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Attachment in Family Therapy: A New Paradigm for Couple Counselling

Written By: Dr. Martin Rovers, Ph.D

Martin Rovers, Ph.D, is a AAMFT approved supervisor in the Faculty of Human Sciences of Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada and he has a private practice in marriage and family therapy.


Although family of origin theory (Bowen, 1978: Kerr & Bowen, 1988), and attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969, 1973, 1980) are distinct with their own concepts, this paper argues that both theories can also be understood as different perspectives of the same human experience, namely the development of attachment and relationship patterns. Both theories emphasized the impact that unresolved issues in the parents will have on the children. This paper attempts to bridge corresponding attachment patterns of both theories and structures a new paradigm for attachment patterns. The genogram is suggested as a more simplified assessment map when doing therapy. Implications for couple therapy and a case study are provided.

Although Bowlby’s (1969, 1973, 1980, 1988) work on attachment focussed mostly on children, he insisted that attachment phenomena are lifelong, a ‘straightforward continuation’ (Bowlby, 1969) of attachment in childhood. Several authors have explored adult attachment as it plays out in romantic and parenting relationships (Weiss, 1982: Hazan & Shaver, 1987: Main, Kaplan & Cassidy, 1985: Brennan, Clark & Shaver, 1998: Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991: Fraley & Waller, 1998). Many have combined the theory of attachment with various assessment measures. Most use a developmental notion of attachment primarily within the relationship of family. Yet none, to my knowledge, have explored family of origin theory, concepts and assessment tools as possibilities to shed further light on attachment styles. This paper attempts to bridge family of origin theory and attachment theory for a common conceptual model of attachment and suggests the genogram as a more simplified assessment map when doing brief therapy with couples.

Family of Origin Theory

A family of origin can be conceptualized as the living unit in which a person has his or her beginnings physiologically, psychically, and emotionally (Hovestadt, Anderson, Piercy, Cochran & Fine, 1985). Accordingly, it is within the context of one’s family of origin experiences that one’s current self-image, values, behaviors, attitudes, and style of relating to others germinates. To varying degrees throughout one’s life, these early experiences continue to influence growth and development in these areas.

To understand attachment, one must understand that each person is inextricably interwoven within broader interactional systems, the most fundamental of which is the family. Bowen (1978) highlighted the emotional atmosphere of family of origin, including interpersonal relationships patterns. Williamson (1991) address the paradoxical issue of leaving home while choosing to belong within the family. McGoldrick (1995) suggest that family is the primary and, except in rare instances, the most powerful system to which a person belongs.
Murray Bowen (1976, 1978; Kerr & Bowen, 1988) places people within the context of the dynamics of their family system, which is seen as an emotional unit, constituting an interlocking network of relations. More specifically, people are viewed within the context of a larger multigenerational system. Bowen(1976, 1978) defines one’s family of origin experience as the emotional atmosphere of one’s family, which includes interpersonal relationship patterns, role-related behaviour and expectations, and rules that characterize relationships within the family in which an individual is reared. Family relational patterns result from combined overt and covert expectations and attributions of family members.

Family and couple relationship interactions tend to be highly reciprocal, patterned and repetitive. Intergenerational family theory predicts that interactional patterns are reproduced from generation to generation, subsequently, it is hypothesized that levels of individuation and intimacy are reproduced in current relationships with spouses and significant others (Bowen,1978). Said simply, the family is the principle transmitter of knowledge, attitudes, role and habits which, through word and example, shape a child’s personality and instill modes of thoughts and ways of acting, especially attachment patterns, that become habitual as adults.

Everyone that grows up within a family must continually struggle with the human dilemma of how to remain close to other members of the group, and yet not sacrifice one’s own individual uniqueness. One of the key concepts of Bowen’s family theory is an understanding of the importance of “differentiation of self.” Differentiation is the process by which a person manages individually and togetherness in a relationship. Kerr & Bowen (1988) consider differentiation of the self as the ability to function as an individual while being a part of the group. Differentiation permits a person to function individually, and yet be emotionally involved with others, and to do both simultaneously at profound depth. Said another way, differentiation permits one to be secure in relationships.

