A Bowen family systems coach in Collaborative Divorce Practice


This article highlights the approach of Woody Mosten in Collaborative Law interdisciplinary Training re emotional outbursts. He demonstrates client self-soothing. And he reframes the highly laden emotional issue into an agenda item thereby pointing to next possible steps. The coach works with the wife. The official Divorce Coach works with the husband. The plan rekindles hope: moving the reorganizing family from a shame-based to a pride-based family system. The writer praises the Collaborative Law mode for solving a Public Health issue: healing the trauma for the many children facing divorce.

In a recent interdisciplinary training in Boston, Woody Mosten aptly prefaced one role play of a Collaborative Divorce intervention with a shout out to Bowen family systems. Mosten demonstrated his role playing with the wife after a Collaborative session where a particular exchange takes place. Here are the high lights of that exchange:

Last week, says wife, you were late (disrespectful) to pick up Joey and Janine and you did not pick up your cell phone again. So I blew up in the message I left to you. I am now embarrassed that you put my message on youtube.com. She then makes threats about keeping him from the children and about spending money on the house. Husband then calls her “Miss High and Mighty” and  notes she would not listen to the fact that the schedule was not working for him. He tells her that her friends and family should  know who she really is by hearing her nasty message to him.

Bowen concepts address the way tensions are worked out indirectly through chronic conflict, under and over responsibility and the triangle-ing in by the dyad of the children. Accountability of the responsible individual alone is lost or abrogated. The audience was at the edge of their seats wondering how Mosten would disrupt the negative sequence of clients’ communication. Some of us wondered about the effect of the parents’ immature action on their children. One might assume that one or the other, or both of them would be absorbing the parental tension. Bowen emphasized the importance of finding one’s own accountable Self in one’s family of origin in order to then be able to help others strengthen their sense of self.

Here is a brief synopsis of one Bowen concept of Differentiation of Self. Bowen, who, eschewed Diagnosis, preferred to see individuals as human beings with differing (but unmeasureable on any literal scale) amounts of higher Self and pseudo self. The Pseudo, outer self interacts with others in the world on the basis of charged emotional reactivity, whereas the Basic Self responds from one’s principles in a manner well thought out and cognizant of one’s impact upon others. We all emerge from our family of origin during that developmental stage approaching post adolescence as we partner with a potential spouse — to create a new, separate family branch – containing a comparable level of differentiatiated Basic Self in proportion to Pseudo self. The Pseudo self is usually much larger. One might strive over many years to get to know oneself better in order to slightly further enlarge her Basic Self.

The term differentiation is meant to elicit the biological reality of starting as undifferentiated cellular material and evolving towards more and more defined parts making up our body. Dan Siegel has helped us understand the difference between responding responsibly and with self awareness from one’s Basic Self by referring to the more reasoned experience produced by (inputed through and outputted by) the prefrontal cortex. Bowen refers to the undifferentiated Reptilian brain or as Siegel might posit: the amygdala and connected brain stem. The amygdala is the seat of fight, flight or freeze. The more differentiated (or mature or poised or unflappable) we are as facilitators, the more likely are we to be able to engage the “higher road,” differentiated inner, true Basic Self of our client.

Alas, we all face, when in the trenches, the emotionality within ourselves and inside our screaming clients and we need the ability and experience to either not react intensely in the first place, or be able to quickly talk ourselves down the moment we have reacted. That means, for example, we might want to forgo diagnosing our clients and pointing more fingers of blame as we might be tempted to forget the mutuality of our couples’s dancing and want to claim that “she” is more borderline than he and therefore less reasonable! We think so in the heat of the moment and that non systemic manner of thinking sticks both in our craw and mind for weeks. Busting through our own fight-flight-freeze process is so much easier when we maximize the dialog amongst our Collaborative team, even as our clients inadvertently do everything to help us forget that we even have a functional collaborator as we get pushed into the alligator swamp and find ourselves up to our butts.

How do we stay focused on the original goal — to drain the swamp?

If we are ever going to be able to hold our self accountable to our highest principles as human beings we need to literally practice equanimity in the face of disaster, particularly in the moment that we over catastrophise the apparent data (e g. challenges or insults) of our closest intimate enemies, friends and leaders. We need to think and observe as we respond, and, of course, take heed of rather than ignore or exaggerate what our thinking brain is observing. We need to temper our intensity and remember that a feeling can be expressed quietly without Hollywood drama. We need to see the bridge that could be climbed with our 5 month old baby in our arms, as did the lady in Japan hearing about the approaching wave of the recent Tsunami.

