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New Family Diagram App Symbols, Rapid Logging, and More

Version 1.3.0 of Family Diagram has been released with theoretical clarifications and improvements from user feedback. These changes are one more step toward making it possible to more formally critique Bowen theory as an aid for collecting objective data both in research and in professional practice. Since the beginning, it has been a hope that Family Diagram might provide a more concrete venue for this essential critique than was possible before through academic literature and professional training.

Added Time of Day for Events

This relatively simple change paves the way for a few important uses of the timeline. First, you can now track vignettes that occur within a single day. Bowen theory describes how the positions in triangles can change quickly over several minutes as well as over many weeks, months, or years. Adding the time of day to event dates allows you to add each step in a short vignette of emotional process. For example, you can now record a single phone conversation or tussle at a wedding in the same way you would record a multigenerational history.

NOTE: The term “timestamp” replaces the term “date” when referring to the field recorded in an event on the timeline. “Timestamp” is more accurate in that it contains a date as well as a time. Further, timestamp is the technical term used for recording a “timeseries”, which is a key criterion for “systems thinking” in practice and “systems models” in research.

Tags and “Layers” Become Tags and “Views”

“Tags” and “layers” have now been decoupled into separate concepts and are now called “tags” and “views.” While very powerful interdependent concepts, the tag and layer features were both too abstract to learn easily. Luckily, empirical experience revealed that the majority of cases used tags and layers in a limited set of ways. This made it possible to specialize the concepts of tags and layers to be easier to learn as tags and “views.”

In short, tags are for data and views are for visuals. Data is anything chronological on the timeline while visuals are on the diagram. The only exception to that rule is that emotional process symbols are on the diagram as well as the timeline but are filtered with tags on the timeline, reflecting the ideal that emotional process is a necessarily a chronological phenomenon.

Another way of thinking about this is that views and tags are loosely associated with structure and function in Biology, respectively. Structure is what something is and function is what something does. Structure is who is who and how they are related, represented on the two dimensional diagram and its views. Tracking what anything does obviously requires a timeline. Therefore, function is by definition what the structure does and is represented on the timeline and its tags.

A Single Search Panel

There is now one search panel for the entire app. This is where you select the tags, layers, or search terms that you want to show for every part of the app. While having a separate search panel for each part of the app was quite powerful, simplifying them into a single search panel makes the app easier to use in the majority of cases.

The keyboard shortcut for the new search panel is command-3 on macOS and control-3 on Windows.

New Symbols: Toward/Away, Defined Self, Inside/Outside

The terms “toward” and “away” were coined in Family Diagram v1.0 to provide a way to capture a relatively vague mixture of ideas; the inside/outside positions of a triangle, mutual “feeling orientation” (Bowen, 1976) between two people, or basic movements in an emotional system analogous to physical proximity models of collective behavior. The reason these two symbols were added was that it was clear that there was something basic in Bowen theory represented by a valence (i.e. positive/negative) dichotomy between two individuals. However, these symbols were only experimental because definitions were still quite vague.

Family Diagram 1.3.0 splits these two symbols into four new symbols based on real-world experience: Toward/Away, and Inside/Outside. While still provisional so far as accepted research goes, these symbols are now more precisely defined. This makes them more straightforward to use.

Additionally, the diagram item toolbar on the left-hand side of the app is now separated into more defined categories: Structure, (Hypothetical) Mechanisms, (Hypothetical) States, Moves, and Presentation Tools. Mechanisms and States are called “hypothetical” here to reflect the state of Bowen theory so far as accepted standards for scientific research is concerned. This key point is discussed in note #2 below.

Toward and Away

The Toward and Away symbols are now discrete “moves” that a single person makes in relation to another person in a single moment. The Toward symbol is equivalent to “approach” behavior in the approach/avoid dichotomy in Biology. The Away symbol is equivalent to “avoid” behavior in the same dichotomy.