Bowen (1978) developed a scale of differentiation primarily as a theoretical framework to describe the differentiation or emotional fusion / separation people achieve from their families of origin. Differentiation exists along a continuum ranging from poor differentiation to high levels of differentiation. The scale of differentiation is a continuum and arbitrary numbers of 0 – 100 are assigned to the scale. A high score represents better differentiation when a person has fully resolved emotional attachment to his/her family. This person is autonomous in the sense that he/she is able to be self-determining. The differentiated person has learned to balance the interplay between individuality and togetherness. This person has attained maturity and security of self. A lower score represents undifferentiation with her/his family.
For Bowen (1978), there are two ways to manage undifferentiation: fusion and emotional cutoff. Both are very different, indeed, opposite expressions of undifferentiation and extremes in terms of relational patterns. Fusion is defined as ways that people borrow or lend a self to another. Fused people have never resolved or untangled the original symbiotic relationship with mother and/or father and these people desperately seek togetherness by being loved, accepted or guided though life. With this definition, fusion has been more commonly referred to as enmeshment (Bograd, 1988). Emotional cutoff was added to Bowen theory at a later time and describes the way people manage their undifferentiation by immature separation or distancing from each other; “the process of separation, isolation, withdrawal, running away, or denying” (Bowen, 1976, p. 84) important relationships, especially parents. Cutoff and distance mean the same thing (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Cutoff can be enforced through physical distance and/or through various forms of withdrawal, but “the person who runs away from home is as emotionally attached as the one who stays home and uses internal mechanisms to control the attachment” (Bowen, 1978, p. 535). Emotional cutoff can be described as the flip side of fusion (Titelman, 1998). Relationship patterns vary: “at one extreme are members who are very distant from or in conflict with each other …. at the other extreme is what is called emotional fusion or stuckness” (McGoldrick & Gerson, 1985, p. 7). Therefore, healthy and dysfunctional families can be viewed as operating on a continuum of emotional fusion, differentiation or cut-off (McGoldrick & Carter, 2001).

Thus, the scale of differentiation can be reconceptualized to look a bit more like this:
Fusion Differentiation Cutoff
0 …………25……………50……………75…………….100…………….75……………50………….25…………..0
Bowen (Kerr & Bowen, 1988) divided his scale of differentiation into four ranges of functioning. Bowen has defined some characteristics of each range and he called for further research to make more precise distinctions between levels of differentiation. On the undifferentiated end (0-25) of the scale, people live in a feeling world and are unable to differentiate between thoughts and feelings. Decisions are based on what feels right and responses can range from “automatic compliance to extreme oppositional behavior” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 101). People in the upper part of this range need to maintain a sufficient system of dependent relationships to function in life. People in the 25-50 range lack beliefs and convictions of their own. They are suggestible and quick to imitate others to gain acceptance or seek out the ideal close relationship. Bowen suggested most people are might function within the 50- 75 range. These people can make choices and are secure enough to move back and forth between relationships and goal-directed activity. They are well able to balance individuation and togetherness. They have a good sense of their own authority. Bowen suggested that not too many people function in the 75-100 range and he left the 95-100 range as an ideal. People in the 75-95 range are principle-oriented and goal directed. Secure within themselves, they can listen without reacting. They can respect the identity of others and enjoy relationships. Another important Bowen concept is family projection system which defines the flow of emotional process or patterns of emotional functioning in a nuclear family. Bowen conceptualizes the human family as an ‘emotional system’ in which all have functioning positions that guide behaviour, thoughts and feelings. These relationships are mediated by emotional reactiveness (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Bowen postulates that most people react in some automatic fashion: “values, beliefs and attitudes that are often referred to as ‘knee jerk’ reactions are examples of the automatic, emotionally determined ‘thinking’ process” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 32). Anxiety, aggressiveness, withdrawal and depression are possible emotional reactions. Bowen described the process of intergenerational transmission of attachment to explain how parents impart their own anxious attachment to their children. Poorly differentiated parents will attempt to fulfill their own needs for emotional closeness / distance through the relationship with the child. The child learns to function in reaction, either through enmeshment or cutoff, to others.

