Philip Guerin on Bowenian Family Therapy

Philip Guerin on Bowenian Family Therapy

by Ruth Wetherford
Bowenian Family Therapy expert Dr. Philip Guerin discusses the origin and development of his family therapy theories and practices as well as his invention of the Genogram.


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The Family of Origin

Ruth Wetherford: So, Dr. Phil Guerin, give us your background. What is your current situation? How have you gotten into family of origin work?
Philip Guerin: Well, my family of origin work goes way back. I’ve been in practice now about 45 years. I was a medical student at Georgetown, and the program was primarily a psychoanalytic program, so I spent my medical school time using psychoanalytic-psychodynamic models, transference models. I didn’t meet Murray Bowen until I was a resident, and he was my introduction to family of origin work. His whole model is mostly family of origin work, so that was a good introduction.

By the time I met him I was already somewhat impatient with what in those days was called “the working through process” in the transferential model. I myself had been in therapy as part of the training and was somewhat dubious about how much the working through process really took place. In my own analytic therapy, I didn’t see much attention being given to it. And in working with patients, I found that things tended to drop off and never quite got through the working through process. And as a result, people often had dredged up a lot of negative affect and feelings about their important objects during their individual therapy and were then left with no place to work that through, other than to hold on to negative precepts about those people which resulted in exaggerated distance and a lot of blaming of those people for their own neurotic hang ups. 

RW: That is a common complaint of people in therapy as well as of therapists. We do all this digging, we excavate the woolly mammoth—now what do we do?
PG: Exactly. So I found that trying to find a way that one could put some structure on the family of origin, and then define the field that those people occupied, look at the key conflicted processes, the important triangles, the cutoffs—all those things that we know about from our family system training—and really actually work through some of that process with somebody who knew the terrain. I was fortunate enough to have a guy through my terrain in the person of Bowen. And I did some significant relatively long-term work with him on my own family of origin. So that’s how I got into it. And I have found that it has been a real help in my own personal life. And, on the other hand, difficult to sell to people in terms of being relevant to their everyday lives.

So I had to learn to not sell it, but to integrate it somehow around the symptoms of the relationship conflicts that came up so that people could see and learn its relevance. I don’t know what you think, Ruth, but I think in our current culture there’s even less investment in family of origin as an important and valuable asset in people’s lives.
In our current culture there’s even less investment in family of origin as an important and valuable asset in people’s lives.
There’s so much fragmentation of families, in particular the multi-generational families, that I think people, now that I’ve been in the business long enough, they kind of self-select in terms of coming to see me. So I either end up with somebody that’s coming in with the family of origin problem or somebody that isn’t awfully interested in it and we end up focusing on their symptoms and maybe working the family of origin in as part of that process. 
RW: What are some of the basic concepts that you really like about this approach that help you organize your observations and your moves as a therapist?
PG: I think that the two things that are key, in terms of helping people with this clinically, is that much of the developmental and/or situational stress in our lives emanates from family of origin stuff. You know, you haven’t seen your mother in 15 years and she suddenly has a terminal illness. Something happens to your brother and he loses his job—there’s any number of those kinds of situational things. And the developmental things are obvious—when somebody gets married they are supposed to shift their loyalty from their parents to their loved one as their primary object of choice, but that’s actually very difficult to do.

And what that brings up is a triangle right out of nowhere, which you also had when you were a little kid—just born into a family and you started out somewhere caught up between your mother and father. So those kinds of things and contextualizing them into the larger family I find really helpful as a road map to develop people’s treatment plans. 
RW: So there’s the concept of the triangle and the other concept is…?
PG: Well, I think the triangle is obviously very central. But when I see a clinical situation that comes to me I make an assumption that it’s based on an increase in stress in the people’s lives.
RW: Stress is a key concept.
PG: That manifests itself in an exacerbation of relationship conflict or some physical symptoms that’s returned or depression or anxiety. And those things are best understood if you can put them into context of a family—the family of their spouse and kids or the family they came from.


RW: In your book, Working with Relationship Triangles, which you wrote with Fogarty, Fay and Kautto, you go into great detail about the nature, structure, and process of triangles. It’s a working manual about how to apply your theories and ideas into action. One of the things that you say in the book is that a triangle is not a threesome. A threesome is not a triangle. What is the distinction you’re making here?
PG: I think that’s a distinction that Fogarty makes and it’s something he puts very high on the list of things that people have to be able to do. What it means is that a threesome is three individual relationships in which there isn’t a lot of reactivity among the folks. There’s nobody on the outside looking in. There isn’t an intense conflict in a dyad that the third person is getting distance from. He used to talk about it as an equilateral triangle in which there was calm in each of the three relationships. And if there’s calm, then all kinds of good things can happen.

