Interview with Bennet Tittler

From his evaluation of triangles as representations of anxiety in healthy communication to his work on how families transmit and project anxiety onto its members, Murray Bowen’s observations and research form the foundation for our perspective as systemic therapists. Bowenian therapy has a strong history in New England; I had the chance to interview Bennett Tittler, a board member for the New England Seminar on Bowen Theory, to discuss more about how Bowen’s theories are being actively taught and explored in 2020.

Jeremiah Gibson: Bennett, your organization, the New England Seminar on Bowen Theory, is hosting Bowen Theory, Family Psychotherapy, and Change on Friday, March 27 at Clark University in Worcester. Dan Papero is the presenter. Folks can attend for $115 if they sign up before March 16. For those who have limited/no information about Murray Bowen, what introductory information about Bowen theory might be useful for folks who want to come to this conference?

Bennet Tittler: Murray Bowen was one of the original innovators of family therapy in the 1950's. One of his early experiments was to hospitalize entire families. He emphasized the development of theory as a guide to treatment. Three key concepts (and variables) in his theory were differentiation of self, triangling in relationship, and the problem of multi-generational cut-offs. For more information about Bowen’s concepts, check out the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, a research center at Georgetown.

JG: What are three takeaways that you hope attendees at the March 27 conference receive? 

BT: I really hope that participants receive an appreciation for the development and application of theory. I also hope that Bowen’s theory can shift the ways that we think during our mental health work, specifically the capacity to distinguish thinking from emotion and feeling. Most importantly, I hope attendees learn to think in terms of systems rather than linear cause-and-effect thinking and not view the individual as separate from the environment. 

JG: The field of therapy is at quite the crossroads, as insurance companies, agencies, and other players in the managed care system highlight measureable outcomes, often leading to first-order (behavioral) change that doesn't address the system. How does this conference provide a different perspective on what change could look like?

BT: The Bowen approach emphasizes working within relationship systems, so that change is apt to be systemic in addition to facilitating symptom relief and behavior change. This work requires a broader frame of reference than is possible with a purely behavioral outlook. Early research suggested that systemic change was more enduring and far-reaching. 

JG: Bowen spoke a lot about the importance of the self of the therapist. What are two or three things that you hope each attendee might learn about themselves at this conference?

BT: An implicit goal in Bowen therapy is to capitalize on and promote an increase in differentiation of self. In an almost paradoxical way, progress occurs when one becomes more of an individual by taking into consideration how much we are affected by and interdependent with others. An early step in self-awareness concerns recognizing ones own confusions and blind spots. In his presentations, Dan Papero will sometimes use himself to illustrate the process of self discovery and self definition.

JG: What are ways that Bowen theory can inform other larger cultural conversations (i.e. race relations, sexual orientation, climate change)?

BT: Bowen extended his theory by pointing out that systems concepts apply not just to individuals and families but also to entire societies. This concept is called societal process. It posits that anxiety in society fluctuates over time and that there is more strife and muddled thinking in times of higher anxiety. As anxiety subsides, society functions and incorporates change in a calmer and more thoughtful manner. 

JG: Thank you Bennett for taking time to chat about this exciting conference. 

NEAFAST: Mark your calendars for Friday March 27 for Bowen Theory, Family Psychotherapy, and Change at Clark University in Worcester.


Bennett Tittler is a clinical psychologist who trained with Murray Bowen from 1976 to 1980 and has taught and researched as well as practiced family systems since then.

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