Central to family of origin therapy is the achievement of personal authority in the family system (Williamson, 1991). Williamson defines personal authority in the family as a synthesizing construct connecting individuation and intimacy. Differentiation (Bowen) and individuation (Williamson) are given similar meaning in this paper. Intimacy is described as voluntary (re)connectedness. In addressing the question, “how does the adult leave the home psychologically in a very complete sense and still belong emotionally with the family of origin” (Williamson, 1991, p. 4), he explicates his conceptualization of a stage that attempts to integrate both an individual and family systems perspective. How does one take a strong “I” position (Bowen, 1978) and at the same time maintain an intimate relationship with his/her family members?
Personal authority indicates the termination of the intergenerational, hierarchical power boundary between child and parents. Personal authority assumes a clear hierarchical boundary between the dominating power relationship of the parents and their children. While children leave this hierarchical boundary physically, they must renegotiate the hierarchical boundary in order to leave home emotionally. Williamson theorizes that this renegotiation of power within the family system can be very intimidating. Some may be fearful to confront the problem, or to make changes in the relationship patterns with parents. Others may be fearful of others reactions, especially anger or distance. Ultimately, it may be that these people are fearful to stand up and be responsible for themselves.

Personal authority conceptualizes peerhood for the adult child with his/her parents. This is defined as a pattern of abilities to do the following: 1) to order and direct one’s own thoughts and opinions; 2) to choose to express or not to express one’s thoughts and opinions regardless of social pressures; 3) to make and respect one’s personal judgments to the point of regarding these judgments as justification for action; 4) to take responsibility for the totality of one’s experience in life; 5) to initiate or receive (or decline to receive) intimacy voluntarily, in conjunction with the ability to establish clear boundaries to the self at will; 6) to experience and relate to all other persons without exception, including “former parents”, as peers in the experience of being human. (Williamson, 1991)

Bowen (1978) described how a child develops from a state of physical dependence and emotional fusion with its parents, to a gradual differentiation by assuming of responsibility for his or her own thoughts and feelings. Through the passage of time, the child’s steady growth and development results in a boundary between self and parents. At this time, healthy families shift from a previously enmeshed mode of function, to an alternate mode of functioning which provides a safe place for individual differences. As the family’s life cycle advances, and the developing generation approaches puberty, competent emotional families alter their functioning in the direction of a more disengaged style of relating. During this phase of family living, children are drawn to explore the world outside the family and to make a life among their own peers.

Healthy competent families have the flexibility to make the transformations that are necessary over time. Less capable, less adept families experience changes as difficult, if not impossible, resulting in severe enmeshment or fusion or alternately, emotional disengagement or emotional cut off. Interestingly enough, though there are apparent stark differences between enmeshed and disengaged families, they both contain the element of disallowing one’s individuality, and thus insecurity to differentiate.