But triangles are very pervasive. You don’t have to put three people together very long before they fall into triangles.
RW: So you’re saying that the term “triangle” itself implies not just that each of the dyads that you’re in with two other people is affected by their relationship with each other, but that it has become dysfunctional in some way. 
PG: Yeah, and that can be by excluding one person. The concept of triangle has built into it that it’s dysfunctional and inhibits people in the system from finding ways to uncover and deal with their difficulties.

Differentiation of Self

RW: How much do you use and think about the concept of “differentiation of self”?
PG: Differentiation of self is one of those things that obviously was one of Bowen’s original concepts. And he stuck with that through his whole career and believed it to be of primary importance because he believed that if individuals could increase their level of differentiation—which in concrete clinical terms means that they are less emotionally reactive and can think their way through their problematic relationship road blocks—then everything would fall into place. Symptoms would go away. Functionality in relationships would improve. I find that it’s abstract enough that it’s difficult to stay focused on that.

And so one of the things that I developed was the whole idea that we are mostly left with the level of differentiation that we’re born with. We can make some progress on it over time, but mostly by finding ways of working within that to improve our ongoing level of functioning. It’s kind of like functioning in spite of your level of differentiation.
RW: When we add to that definition the internal ability to feel and think what is true for oneself' separate from the pressures of your closest social environment and separate from coercion, that eliminates many people who are dependent for their survival, their food, etc. on the dominating power of others.

But for that subset who can have the freedom to think and feel what might be true for them, and in so doing reduce the emotionality that you were just talking about, that strikes me as something that one can do, slowly and incrementally throughout one’s life if one knows how liberating and freeing it can be. In fact, the first time I was reading about differentiation of self with Bowen, I thought, “What a light bulb for humanity because it rescues us from the prevailing power dynamics in most families—that the rights and needs of the many are meant to be sacrificed for the good of the few.” And this concept that we’re equally entitled to our own subjective experiences, that seemed so new. 
PG: I think you put it very succinctly and I think you put it in a way that is very useful for folks. I have been struck over the years by the power of emotional forces and how easily they can overwhelm even the best of strugglers who are trying to get to a differentiated perspective. 
RW: Yes, that’s so true.
PG: It’s out of respect for the power of emotionality that I put some qualifiers on differentiation as the central process of family of origin work. I think it’s also one of those things that people hide behind a lot; they talk about how much they’re differentiating themselves but, frankly, I don’t see it, right?
People talk about how much they’re differentiating themselves but, frankly, I don’t see it.
From the work I’ve done in my own family, I’ve found how easy it is to kid yourself for five years that you are rolling along increasing your differentiation when it finally hits you over the head that you haven’t been. You’ve been playing the side game, but it doesn’t have much to do with differentiation.
RW: Right. Just following up on what you said about how easy it is to think we’re differentiating, to me the cue of the power of that emotional force is anxiety. I’m getting ready to go visit my family—why am I so anxious? And it’s so helpful to think about who are the two people with whom I feel most anxious and why, and then go into those thoughts. I think you’d call it an application or a “thought experiment.” What kinds of applications have you used that that might help people understand how to go about thinking about this more deeply?
PG: Well, I like to use the concrete behaviors in people’s relationships and develop them into experiments with some kind of modification of a behavioral pattern. And while you’re doing that, pay attention to what’s going on internally. And if you start to get anxious, that’s important information. And pay attention to the reactive behaviors and the important other people in your family. And sometimes you’ll find that the reactivity that they have shuts down your ability to even think. 
RW: So you ask for observations.
PG: I do.
RW: And you help people identify what in particular they’re going to be looking for to observe?
PG: You mean like if they’re making a trip home?
RW: Yeah, or a phone call, email, text or any contact with the person who is the trigger for anxiety.
PG: Yeah, or outside of the therapy session as well. Because you often end up working with one family member in a lot of this.
RW: Yes. And you do make a point that the work is best with those people who are open to the approach of taking control of their own calming and who understand that they can try to change their participation and the repeating sequences of interaction. Have you asked people to identify the repeating difficult sequence of interaction that makes their anxiety shoot up?
PG: Well, if they’re going to be going to a family of origin visit, I would be probably more generic than that and just have them go and really try to keep their own anxiety in check and observe what they see around them. And then bring what they observe back and we’ll put it together and talk about it and maybe design something that goes on over time—combination letters, telephone, other visits, etc.

