Each concept in Bowen theory applies to nonfamily groups, such as work and social organizations. The concept of societal emotional process describes how the emotional system governs behavior on a societal level, promoting both progressive and regressive periods in a society. Cultural forces are important in how a society functions but are insufficient for explaining the ebb and flow in how well societies adapt to the challenges that face them. Bowen’s first clue about parallels between familial and societal emotional functioning came from treating families with juvenile delinquents. The parents in such families give the message, “We love you no matter what you do.” Despite impassioned lectures about responsibility and sometimes harsh punishments, the parents give in to the child more than they hold the line. The child rebels against the parents and is adept at sensing the uncertainty of their positions. The child feels controlled and lies to get around the parents. He is indifferent to their punishments. The parents try to control the child but are largely ineffectual.
Bowen discovered that during the 1960s the courts became more like the parents of delinquents. Many in the juvenile court system considered the delinquent as a victim of bad parents. They tried to understand him and often reduced the consequences of his actions in the hope of effecting a change in his behavior. If the delinquent became a frequent offender, the legal system, much like the parents, expressed its disappointment and imposed harsh penalties. This recognition of a change in one societal institution led Bowen to notice that similar changes were occurring in other institutions, such as in schools and governments. The downward spiral in families dealing with delinquency is an anxiety-driven regression in functioning. In a regression, people act to relieve the anxiety of the moment rather than act on principle and a long-term view. A regressive pattern began unfolding in society after World War II. It worsened some during the 1950s and rapidly intensified during the 1960s. The “symptoms” of societal regression include a growth of crime and violence, an increasing divorce rate, a more litigious attitude, a greater polarization between racial groups, less principled decision-making by leaders, the drug abuse epidemic, an increase in bankruptcy, and a focus on rights over responsibilities.
Human societies undergo periods of regression and progression in their history. The current regression seems related to factors such as the population explosion, a sense of diminishing frontiers, and the depletion of natural resources. Bowen predicted that the current regression would, like a family in a regression, continue until the repercussions stemming from taking the easy way out on tough issues exceeded the pain associated with acting on a long-term view. He predicted that will occur before the middle of the twenty-first century and should result in human beings living in more harmony with nature.
It is more difficult for families to raise children in a period of societal regression than in a calmer period. A loosening of standards in society makes it more difficult for less differentiated parents like Michael and Martha to hold a line with their children. The grade inflation in many school systems makes it easier for students to pass grades with less work. In the litigious climate, if schools try to hold the line on what they can realistically do for their students, they often face lawsuits from irate parents. The prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse gives parents more things to worry about with their adolescents. The current societal regression is characterized by an increased child focus in the culture. Much anxiety exists about the future generation. Parents are criticized for being too busy with their own pursuits to be adequately available to their children, both to support them and to monitor their activities. When children like Amy report that they feel distant from their parents and alienated from their values, the parents’ critics fail to appreciate the emotional intensity that generates such alienation. The critics prod the parents to do more of what they have already been doing.
People who advocate more focus on the children cite the many problems young people are having as justification for their position. Using the child’s problems as justification for increasing the focus on them is precisely what the child focused parents have been doing all along. An increase in the problems young people are having is part of an emotional process in society as a whole. A more constructive direction would be for people to examine their own contributions to societal regression and to work on themselves rather than focus on improving the future generation.