A family that is enmeshed could be described as a closed system, that requires each member (as a condition of membership) to suppress any feelings of negativity, any opposing viewpoints, any disagreements, among any of its members. The family is so overcorrected, and entangled that individual differences within the system cannot be tolerated. The family is to be protected at all costs against any threat to its solidified unity. Boszormenyi-Nagy (1973) has done extensive work on enmeshed families, particularly in the area of family loyalty. The normal transformation and adjustment of loyalty to outside one’s family of origin is not tolerated, and is in fact perceived as a threat to the family as a whole. The individual is stretched between a desire to be outside of his family, yet is drawn to be entirely faithful to one’s own family,
The family that is emotionally disengaged or cutoff is seen to exist at the opposite end of the continuum. This system is seen as a system that has few or no positive warm alliances between its members. Each person lives completely independently of the other, with vulnerability and weakness perceived as unacceptable and dangerous, thus resulting in an understanding that one must always keep their defensive guard up. This method of operation results in family members becoming much more comfortable with anger than normal human neediness. In a world that is seen as unpredictable, baffling and threatening, one’s natural desire to form close meaningful attachments must be dismissed, suppressed or denied.

Attachment Theory

Bowlby’s attachment theory have increased awareness of the importance of early attachment experiences on interpersonal relationships throughout life. Bowlby described the process of intergenerational transmission of attachment from parent to child. Attachment theory rests on the concept of an attachment behavioral system; “a homeostatic process that regulates infant proximity-seeking and contact-maintaining behaviors with one or a few specific individuals who provide physical or psychological safety or security” (Sperling & Berman, 1994, p.5). Attachment behavior is activity that promotes closeness to one’s attachment figure. This ‘secure base’ or at least “felt security” (Scoufe & Waters, 1977) is the primary purpose for attachment behavior (Simpson & Rholes, 1998). There are common variations, patterns or ‘working models’ in the way attachment is learned. The internal working model is a representation, based upon experiences of attachment from prior family of origin history in conjunction with current interactions between self and significant others. The child is inherently predisposed to behaviors that promote proximity to others and a reciprocal patterning of interaction is established, probably for life. A delicate balance is sought between seeking proximity to the caregiver and exploration, between connectedness and autonomy. For Bowen theory as well, the concept of differentiation is characterized by the “balance / imbalance of two life forces or instincts: the force of togetherness and the force of individuality”. (Titelman, 1998, p. 14).

Individual differences in attachment behavior are divided into two categories: secure and anxious / insecure (Bowlby, 1973). From these, four attachment patterns for children have been described: secure, avoidant, and ambivalent (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978) while preoccupied was added later (Main & Solomon, 1990). Secure children showed the most adaptive behaviors. Secure attachment not only provide comfort and protection as the needs arises, but also enable autonomy and the exploration of the environment. Secure children are confident of the availability of caregivers and confident of their own interactions in the world (Weinfield, Sroufe, Egeland, & Carlson, 1999). Interdependence, that balance of intimacy and autonomy, is one good sign of the secure bond (Johnson & Greenberg, 1992).

The patterns of insecure attachment might best be viewed as strategies for coping with a difficult interpersonal world learned over the years from infancy to adolescence to adulthood. Avoidant children are characterized by the belief that when one needs care one will not be responded to helpfully. Avoidant children showed avoidance of proximity during reunion, often turning away or ignoring the parent. These children are less likely to show affective sharing, and more likely to appear distressed (Ainsworth & Wittig, 1969). These children make little effort to maintain contact with the caregiver. Ambivalent children sought contact but often in an resistant or angry fashion. These children very much want contact or proximity, but do not seem to be calmed or secure in that connection. These children tend to be more passive and they tend to be clinging and uncomfortable exploring the world. A disorganized pattern was recognized as a distinct pattern later (Main & Solomon, 1990). Disorganized children were not consistent in any attachment strategy.

To illustrate attachment patterns, Bowlby borrowed a schema from the biologist Waddington’s theory of epigentic developmental pathways (Simpson & Rholes, 1998). This schema pictures a wide range of normal development in the center of the pathways, and abnormal development on both extremes (see Figure 1). In Bowlby’s theory of development, there is no single route to normality or secure enough attachment pattern. Development is not blocked by particular experiences of deficits but rather re-routed or constrained into increasingly particular pathways over the wide range of normal to abnormal development (Caperton-Brown, 1992). Even the ‘normal’ or secure range is made up of numerous pathways, or branches, or clusters. The road to security is not a primrose path, but a process which involves risks, choices and anxieties. Thus, “early childhood experiences provide a kind of relational chart for managing current relationships”. This schema conceives a continuous measure, moving away from set categorical traits. In addition, this schema leaves space for changes and healing as one experiences new attachment figures in adolescence and adulthood. Falling in love or the birth of a child can necessitate conscious re-evaluations of relationship patterns. Therapy, especially a reexamination of one’s family of origin attachment patterns, can also fashion changes in present attachment patterns.