And I think that that does help people get a sense of mastery and a sense that they don’t have to be so anxious and frightened about moving into the relationship and changing their responses to difficult interactions.


RW: You said in your Bowenian family therapy video that Bowen sneered at the word “technique.” I wonder do you have techniques?
PG: I think that in Working with Triangles and in some of the stuff that I’ve done in the form of chapters in other people’s books, I spell out a number of techniques that I think are important to the method. And I think there’re seven of them. I probably couldn’t even come up with more than three of them now. But I certainly have techniques that I think are just applications of observations and theories about the way relationships work.
RW: Donald S. Williamson, who wrote The Intimacy Paradox, and Betty Carter and others do have explicit sequences of moves to help people identify the toxic triangle and calm themselves, notice the repeating patterns, identify their own reactions to things that are said, and then develop a self-stated goal for their own change in behavior. Then they take a step, however small and metaphoric, toward that goal and report back on how it went. In this way they differentiate themselves gradually and hopefully humorously.

When people do this there’s an enormous amount of emotion that’s released which, according to those family therapists, needs to be expressed outside the family—the hurt, the anger, the intensity—so that through the release of pent-up emotion there’s less pressure to have it come out in interactions. How much of that emotional release have you experienced using such a cognitively based therapy?
PG: Well, I think that in all those paradoxical ways if you ask people to put their cognitive apparatus to work and observe and experiment with the relationship process they’re a part of, the emotion surfaces in very dramatic ways. And if it’s going to be external, I hope it’s in a context with somebody who is a coach or a therapist because otherwise, you know—I was just watching a movie over the weekend which was a remake of a 1939 movie called Women, in which part of what was going on was the group of women that surrounded Meg Ryan when she found out her husband had an affair. And they had more opinions about what she should do and ways to deal with her upset. And so that can be somewhat questionable in terms of its helpfulness, but I think if it gets spilled to your coach or your therapist, it can be very beneficial. You somehow neutralize the negative power and then go back into the relationship that is the source of it and get it talked out.
RW: Yes.
PG: That would be the best outcome. But I still think that the emotional vulnerability in each of us that triggers us to respond in an emotional way is very profound. And all the designs that Betty or Donald and myself come up with are ways of helping with this, helping the moment, helping the month—but over a long-term process of life it’s very easy to get pulled back in on an emotional basis and to be unaware of it.

And so it becomes kind of a lifetime work. It’s very different than being in therapy for life, you know. I think that the difference is that therapy ties you to the individual, who is the therapist, and that the process of working it through is in that relationship. There’s nothing wrong with that. It works. But if it doesn’t get back into the natural relationships of your system, it’s going to be limited in the impact of that.
RW: Yes. You make the point in the book that when the therapy progress seems to be bogged down it’s useful to look for invisible triangles that may be holding the person’s behavior in a stuck place. And you mention that sometimes it can be the individual therapist or the couple therapist. So you’re alluding to the fact that we therapists ourselves have our own levels of differentiation and sometimes we tend to side with the client or patient against the people they’re complaining about. And what a mistake that is in that the therapist needs to work toward his or her own differentiation. Say more about that.
PG: Well, I think if you don’t develop an ability to empathize with your individual patient about what they’re struggling with and to hear them out and to validate them that the struggle is real and there’s justification for their feelings, then you’re not going to have too many patients for very long.

That’s the first phase. And the second phase is, well, now that you know those feelings are natural and that maybe 90% of the folks on the planet would have them, well, how are you going to put them into a context that helps you develop a way to go work them through with that person? We therapists have to watch for that very fine line between being supportive and validating and just providing no real motivation to go do something about it.
RW: That’s right. If I see your point of view and validate your feelings, that does not mean I agree the others also have a point of view and that to do nothing about it. It doesn’t mean you can’t change your own reaction to it. 
PG: It also doesn’t mean that part of your response doesn’t have its own negative set in it, you know? That’s a big part of the problem actually.
RW: Yes. You mentioned that this thinking leads you to ask questions that help the person see how their own interaction is negatively influencing the others and that we think of ourselves as innocently going along reacting to others, but we forget that they’re reacting to us. Say more about that.
PG: Well, it’s like the whole concept of constructive criticism. How many people do you know who are good at accepting constructive criticism?

So I think an awareness of yourself and the toxic parts of you and how you trigger people into their own stuff is essential as a therapist,
An awareness of yourself and the toxic parts of you and how you trigger people into their own stuff is essential as a therapist.
but also as a member of a relationship system that wants to be in a better place, and it takes some study and experimentation to come to those things.