The amygdala is probably overactive for years in the shame-based (now divorcing) family dealing with chronic conflict. The pre-frontal cortex takes a few more seconds to perceive our environment and our presumed and co-created reality. In order to be the artist who helps our clients to create a safe and healing reality from moment to moment, we must practice and teach patience. We work hard now in order to do better later.

Bowen notes that individuals at certain levels of differentiation choose birds of a similar flock when they fall in love. They bring to each other the unfinished emotional business of their own families along with their family’s best practices. That means they meet each other at a certain level of anxiety that Bowen refers to as Chronic. Keeping that history in mind is very useful in understanding any interruption in the natural life cycle where acute anxiety threatens to flood us and create an overwhelming overlay of immediate pain on top of one’s well practiced habits, reflective of that Chronic Anxiety. This may be seen during the crisis of divorce and other losses leading to potential breakdown. The less practice we have had over our own living years and over the generations (our models and our source of trickled down unresolved angst and conflict) in dealing with stress at the intersection of Chronic and Acute anxiety, the more explosive our actions may become.

Witness the Jared Loughner shooting of the Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, from Arizona or the Alec Baldwin’s Internet splattered telephonic message outburst at his daughter in the midst of angst with his ex wife. Witness the halls of any prison filled with those who unleashed their shame and humiliation on others who dared to either “dis” them directly or provide them an unwitting stand-in target for those Dis-ers in the criminal’s own family. I am not suggesting that we hold the Loughner or Baldwin families responsible for the actions of those they sired, but that that each actor needs to understand his choices in a wider family context. Familiar methods of denying and projecting conflicts onto others and then cutting off from them lead to replications of unstable emotional triangles and repetitive conflict creation rather than solution. Nuclear family triangles interlock with intergenerational family triangles and again into wider societal triangles as well.

In the training, we see Woody directing the client in pain by addressing her thinking brain in the moment after her outburst. This dyadic interaction or caucus is not about negotiating positions but focuses instead on a return to rationality. I saw that Woody was thinking Bowen systems in his artistic intervention. It is about developing equanimity and appealing to rationality rather than emotionality in helping the client regaining a sense of functional self that can deal from principle rather than from overwhelming rage and shame. Mosten models both a peacemaking attitude while providing examples of peace making language for his client. Without such coaching, the system will always put pressure on the individual to return to her previous role in the dance. A crucial piece involves his identifying with her shame and anger at her husband and at herself for “losing it” and being unfair. First he helped her by focusing on how the husband should be held accountable in doing a number of things, including arranging for the You Tube piece to be taken off the Internet. Then he appealed to her principled self in helping her plan a direct apology to him for having blown up at him. Appealing to her via her pre-frontal thinking cortex, he nudged her to a self reflective pose and to a courageous plan that would ultimately result in her soothing herself even while in the presence of her husband later.

From the Bowen perspective one thus educates the client in how to better manage the long standing emotionally rigidified triangle – in this case with her husband and other key family players. Yes, they have chosen to distance via divorce, but we can still help them from further extremity, namely creating long term cut off which would freeze the emotional development of their children even further.

Bowen taught that the smallest stable unit was the Triangle rather than the Individual in the system.
A system is a conglomerate of interlocking triangles that contain chronic and acute anxieties which are often tossed about like a hot potato among nuclear family members. In mediating a divorce situation, with a coach and two attorneys, there are a number of interlocking triangles to be managed. And these triangles in turn are interlocking with those of the nuclear and original prior generational families of the participants. Tension is transmitted down the generations and the nuclear divorcing family projects its tensions onto the children, who like the parents may end up with physical or emotional problems as a result of stress. Any in the family could express the tension in the form of extreme conflict or of excessive dependency manifest via extreme closeness or distance. The extreme form of distance is Cut-Off (of one or more members) which could lead to inability of the divorcing family to continue to develop well in its re-organized form. Cutoffs also occur across generations leaving the newest nuclear family with more pressure towards intense closeness, often manifested by the marital couple in a fused under- and over- responsible reciprocity.