Attachment Theory and Family of Origin Theory: A synthesis

Using this multi-pathway schema, a full range of possible attachment patterns, based upon both attachment theory and family of origin theory, can be illustrated (Figure 1). The Bowen scale of differentiation is included to allow graphic, abeit more theoretical, assessments to be made that may help clients find a possible place to position themselves. Williamson’s concept of personal authority is also appended. Within this range of possible attachment patterns, and since no one scores a perfect secure / differentiated 100, there can be a variety of relational expressions that probably tips each individual’s attachment pattern either towards secure or insecure, towards individuation or intimacy.
Pathways taken in life are dependent upon many past experiences, but especially family of origin legacy. Some childhood experiences may have caused a person to incline or move further into the direction of enmeshed / ambivalent. Other experiences within the family of origin may have had the effect of swaying a person into the direction of the insecure separation of cutoff / avoidant. A detailed family of origin history, based upon instruments like the genogram would expose childhood attachment patterns and enable the client to become more aware of antecedents of present relationship problems, thus gaining a more complete picture of present attachment patterns.

Williamson’s working model of personal authority also fits this schema. The central, normal development range would be that secure / personal authority relationship pattern consisting of an appropriate balance between individuation and intimacy. On the one hand, there is a need for intimacy, closeness, affiliation and love AND, on the other hand, there is a want for autonomy, freedom and individuation. These apparently opposite needs are part of life and may change in their intensity depending upon the stage of life and experiences on the way.
Therapy is also delineated on this schema. The person whose attachment pattern leans on the enmeshed / ambivalent side of this attachment schema would be seen as being fearful of further individuation and therefore, more autonomous steps would be the direction of therapy. On the other hand, the person who prefers the cutoff / avoidant side of this attachment schema would be seen as being fearful of intimacy and steps towards a deeper connectedness would be called for in therapy. Implications for therapy are elaborated later in this paper.

Attachment and Couple Relationships

Bowlby’s attachment theory provides the theoretical model to account for adult love relationships which concentrates on such issues as emotional bonds, as well as adaptive needs for protection, security and connectedness with significant others (Johnson, 1996; Dankoski, 2001). Recent literature has begun to examine the relationship between attachment patterns learned in childhood and adult attachment patterns in couple relationships. Important differences exist between parent-child and couple attachments, such as the more reciprocal nature of the couple and the role of sexuality (Weiss, 1982). However, the work of adult attachment by Hazen and Shaver (1987) and Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) have drawn parallels with the work of Bowlby.

Hazen and Shaver (1987) used Ainsworth et al’s (1978) attachment patterns as descriptors for adults. They contend that romantic love can be viewed as an attachment process and that the three major attachment styles of childhood are manifest in romantic love. Adults who identified themselves as secure could get closer to others and be more comfortable being dependent upon others. They had little worry about abandonment. Adults who saw themselves as avoidant acknowledged their uncomfortableness with closeness and difficulty in trusting others. These adults got nervous when love came too close. Adults with an ambivalent pattern worried that their partner did not really love them and thus wanted to get very close and hold onto their partners.

Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) followed a similar pattern but broke the avoidant pattern into two subgroups, ‘fearful’ and ‘dismissing’. The fearful group wanted close relationships but found it difficult to trust and were afraid of rejection. The dismissive group did not want close relationships and wanted more of an independent, lone-ranger stance. Both ‘fearful’ and ‘dismissive’ demonstrate similar avoidant of intimacy behaviors. Although Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) and Hazen and Shaver (1987) do not match up entirely, there is rough correspondence between them. The ‘fearful’ group shows similarities to the ‘disorganized’ group (Howe, Brandon, Hinings & Schofield, 1999),
Attachment theory is seen to be intergenerational especially in regard to assessing and predicting adult attachment patterns based upon what these people experienced as children.

Bowlby stated that “because … children tend unwittingly to identify with parents and therefore adopt, when they become parents, the same patterns of behavior that they themselves have experienced during their childhood, patterns of interaction are transmitted more or less faithfully from one generation to the next” (1969, p. 323).

Past attachment behaviors can be transferred to present relationships. Turned around, present relationships patterns can be better understood by uncovering traces of experiences of childhood and characteristics of past attachment figures, especially parents; observing, researching (Bowen, 1978) and realizing ‘unfinished business’ of childhood which still organize present processes (Simpson & Rholes, 1998). Clients’ current and past family climate can be quite predictive of present attachment styles (Diehl, Elnick, Bourbeau & LaLouvie-Vief, 1998).

The Genogram

The genogram, or family tree, is a “clinical method of taking, storing and processing” (Tomson, 1985, p. 34) relationship information. Whereas the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) (George, Kaplan & Main, 1996) and the Family Background Questionnaire (Melchert & Sayger, 1998) are highly complex and time consuming assessment tools, the genogram is a relatively simple, non-intrusive, easily up-dated tool which provides a quick reference for complex patterns of relationships and the genogram can be used as a source of assessment and hypothesis for therapy. Like the AAI, the genogram can help reveal memories of childhood relationships with parents, together with current partner attachment patterns to delineate recurring relationship patterns and allows the clinician to assess the connectedness of the immediate players, thus providing an excellent panorama of attachment patterns and the balance of individuation and connectedness in relationships. The genogram is both a therapeutic intervention and part of the process of counselling (McGoldrick & Gerson, 1985).
Relationships patterns, whether enmeshed or cutoff, or the attachment possibilities in-between, can be well delineated on the genogram and brought into therapy as a process of discovery about self and others. In Couple therapy, patterns of adult attachment can be established for each partner, understanding of differences amplified and directions for therapy set. Repetitive patterns of functioning suggest the possibility of these attachment patterns continuing in the present and into the future (McGoldrick & Gerson, 1985).

Attachment patterns can be uncovered by a simple lines of questioning in the process of genogram construction. Two lines of questions, similar in content to parts of the Adult Attachment Interview, are developed here: 1) felt memory-words for significant others, especially parents and partners and 2) relationship space / place within the family context.

As the genogram is being constructed on both partners in couple therapy, one question to ask each partner is to enumerate 3-5 “nice” words that come to mind when they, especially as a child between the ages of 5-10, remember their father / mother. In a similar fashion, they are asked to identify 3-5 “not-so-nice” words for mom and dad. A similar exercise can be done for siblings. An exploration of sibling experiences can enhance self – understanding and enable conflicting partners to begin to practice a new attachment pattern with siblings he /she has lived with for many years (Mones, 2001). A careful listen to both the content and process of these descriptor words can reveal attachment patterns.
Content found in the descriptor words for a secure / differentiated attachment pattern include: consistently responsive (Holmes, 1997); words easily found; sense of personal identity; positive view of self and others (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991); “easy to get close to others” (Hazen & Shaver, 1990); balanced autonomy and connectedness (Bowen, 1978: McGoldrick & Carter, 2001).