The Invention of Genograms

RW: You coined the term genogram, is that right?
PG: Well, there’s a rumor to that effect, yes.
RW: Well, talk about the genogram and how useful that’s been to you.
PG: Bowen started using what he called “the family diagram.” And if you look at his writings and you watch his speeches, he never converted that over to genogram. Until the day he died, he talked about the family diagram. When I had left Georgetown and was at Einstein teaching the residents and fellows and medical students and the like, I did a lot of what you were talking about Don Williamson doing. I had what we called “TOF groups”—therapists’ own family groups—which was a practical way of trying to get people to learn the theory and the idea of the impact of the people in your family on your emotional functioning. And part of it was for people to, in seminar style, put their genogram up on a board, either a blackboard or an easel pad. And it just seemed to me that we were also teaching about generational repeats all the time.

We were talking about intergenerational triangles and it was impressive how much the issues and the relationship patterns repeated themselves generation to generation. So I just thought people might relate to this and the notion of a genogram might stick in their head. It kind of gives you a structure with the membership of your system and the major issues in your system and the cutoffs and where they are and what drove them.

I think it’s been very helpful to people over the years and it’s probably one of the techniques or structures that people from other therapy approaches use.
RW: So after you create a genogram with people—whether you’re working with one person or a couple or a family—it helps you to understand the different forces that hold the system in place.
PG: Yes.

Functional and Dysfunctional Attachment

RW: In Working with Relationship Triangles, you say, “Quite apart from how people feel about the closeness or distance between themselves and others, we should make another distinction between kinds of closeness and distance. Closeness can be a kind of functional attachment. This allows people in a relationship to preserve their boundaries and their autonomy in thinking, feeling and action while they remain connected in a personal way to each other. Alternatively, closeness can be reactive and driven by anxiety, a kind of dependent clinging or anxious attachment that says implicitly or explicitly, ‘Please don’t leave me. I’ll do anything to keep you. If you leave, something terrible will happen.’ Similarly, distance can be a deliberate and planned exercise to deal appropriately with a developmental or relationship problem” (page 59).

I quote this because it jumped out at me as very consistent with what a decade and a half later is the very important focus on attachment and the patterns of attachment—secure versus anxious and avoidant. Because you’re making the point, I think, that once we excavate what the core issue is—and it will often emanate from the marriage that then creates the nuclear family—the dynamic has to do with the tension around closeness and distance, in being able to get access to a feeling of connection or “are you there for me?” Functional attachment, anxious attachment, those are precursors to this new attachment conversation that’s going on. When you work with people, how do you focus on that issue, that struggle in them to find a happy, close enough, but not engulfing, far-enough-away-without-abandoning equilibrium?
PG: That’s a very good question. And I think if you realize that most attachments that people have with one another is of the anxious attachment variety that gets called love—as opposed to the kind of functional attachment where you add to that an ability to be open about your feelings for the other person. That’s different. And that is the root towards the kind of intimacy that all of us are looking for. I was thinking while I was listening to you read that section, “Yeah, that’s pretty good. I agree with that.”

You were talking about techniques before—one of the techniques becomes the use of the process question: “Do you think that the importance of being connected to your husband comes from a need for a kind of closeness that will benefit you both in your ability to be intimate with one another and to function as individuals and as a dyad? Or do you think it’s kind of a clingy attempt to hide out behind him or in the relationship itself?” They’ll say, “Will you repeat that?”

I think that you take that notion and you try to get people to think about it. And you try to get people to think about it by asking some fairly brief—a lot briefer than that last question came out—questions to focus them on how much of their attachment is being driven by their anxiety, being driven by a fear of a loss of the other, being driven by a way of toning down what they’re experiencing as criticism. I think that can be very helpful to people.

Each of us has a different allergy in this regard. I mean, some people just have an emotional allergy to somebody who is clingy and wants to have their arm around them all the time and wants to exchange intimacies. Other people have an allergy to too much distance and too much avoidance and an inability to talk about the personal in the relationship itself. And how much of that is testosterone versus estrogen driven or whatever? I don’t think we know.
RW: No.
PG: But it remains something that’s consistent over the decades that that is a part of the problem and also can be a part of what feels good in a relationship. We used to have arguments at Einstein family study section where we’d talk about,
“I don’t care if it is emotional fusion; it feels too good to let go of it!”
“I don’t care if it is emotional fusion; it feels too good to let go of it!” 
RW: How have you been evolving professionally and philosophically since the publication of your last book?
PG: Well, I’ve gotten involved in a whole bunch of stuff that mainly has to do with being the grandfather of 11 grandchildren.

