process (Bowen Theory)

The concept of the multigenerational transmission process describes how small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring lead over many generations to marked differences in differentiation among the members of a multigenerational family. The information creating these differences is transmitted across generations through relationships. The transmission occurs on several interconnected levels ranging from the conscious teaching and learning of information to the automatic and unconscious programming of emotional reactions and behaviors. Relationally and genetically transmitted information interact to shape an individual's "self."

The combination of parents actively shaping the development of their offspring, offspring innately responding to their parents' moods, attitudes, and actions, and the long dependency period of human offspring results in people developing levels of differentiation of self similar to their parents' levels. However, the relationship patterns of nuclear family emotional systems often result in at least one member of a sibling group developing a little more "self" and another member developing a little less "self" than the parents.

The next step in the multigenerational transmission process is people predictably selecting mates with levels of differentiation of self that match their own. Therefore, if one sibling's level of "self" is higher and another sibling's level of "self" is lower than the parents, one sibling's marriage is more differentiated and the other sibling's marriage is less differentiated than the parents' marriage. If each sibling then has a child who is more differentiated and a child who is less differentiated than himself, one three generational line becomes progressively more differentiated (the most differentiated child of the most differentiated sibling) and one line becomes progressively less differentiated (the least differentiated child of the least differentiated sibling). As these processes repeat over multiple generations, the differences between family lines grow increasingly marked.

Level of differentiation of self can affect longevity, marital stability, reproduction, health, educational accomplishments, and occupational success. This impact of differentiation on overall life functioning explains the marked variation that typically exists in the lives of the members of a multigenerational family. The highly differentiated people have unusually stable nuclear families and contribute much to society; the poorly differentiated people have chaotic personal lives and depend heavily on others to sustain them. A key implication of the multigenerational concept is that the roots of the most severe human problems as well as of the highest levels of human adaptation are generations deep. The multigenerational transmission process not only programs the levels of "self" people develop, but it also programs how people interact with others. Both types of programming affect the selection of a spouse. For example, if a family programs someone to attach intensely to others and to function in a helpless and indecisive way, he will likely select a mate who not only attaches to him with equal intensity, but one who directs others and make decisions for them.


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