Content found in the descriptor words for an enmeshed / ambivalent attachment pattern include: inconsistently responsive (Holmes, 1997); negative view of self, positive view of others (Bartholomew &Horowitz, 1991); parents lacking in love but not rejecting; parents unreliable; a fight for parental attention; confused discussion of relationships; passive and/or angry speech; dependency; “we-ness” (Bowen, 1978); compulsive care giving (West & Sheldon-Keller, 1994); “others are reluctant to get as close as I would like” (Hazen & Shaver, 1990).
Content found in the descriptor words for a cutoff / avoidant attachment pattern include: consistently unresponsive (Holmes, 1997); positive view of self, negative view of others (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991); compulsive self-sufficiency (West & Sheldon-Keller, 1994); parents were rejecting, distant, withdrawn away a lot; false claim to normality; independent, invulnerable and deny need for relationships; “emotional distancing” (Bowen, 1978); detached from feelings; consequences of negative behavior go unchecked; “uncomfortable being too close to others” (Hazen & Shaver, 1990).

The case study will further amplify this assessment.

The process / feelings attached to the words and finding words is also revealing. Some people are hesitant to say anything nice or not-so-nice. Others can’t find the words. For some, speaking the words can bring forth feelings of pride and love; for others feelings of pain or tears. All these can reveal attachment patterns ranging from enmeshed to secure to cutoff. The enclosed schema can be shown to clients to help them locate themselves, but some caution and professional judgement is needed here for many people may be uncomfortable in talking about parents, feeling like they may be blaming parents, or fearful to identify him/herself before a partner with whom there is still present conflict. On the other hand, partners can be very helpful to observing the other’s attachment patterns within family of origin as the partner often has a more objective view.

A second line of questions tries to uncover space / place within the family system. Where did this client fit in the affections of father / mother? Who was mom’s / dad’s favorite child when the client was 5-10 years old? With whom was the client most close? Mom? Dad? Sibling? Other? How would the client describe their relationship pattern with dad? Mom? Sibling? Answers will reveal an attachment pattern.

Case Study

Mary and Joe came into therapy to deal with couple distance and continuous conflict, including verbal abuse and some physical violence to each other (see Figure 2). Mary and Joe have known each other for 11 years, lived together for five years, and married two years ago. They have no children. Presenting issues include: family of origin interference; arguing over affection and sex; quarrelling about how much money can be spent on family members for birthdays. Mary is the more verbal of the couple and relates how Joe’s mother controls him. Joe phones home almost every day, and especially after a fight, to talk and seek guidance from his mom. There is strong antagonism between Mary and Joe’s parents and Mary will no longer visit Joe’s family. Joe complains that Mary is mean spirited, argumentative and distant. His requests for affection are spurned.

Mary is the middle of three children, but functions as the family leader and negotiator since her older brother is “out of it”, dysfunctioning on drugs and jail time. Mary has been in open conflict with dad since her teenage years and has “put him in his place”. On the other hand, Mary also has little time for mom, whom she sees as weak and passive. Joe suggests that on the outside, Mary is independent and capable, and on the inside, Mary is depressed, closed and cold.

Joe is the younger of two. His older sister moved away from home for university and “never comes home” very much. There is much conflict between the two siblings. Joe describes his father as his best friend and “my strength”. His dad also is narrow and can be harsh with his words. Joe describes his mother as kind, but one who is never wrong. He feels her control, but renames it concern for him. Joe relates how mom can also give the “cold shoulder” when Joe does not do all that is asked of him.

From this genogram, Mary is quite cutoff from her own family and is seen to have a dismissive demeanor with Joe and his family. Conflict with dad in her early years set her up as the family “heavy” who had to defend mom and other siblings. Family members still turn to her for intervention and Mary still tends to tell them what to do. Although Mary preaches a gospel of independence, especially for Joe, she presents as insecure in herself, depressed and alone. Mary has fought so many battles, especially for others, that she has not had time to know herself. Therapy has focussed on her understanding of these family dynamics and her permission to work on her own self-care and happiness. Mary could see her own dismissive / cutoff position and earnestly desired to reconnect “on her own terms” with others. In therapy, Mary began moving closer to Joe and her family members, clearly stating what she will allow and for what she will no longer accept responsibility. This more mature sense of connection and intimacy also enabled Mary to feel better about herself.

