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44 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on May 18, 1999
Format: Paperback
This book presents in easily understandable form the Bowen family system theory approach to human interaction. This is a "systems" approach to better relationships in which eight carefully researched principles show how groups of individuals, such as a nuclear family, interact and what governs those interactions. Rather than present a few "how to" examples, the author presents the theory and uses examples in the process of explaining the theory. The idea is to teach the principles. By understanding these principles and how individuals interact as a system, people can improve their own lives and better understand how to resolve or avoid problems in families and groups of people by understanding and treating the underlying causes rather than the superficial symptoms. The book is very well written by the author who is a practicing psychiatrist and specialist in family therapy and, in particular, in Bowen family system theory. Highly recommended for parents, leaders in organizations, and those in the helping professions.
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43 of 45 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 1999
Format: Paperback
This book was a revelation. Finally an approach which doesn't place blame and encourages individuals to take responsibility for themselves without blaming others. Relationships can only get better if you become your own, whole person first. This theory applies not only to the relationships in ones own family but for all interpersonal relationships. This theory is obviously not well accepted within the psychology/psychiatry community. I wish my therapist had discussed this process.
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2008
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This book gives an explanation of Bowen's family system theory. The first half of the book is heavy on the theory, and then the second half gets into a little bit of how to use it in real life. It doesn't read like a self-help book, and Gilbert gets props for not using words like "codependence" and other jingoistic psychobabbly words. She's completely blunt and realistic, and it's all well-written.

The basic theory is this: in order to have good relationships, you have to be a well-differentiated, individual self. This means that you have solid boundaries, and you can relate to other people without "lending and borrowing" the self, as Gilbert says. Or in my view, you can be friends with people without trying to become them or making them become you. Ironically, in order to work on being a differentiated self you have to do the work through your relationships. None of us are perfectly differentiated, so we can all improve our basic selves and our relationships. The less differentiated we are, the more anxiety in our relationships (because we get all tense about them), and the more they take on the following five postures, which can relieve anxiety in the short term but only mess things up more over time: conflict, distancing, triangling, under/over-functioning, and cut-off.

Probably the most important aspect of this theory is that undifferentiation and relationship postures are carried on from generation to generation. So it's not really your parents fault, but yes you learned it all from them, and they learned it from their parents, etc etc. Also your own level of differentiation and the postures you adopt in relationships are based on how you interacted with your entire family of origin, not just your parents. Gilbert stresses that in order to move up the scale of differentiation and have better relationships, we have to go back to our original families and work on our relationships there. This doesn't involve changing anyone else or acting like a therapist- all it involves is changing ourselves, and the way we relate to everyone else.

There is a lot more, I'm only scratching the surface here.

