Department of Family Therapy Dissertations and Applied Clinical Projects

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – Department of Family Therapy


Christopher F. Burnett

Committee Member

Tommie V. Boyd

Committee Member

Anne H. Rambo


Bowen Family Systems Theory’s (BFST) concept of differentiation of self has the ability to contribute to the self-development of the therapist, and is considered the technique of this theory (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Emotional intelligence is an essential skill for Marriage and Family Therapists (MFTs), as it provides the ability to accurately perceive, express, and evaluate emotions in one’s self and others to facilitate thought, and the regulation of emotions in order to enhance emotional and intellectual growth (Salovey & Mayer, 1997). This study explored the lived experiences of Marriage and Family Therapy students who studied BFST and related those experiences to concepts of differentiation of self and emotional intelligence.

This qualitative study utilized Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA) to gather, process, and analyze the essence of students’ experiences. This process included semi-structured open-ended interviewing of six doctoral students, transcribing, and analyzing the data in accordance with IPA. This study led to the outcome of the coined term differentiated intelligent emotion. The findings of the study produced nine themes: (1) BFST impact on clinical work, (2) BFST impact on personal development, (3) Differentiation of self, (4) Emotional intelligence, (5) Anxiety, (6) Nuclear family emotional process, (7) Multigenerational transmission process, (8) Triangulation, and (9) Individuality and Togetherness. The findings suggest the study of BFST resulted in awareness and an increase in the differentiation of self supported by an increase in emotional intelligence. This led to improvements in personal development, professional development in therapeutic relationships, anxiety, nuclear family functioning, multigenerational transmission process, detriangulation, and sense of individuality.

This study contributes to the existing training and development literature concerning MFT’s in terms of their differentiation of self and emotional intelligence. The research presents implications for future research, clinical practice and training.

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