In my mind, he also demonstrated tools that could have been culled from Glaser’s Reality Therapy, Gestalt Therapy and other approaches simply dedicated to forgiveness, as in the work of Fred Luskin. Glaser believed that at the heart of the change process one provides a significant neutral, empathic other to the client and then creates a call to action. He always ended a session with a clarification of the client’s plan. Gestalt Therapy addresses healing by dealing actively with unfinished business using creative techniques such as the Mosten role play, where the therapist offers one’s ideal alter ego commentary – a healing commentary that can be accepted or modified by the otherwise stuck client. According to Gestalt Therapy theory, one needs to be able to balance between contact with others and withdrawal into one self. In this regard one might highlight the need for a client to develop a rhythm, working with one’s attorney or coach both individually and together with one’s significant other. When one is allowed to withdraw from the spouse, what better use of that time than to think about recovery of both self and the relationship connection than by figuring out how to forgive and become open to being forgiven.

I, too, believe in the importance of demonstrating such a multi-theoretical approach buoyed by a large tool box of technique to educate and direct our clients. We need to engineer the right environment for containing excess emotionality and actualizing healing capacity in both the individual and nuclear family’s physiological system. I learned that the Mindsight Institute of Dan Siegel, a proponent of neuroplasticity and of understanding the biological roots of empathy, is located a block away from Woody’s abode. Either by osmosis, observation or dialog, Dan’s thinking has gratefully infiltrated Woody’s.

We see Woody utilizing a number of therapeutic approaches typical of practitioners who are active coaches. It is facilitative coaching of self-reflection, not traditional therapy which focuses on recovering and amplifying emotions and counter transference reactions to be analyzed over time. He is using the Bowen approach to recovery from a natural tendency to regress in response to an emotional outburst of one’s own — in lock step with the rage of one’s partner. He is appealing to one’s pre-frontal cortex so as to draw out one’s integrity and higher principles, such as forgiveness and accountability, in the midst of pain caused by an eruption from the Reptilian brain. He is engineering and structuring the environment to allow for the dyad to consider a dialog that might reduce rather than further increase anxiety. He is inviting one out of their Rabbit Hole. It is facilitation of both relationship process and of the individual’s crawl up to her higher Self. He functions at times as a neutral member in an emotional triangle rather than be pulled into replicating the rigid, private coalitions — as in the unstable triangles of dysfunctional shame-based families where one reflexively engages anyone in the world against one’s partner in the service of temporary tension reduction without concern for long term resolution.

From a Public Health perspective, Bill Beardslee has spent decades researching how to support children of depressed parents. He notes that 20 per cent of the population experiences a major depressive episode in their lifetime. Traumatized parents, wading through divorce, are also providing great risk for their children, especially when the chronic marital conflict that has been robbing them of psychic energy is carried forward in the post divorce scene with no attempt by litigating attorneys to focus on a healing emotional process. Following are Beardslee’s Core Principles of Intervention to support children and promote resiliency in families facing the trauma of a depressed parent:

• Constructing a coherent narrative with the past or present and a focus on the future that involves hopes and dreams for the family and for the children
• Emphasizing strength and resilience
• Breaking the silence
• Self reflection and shared reflection

Anyone present at the Mosten Training in March would see that these same core principles are at work in Collaborative Practice. Thankfully we now have sophisticated family law attorneys working in tandem with psychologists and other trained coaches to apply these principles to parents facing another Public Health issue: the trauma of divorce.

Beardslee, Bill (2011) Lessons Learned in the Development and Implementation of Strategies to Strengthen Families Facing Adversities, Especially Parental Depression Boston: Power Point presentation to Longwood Grand Rounds.

Fagan, J and Shepherd, I. (1970) Gestalt Therapy Now: Theory, Techniques, Applications. Maine: The Gestalt Journal Press.

Gilbert, Roberta (2006).The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory. Falls Church and Basye, Virginia: Leading Systems Press.

Glasser, Robert (1975). Reality Therapy: A New Approach to Psychiatry. Ithaca, New York: Colophon Books.

Luskin, Frederic (2007). Forgive for Love: The Missing Ingredient for a Healthy and Lasting Relationship. New York: HarperOne.

Siegel, Daniel (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York: Bantam Books.

Mosten, Forrest S. (2009) Collaborative Divorce Handbook: Helping Families Without Going to Court. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mosten Forrest S. and Lund, Mary (2008) Effective Caucus Strategies: Building on the Work of Dr. Murray Bowen (PowerPoint Presentation), Southern California Mediation Association Annual Conference.

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