Dr. Murray Bowen invented what has come to be known as “Bowen Theory” or Family Systems Theory. Dr. Rabbi Friedman put Bowen’s theory to work for rabbis, pastors and other religious professions in Generation to Generation and his posthumous work Failure of Nerve.
This theory of family behavior is based on several key concepts about why people act like they do in groups, not based on mechanistic roles but on how people in groups act emotionally. This theory thinks in terms of emotional processes and not in hierarchies or intellectual terms.
This article examines why most people love cats as a means to explain several of the main ideas in Murray Bowen’s theory of Family and Societal Systems.
We irrationally love cats–those of us who do. Those who hate cats hate them irrationally. Why all the emotions about cats? Because they expose the truth about human emotional systems by introducing catlike emotional behavior!
The cat, any cat, introduced into the human emotional system, will cause the human emotional system to rearrange. Not because the cat does anything but because of how the cat is emotionally.
1. Cats Tend to Be Emotionally Self-Differentiated
Self-differentiation is the goal and high water mark of maturity for the Bowen Theory. Cats have it.
They know what they like. They know who they like. They know what they will and will not do and refuse to be trained. They have no desire to win approval but seek emotional support (petting) when they want it and from whom they want it.
Most humans call this independence or detachment. It is really the position of self-differentiation to which we all aspire. We admire cats for being able to be aloof and standoffish. What we truly admire is their ability to shamelessly self-differentiate.
Those who hate cats most likely are uncomfortable with others who refuse to participate in emotional hubbub in the human system too.
2. Cats Do Not Accept Anxiety from Others
When there is “drama” between humans, cats usually run off or keep out of the fray by hissing and going into fend-off defensive mode until they can escape. Cats refuse to accept anxiety from others.
They may choose to purr around you when you are upset, but that, we all know, is pure coincidence. Cats take care of their own emotional distress. They do not ask for help. They fight their own fights and never seek to recruit the “gang” or “herd” effect as humans do.
3. Cats Have Learned a Perfect Balance Between Closeness and Distance
Cats never become so attached that they cannot do without you but never so distant they don’t look for you after you have been gone a while.
They have found the perfect balance of distance and closeness that humans rarely find. Most humans become so close to each other they fuse either by loving or fighting. Or humans distance from each other in response to anxiety thus keeping the fusion on a distance level.
If you are gone a year or an hour it makes no difference. They will react the same to your return in predictable patterns. The longer you are gone the less they may react upon your return.
Most humans respect the boundaries of a cat much more than the emotional boundaries of other humans!
4. Cats Are Distant but Connected
They never “leave” the system. They do their own thing and then, suddenly, it seems, they will arrive into the emotional system with purring and a desire to be petted on their own terms. Try to coax them and you will only get disdain and disinterest. Try to stop them when they WANT strokes and you will have to get out a broom.
5. Cats Learn This Behavior From Parents
While kittens, they show no self-differentiation except when they will pitilessly shove the runt out of the way to get the last suck of milk even though the runt may be starving to death.
Cats are social animals like humans, but even the mother is self-differentiated. She feeds when she feels like it and defends the litter if she is in the mood.
Humans are fascinated by this closeness/distance balance but we admire it too.
The kittens learn it from their parents. The father stands off to the side as a sometimes protector of the litter and the mother attends the little ones without asking a thing more from the father.
If a kitten acts up, the mother never threatens the kittens with the return or retribution of the father: she does the swatting herself.
6. Cats May Feel Anxiety During Times of Change but They Handle Their Own – They Do Not Triangle
In Bowen’s theory, humans always triangle. We cannot handle the common anxieties of life and so we seek out someone to share our anxiety. The anxiety producer–whether it is a situation or a person or a pressure–is always the third person in the triangle.
Cats do NOT do this. They handle their own anxiety like the elder leader of a lion Pride. When the young lion challenges the Pride leader the leader may put up a ceremonial fight but handles the anxiety. He does not seek to share the anxiety with anyone. He goes off into the distance and watches the Pride move on without him.
Humans admire this and fear it at the same time. Someone who is self-differentiated is frightening to those who are not. The reason for this is because humans tend to be a herding species, especially when there is change or upset in the “normal” way anxiety is handled in the system.
7. Cats Feed on Herds They Never Form Herds
Cats eat from panicked herds. They do not form herds. They form Prides. Even the name suggests independence and positive attributes.
When humans experience anxiety, they tend to herd together to expel the anxiety by attacking it or running from it instead of dealing with it.
For instance, think of the distasteful images on the television documentaries of lions eating water buffalo or gazelles. Notice, if the herd suddenly turned on the cats, the cats would lose. Even if several, maybe just a handful, of the thousands-of-pounds beasts turned on the cats, the limber but vulnerable-to-stomping cats would flee in panic.
Herds “group think” and panic. They run from anxiety or mindlessly attack each other trying to find the panic-making culprit, but they rarely attack the real predator which has been stalking them for days.
They fail to see the real danger: the cat in the room.
8. Cats Can Switch Prides Based on Their Own Self-Interest
Cats can go from owner to owner, Pride to Pride, without loss of self-differentiation. Give a cat away and it will adapt immediately to the new situation because it was not emotionally fused with the last one!
Humans may experience this as selfishness on the part of the cat or self-absorption. In fact, it is adroit emotional adaptation. Some cats will leave one household and adopt another with seemingly no regrets if the new situation is in the best interest of the cat. And the cat knows.
Selfishness and self-differentiation are not the same and cats seem to understand this. Cats are not selfish. They share when they decide to share. They show affection when they want to and not when they ought to.
They don’t NEED humans. They can hunt if they have to. If they do choose to hunt, they generally bring the poor beast to their humans to supplement the foodstuffs the humans gather from God knows where.
9. Cats Can Act Like Kittens if They Feel Like It
Cats can, delightfully, from time to time suddenly act like a kitten! –Playing with balls and dancing after laser lights moving from a human penlight. Cats can regress when they feel playful or curious.
This ability to regress is not emotional weakness but the willingness to be emotionally open when they feel like it. There is the key: when they feel like it.
Their unpredictability is delightful to most humans. Some humans hate cats. They aren’t needy enough. They don’t fuse. They are worthless anxiety receptors. An angry human may kick a dog and the dog will cower. Kick a cat and see what happens. They will not share your anxiety.
These are only a few reasons why humans love cats. They reflect the emotional health described in Bowen’s Family System Theory and this causes a great division among humans.
Some hate cats for the same reason some people dislike self-differentiated people. Like a cat, a self-differentiated person cannot be emotionally manipulated, does not fall easily into triangulation, and seems uncaring and selfish to someone who is begging for a partner in anxiety.
Some humans hate this.
They want herd members who will feel sorry for them, spread the anxiety, start a panic and head off in attack or flight from an unseen and unknown enemy.
The sad truth is that self-differentiated people tend to hang together and watch from a distance the weird behaviors of the herds below. Emotionally non-self-differentiated people tend to hang together too. They tend to herd together, serve the anxieties of the weakest members of the herd, and seek togetherness and agreement over anything else.
It would be a good idea to remember this: cats devour herds; herds run from cats.
[http://www.pastorwadebutler.com] is a resource for many Mind Maps, notes, comments and audio files on the Bowen Theory and Pastoral Interventions during Pastoral Interims.
http://www.thebowencenter.org/theory/eight-concepts/ is a fantastic resource for the thoughts on Family Systems Theory created by Murray Bowen and expanded for Church professionals by Rabbi Edwin Friedman.
Rabbi Friedman’s posthumous book “Failure of Nerve” explains these concepts of Bowen together with his own in a wonderful manner.