Joe presents a picture of a strongly enmeshed person who is unable to take much of an independent stance, especially by saying “no” to parents. Joe is preoccupied with what others, especially mom, may think / feel and he has a strong need for the approval and affection of significant others. In therapy, Joe was ambivalent about early suggestions that he phone home less frequently and thus take a more distant, independent stance vis-a-vis his mother. Even when Joe began to take some distance, his comments exhibited much fear about the reactions of others.

Implications for Therapy

The task for each partner is two fold: 1) to become aware of and own their level of differentiation, including their attachment pattern as it operates in relationship, and 2) to gently restructure their interactional pattern towards a more secure, differentiated position (Bowen, 1978: McGoldrick & Carter, 2001).

The schema for attachment patterns presented in this paper have positive implications for therapy. Using the genogram allows for a quick assessment of relationship patterns for use in therapy and this can be scored / marked and illustrated on the scale of differentiation. Although meant more as a global assessment of attachment, best obtained through a mutual dialogue between client and therapist, clients can visualize their own score on the scale of differentiation as well as the score of their partner. Bowen strongly suggest that clients need to, first of all, understand their own family of origin dynamics and become objective observers and researchers of their progress towards differentiation. This objective assessment of the Genogram and the scores on the scale of differentiation can assist each partner to know themself more deeply, including how their insecurity or undifferentiation was born in the family of origin and how it might function and impact in the couple relationship today, and which direction therapy needs to go.

Family of origin therapy is not to relive an old memory or to blame parents for all that may have gone wrong in life. Rather, a review of family of origin relationship patterns, from the ‘there and then’ can provide a “working model” or blueprint of present functioning and thus helps obtain a better grasp of the ‘here and now’. Unfinished business of the past is probably one therapeutic issue of today. The old family of origin map / attachment patterns that have been followed most of life needs adjustment and updating to better fit present adult life relationships. Knowing where one came from, in terms of attachment patterns, enables one to seek paths and pathways towards the middle ground of more secure / differentiated relationships.

At the same time, it also allows people to see their partner more objectively and begin to appreciate the other’s attachment pattern, learning to see their partner’s insecurity and undifferentiation to be similar to their own, as part of human frailty, rather then some supposed deliberate meanness. Understanding can be pictured more concretely.

This schema is also useful in planning therapy. Scores on the scale of differentiation can point the direction for therapy, especially when viewed in the light of the personal authority theory of Williamson. For Williamson, personal authority endeavours to bring balance to the two seemingly opposite forces of togetherness and separateness. Each person needs intimacy, connectedness, love, security AND, at the same time, individuation, independence, autonomy. The balancing of these in some middle fashion has been called the secure enough place of personal authority. Partners who score lower on the side of enmeshment will need to move in the direction of individuation, learning to make decision of their own, speaking their own mind and feelings and connecting with others as choice. Partners who score lower on the cutoff side will need to learn to find ways to connect and become more intimate with others, partner, family members and significant friends.


When it comes to loving and being loved, we often tend to react in patterns reflective of the past, specifically attachment patterns absorbed in the family of origin. These attachment patterns have become interwoven into ways of thinking and being, thus providing an internal diagram or working model for being in a close relationship. Parents whose love over time integrates the child’s inner experiences in ways that make it possible for the child to understand, nurture and care for themselves, and through this, create a space for their private personal growth, encourages the child to move towards his or her “differentiation of self” or more secure attachment pattern. In contrast, in a poorly differentiated family, the child tends to function in reaction to others. Attachment patterns that have been absorbed from family of origin can become interwoven into our present day relationships. Become aware of attachment patterns helps partners handle their own emotional reactivity, become better observers of relationships dynamics and bring thoughtfulness to bear in seeking new pathways towards a secure / differentiated position.


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