And that has taken away the drive and the energy to write another book. But it’s been worth it. I mean, the kids are terrific and watching them—my oldest grandchild is 19 now and my youngest is 15 months—watching them continues to teach me about myself in ways that are very important. But I’ve been thinking, you know, not a bad idea to start getting back to some of that.
RW: Do you have another book in you? And if so, what would be the message of that book?
PG: I think the ideas that are in The Evaluation and Treatment of Marital Conflict, book that we put out in the middle ‘80’s, and even some of the stuff that was in the original textbook you were talking about before, are only partially developed. I think that the concepts develop most clearly when you’re putting them to the test with your students. And we still do that, but not with the kind of intensity and frequency that we used to. In recent years as managed care has come in, training programs are kind of atrophying. There used to be a battle between five or six models of doing things, and the debate and the discussion and the application to clinical situations of the models were very enriching, very enlightening, very energizing.

If I was going to put another portion of my energy into my work as opposed to my grandchildren—they’re going to probably tell me to do that pretty soon—I would try to work towards applying the models that were developed in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s and see if they can hold up, you know? Try to make distinctions between ‘70’s and ‘80’s versions of intimacy and attachment and present day. Are they different? What are the differences? Can there be an evolution that provides more refined and sharper models that improve clinical outcomes?

Flying-By-the-Seat-of-Your-Pants Therapy

RW: And would you include integrating the various models?
PG: I think as much as they can be integrated, yeah, absolutely. I think that there’s a need for that. And the question is how do you do the integration without getting the lowest common denominator? And I think that some concepts go together and others don’t. But it’s rare that there’s been one way of thinking about these things. Ego psychologists had a structural way of approaching things just like Minuchin and others have had a structural way of approaching things, you know? And I think that the analytic psychodynamic models really evolved into the multi-generational systems whether it’s Bowen and Fogarty and myself and Carter and Monica and all those folks or if it’s a more strictly psychodynamic approach to things, or Haley and some of those people who really came out with a totally different perspective.

So all that stuff that was done kind of side-by-side in the ‘70’s and the ‘80’s. I think if people had time and the interest in the information, more developing could take place. And hopefully that development would provide a refinement that could be taught to people that are doing therapy because it seems like folks are flying by the seat of their pants a lot in doing therapy these days.

Some of therapy has kind of dwindled down to giving advice, you know, from your own particular perspective, which isn’t bad unless it’s the only thing you know. I would love for a day to return where people were working together to define models and refine them and make them reproducible.

Maybe that’s not possible in this time-crunched era that we’re in now, but I would like it.
RW: Many people are calling for a broader dissemination to people. The APA, for instance, is looking for ways to teach psychology outside of clinics, hospitals, private practice and academic settings, using the internet, for example. What are your thoughts about that?
PG: I am intrigued by it. I think folks my age are a little intimidated by the technology, but I think it’s crucially important. What my kids can do with a computer in terms of scope and rhythm and efficiency is so far ahead of what I can do. The grandchildren are even better at it. 
RW: I agree and I’m glad to hear it. Are there any final thoughts you would like to share before we close?
PG: Well, I think that making the family of origin work relevant is important, without trying to shove it down people’s throats. A long time ago in our work we saw it as essential to not try to sell a particular approach, but to start with where clients are feeling the pinch, where they’re feeling the pain, and to proceed in a way that first and foremost helps them with their symptoms—whether that’s prescribing medication or using cognitive techniques or incorporating family system theory into the work.

And then continuing to check back in with them about what makes sense for them because they’re putting in time and putting in money, so they ought to have some say about where our focus is and where we’re trying to take them.
RW: That makes good sense. Thank you so much. I have greatly enjoyed our discussion and appreciate your body of work and your willingness to share this with us now.
PG: Well, thank you for asking me.

Copyright © 2012 All rights reserved. Published November 2012.
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Philip Guerin Philip J. Guerin, MD is a psychiatrist, family therapist, author, and the founder of the Center for Family Learning in Westchester County, New York. He has written several influential books and articles in the field of family therapy, including The Evaluation and treatment of marital conflict: A four-stage approach and Working with relationship triangles: The one-two-three of psychotherapy.
Ruth Wetherford Dr. Ruth Wetherford is a San Francisco–based psychologist who has been practicing psychotherapy and teaching for the past 30 years. She specializes in family of origin work with individuals, guided imagery and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Her website is

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • List the key concepts of Guerin's family of origin approach
  • Describe the use of triangles in understanding patterns of conflict in people's relationships
  • Explain the origin and use of genograms in family systems therapy

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here