I am so glad I found this book, because it is convincing and explains everything clearly. I am motivated to try to work on myself, and I have some idea of how to proceed. Other books I've read on the subject were too barfy and jargony, or they touched on the surface of the issues without getting to the heart of the matter.
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40 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on June 23, 2000
Format: Paperback
Whenever I'm asked to recommend a book on systems theory, I suggest Gilbert's book. She does an excellent job of accurately covering the theory, but an added bonus is her clear writing style, which makes often difficult concepts easier to digest. The book enjoys good organization. A good first choice for anyone needing an introduction to Bowen Family Systems Theory that focuses on relationships.
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27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Roberta Gilbert's "Extraordinary Relationships" offers useful advice for dealing with family relationships couched amidst an examination of systems theory. Although it is more technical than a lot of self help, it can be used by a general audience.
Gilbert examines the theory of Murray Bowen, who countered notions of individual psychology (like those of Freud) with the theory that personality develops as a result of a family unit. The nuclear family, like a herd of amimals, reacts against each other, speaking a common language that is known only to them. Children raised in that family then detach from the family to form their own adult relationships, where dynamics may follow the family system.
In order to heal adult problems, the author offers some practical advice, like taking the time to observe old patterns as they crop up (family Christmas fights come to mind) with the dispassionate mind of an observer. The author states that individuals will better be able to understand family dynamics and their role in them by doing this.
I've read this book twice, and it has helped me better understand my family, and my role within it. I would recommend it for those who are seeking to better understand their family of origin, and what they can do to improve their present life through understanding the past.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on February 29, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I was introduced to this book several years ago and it is a volume I turn to over and over. As the subtitle suggests, it offers a new way to help the reader look at his/her relationships and offers an innovative approach for reducing the quagmires we seem to keep getting into in them. If you are serious about improving your life and the quality of your relationships and want to invest some time and effort in yourself, you will want to read this book. I recommed it every chance I get!
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32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2001
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
A seasoned psychiatrist, Dr. Gilbert has clear answers to many basic questions parents ask. A few parents may not care that Bowen theory may some day revolutionize psychiatry, Dr. Gilbert does. She makes the case for a move to a new paradigm as a necessity to aid families in today's fast changing world. Dr. Gilbert's stories about people carry us into their lives and we can momentarily become them. When they are us and we are them, then the theory comes alive. It is the human condition. No blame and little shame. Diagrams add clarity to difficult situations. The family process is seen as a river that can be understood. By increasing the ability to be a bit more seperate from the family anxiety people breathe easier. People see how they can rethink and rework old threats and new problems. There is a sense of relief when such new mental models can be applied to complicated challenges.
One comes away from reading the book with greater understanding and humor about the human condition. This is probably good for us all. In addition many people's ideas have contributed to the growth of Bowen Theory and Dr. Gilbert dots the landscape with other people's clinical research. It is not often when one writer strives so hard to give so many people credit for their unique contributions. Dr. Gilbert effort may make it possible for the word principle to be clarifying and freeing rather than stogy. Try one of her books, you might like it.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 1998
Format: Paperback
So many self-help books are common sense written to sound profound. If good relationships were a common sense affair, then good realtionships would be common, and I don't think they are. This book goes beyond common sense. I'm learning a lot from it.
Many self-help books, especially those about marriage and relationships, seem to oversimplify things. This books does the opposite; relationships are healed through understanding of the complexity of extended family. It's not about placing blame, changing other people, being someone you're not, or obeying a list of rules.
I liked the author's goal of helping all relationships reach an ideal state, rather than aiming to fix up problem-plagued relationships.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on March 8, 2008
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This was my first read on Bowen Family Systems. I was pleasantly surprised at the value and relevance of the ideas. For example, that all intimate relationships produce some anxiety in the partners! We cope with that anxiety using behaviors which may cause excessive 'distancing' from our loved one.(Something of a push-pull going on here). Another simple idea is that keeping some type, any type, of connection (ie. avoiding a 'cut off') with members of our family of origin (brother, sister, parent, child) is vital to having good relationships with our chosen loved ones. I don't recall ever hearing that idea before. Unlike many psychological revelations, this one is fairly simple to assess in our own lives - just look at your family of origin and see what kind of relationships you have! Gilbert is realistic that big changes in ourselves are not likely, but even incremental small steps forward can have profound impact on our relationships. Gilbert is a very good writer, with occasional (rare?) understated humor, which makes the material easy to access for anyone interested enough to try. Highly recommended.
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22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on October 6, 2009
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I bought this book because of all the glowing reviews. I've found self-help books to be valuable in the past, either as presentations of interesting new ways of thinking that I can incorporate into my own ways of thinking, or as instructional guides for problem-coping techniques, or both. The reviews seemed to indicate that this book would fit that bill.

Unfortunately I was disappointed. Yes, a lot of what Gilbert wrote (or rather, her elucidations of Bowen's theories) "makes sense". Many ideas echo principles that I've learned from other books (i.e. self responsibility). What bothered me about this book was its lack of evidence and data. I'm not saying the evidence doesn't exist, as I do not know either way; I'm just saying that this book does not discuss any of it. One of my favorite self-help books is Marty Seligman's Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life because it describes the experiments behind Seligman's proposed approach to improving one's life. I suppose I had the impression that "Extraordinary Relationships" would be similarly evidence-based. Instead, it's a theoretical treatise that describes a way of looking at the world, without stating any empirical bases for those theories. As such I found the theories interesting, but not convincing. I'm not about to adopt a certain way of thinking without seeing some evidence that it can do me some good.

My other main complaint about this book is that I did not find any actual prescriptions for techniques to use in my daily life. Now that I know about the self-differentiation scale, exactly how am I supposed to go about moving up to become a "higher scale" individual? The closest that this book comes to offering concrete techniques is Chapter 19 where Gilbert lists ten "typical statements made by people who have used Bowen family systems theory ideas successfully in their primary relationships". But these are statements made by people who have implemented the family systems theory successfully (according to themselves)... how exactly did they get there? And what exactly are the metrics for success?

Finally, I have to admit I was put off by the Toman Sibling Position Portraits included as an Appendix to the book. Apparently some of Bowen's theories are based on Toman's work. I found the Sibling Position Portraits to be archaic and sexist. According to the portraits, as an "Oldest Sister of Brothers" I am supposed to be someone whose primary concern and enjoyment is to care for the men in my life, who is "less interested in women", and who seems to "need the companionship of men". This was pretty funny to me considering that I'm a lesbian :) I understand that Toman's studies were conducted in the 1960's and made no attempt to include homosexual partnerships, but the inclusion of this in the Appendix gave the entire book the flavor of something that is outdated and completely not applicable to my life.
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