Nuclear Family Emotional Process, Projection Process and Multigenerational Transmission Process

This week’s blog is a guest post by Ronald B Cohen, MD, a Psychiatrist and Marriage and Family Therapist from Great Neck, NY.

“The problem a patient or couple or family walks in with is less important than the relationship obstacles that keep them from working to resolve it”. — Guerin & Fogarty

What is it about family gatherings, holidays and life cycle celebrations that often bring out the worst in their participants? Where do the unspoken rules of family togetherness behavior that we reflexively adhere to, or reactively reject without due consideration of what conscious responses would be in our own best interest, come from? How do they thwart “growing in the ability to be fully responsible for my own life while being committed to growing closer to those I love”?

To begin to answer these questions, we turn to three more of Murray Bowen’s eight interlocking concepts, Nuclear Family Emotional Process, Family Projection Process and Multigenerational Transmission Process. The former addresses systemic patterns of response to marital “we-ness,” while the latter traces this process vertically through the generations. Family Projection Process connects the two as it is the only one of the four nuclear family patterns that crosses generational boundaries, and is the foundation upon which the Multigenerational Transmission Process develops historically from generation to generation.

Nuclear Family Emotional Process develops family distress in one or more of the following four patterns:

    1. Emotional Distance
    2. Marital Conflict
    3. Problems in a partner’s functioning
    4. Transmission of the problem to a child

Family Projection Process describes the mechanism whereby parental anxiety is transmitted to children. Initially children are passive recipients. As they grow older, they quickly become participants.

The Multigenerational Transmission Process describes how the Family Projection Process operates from generation to generation. “Any set of parents, however, is merely the current embodiment of forces or processes that have been active for many generations before them” (Papero 1990). Over time and through multiple generations, small differences may progress to significant divergence in functioning and solid self amongst descendent lines.

Awareness of these natural processes helps calm anxiety and improve self-focus which in turn leads to decreased emotional reactivity and more productive decision making, thereby increasing the probability of higher social, emotional and physical functioning.

Attention to one’s own level of self-differentiation helps us modify and change our behavior at times of family life cycle transitions and unexpected crises. The task is about resolution of unique one-to-one relationships with each and every family member. This in turn leads to larger system-wide changes in family functioning.

Maintaining both autonomy and emotional connectivity is the both/and (Yin/Yang) goal. Whether you are fused and enmeshed, or conflicted, distant, cut-off and non-communicative, you remained undifferentiated and out of control. If your behavior is reactive, whether positively or negatively, you are not self-directed.

When seemingly inescapably caught in reciprocal family processes remember, “What you resist, persists.”

Rather recognition, acceptance and attention to improving functional levels are life sustaining and enhancing.

When all else fails, consultation with a well-trained Bowen Family Systems Theory coach or therapist can help keep the process moving forward in a positive direction.

Best of luck on your unfolding journey of a lifetime.


This post was written by Ronald B Cohen, MD, a Psychiatrist and Marriage and Family Therapist from Great Neck, NY. Dr. Cohen is a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association and an Affiliate Member of the American Academy of Marital and Family Therapy. As a consultant specialist, Dr. Cohen provides clinical supervision, and confers with individual therapists and other health care professionals and organizations to help them consider how adding family therapy sessions to the treatment program is both restorative and proactive as improvement is long lasting.

Dr. Ronald B. Cohen graduated summa cum laude, from Brandeis University and The Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In addition to his psychiatric residency training, Dr. Cohen was educated at the Psychiatric Epidemiology Program of the Columbia University Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health. Subsequently Dr. Cohen completed the four-year core postgraduate training program in Family Systems Theory and Therapy at The Family Institute of Westchester

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