These new Toward and Away symbols represent hypothetical “atomic operations” of Bowen theory. “Atomic operation” is a term from Computer Science which indicates a single occurrence that is 1) indivisible, 2) always occurring regardless of the degree to which they are combined to produce complex behavior. See note #1 below for more on the use of analogy in theory versus modeling.

Each atomic move has only one mover but can have multiple recipients. A separate symbol would be added with the same timestamp for each mover-recipient dyad. The Toward symbol is a single arrow pointing from the mover to the recipient, indicating that it is a move that one person makes on their own in relation to another. The Away symbol simply has the direction of the arrow reversed.

While Toward and Away symbols have both a start and end timestamps like all other emotional process symbols, the start and end timestamps ought be identical in practice because they are discrete moves that occur in a single moment in time.

At this stage, the distance anxiety binding mechanism described in Bowen theory occurs with an “away” orientation. The other three mechanisms of conflict, reciprocity, and projection onto a child make it possible to maintain “toward” orientation despite increasing tension. These mechanism symbols can be added in conjunction with toward or away moves, serving to qualify the move as one to manage anxiety in the dyad.

These toward and away symbols are used to track observations of moves prior to applying the Bowen theory to make sense of them. The subtle distinction between the observational datum and prediction appears to be difficult for many to grasp in practice (see note #2 below). Nevertheless, it remains a non-negotiable requirement for scientific research or scientifically-informed professional practice, which by definition aims at prediction as opposed to mere explanation.

More on the broader context for the toward and away symbols here.

Inside and Outside

The Inside and Outside symbols now indicate positions in a triangle as defined by Bowen theory. As a review, the triangle is a way for two people to manage tension by employing a third. A triangle always contains two people on the inside together and one on the outside apart from the other two (Bowen, 1978). As these new Inside and Outside symbols are dyadic, they represent the associated two outside edges and one inside edge between the three positions in a triangle.

While the new Toward and Away symbols represent discrete moves which occur in a single moment in time, the Inside and Outside symbols represent “states” which persist over some period of time. This implies that each symbol has both a start timestamp and an end timestamp.

Inside and Outside contain theoretical a priori and so cannot be used to test the theory itself. See note #2 below for more on this key point.

The new Inside and Outside symbols use the same look as the old Toward and Away symbols; two arrows pointing toward each other or two arrows pointing away from each other, respectively. While not perfect, these new looks are slightly more theoretically accurate to the “feeling orientation” held by each person on the inside or outside position of a triangle.

NOTE: Existing diagrams using the old Toward and Away symbols will be converted to use the new Inside and Outside symbols. This means that your old Toward and Away symbols will look the same but be called something different.

Defined Self

The Defined-Self symbol has been available in Family Diagram since v1.0. It indicates a move toward differentiation as defined in Bowen theory. In review, differentiation is something that comes autonomously from the individual as opposed to in relation to things that come from the group (Bowen, 1978).

The look for the Defined Self symbol is a line with a cross on the side of the person making the move, and just a strait line on the side the recipient. As with the Toward and Away symbols, this indicates that the recipient is not making a move in the moment that the mover is defining self.

Like Toward and Away, Defined-Self is a discrete, momentary move that occurs between one mover and one or more recipients. However, like Inside and Outside and unlike Toward and Away, the Defined-Self move contains a priori from Bowen theory. See note #2 below for more on this key point.


  1. Use of analogies in theory VS modeling. While analogies from engineering are inappropriate for theoretical concepts, they are integral to a modeling effort aimed at prediction. As soon as a person begins collecting data to test a hunch, they are engaged in modeling. Bowen’s oft-cited critique of “General Systems Theory” and “Cybernetics” was aimed at applying theories from one kind of system onto another kind of system without challenging the theory. Modeling in scientific research is aimed at falsifiable prediction, which automatically challenges the theory in use. Therefore, Bowen’s critique applies at the theoretical level but not the modeling level. Even the wildest, most fantastical models can be used in an experiment so long as blind, falsifiable prediction is the ultimate judge of its validity. Thus, concepts from engineering are appropriate, and actually necessary, for modeling emotional systems in scientific research. Building on this, many theories in biology propose generalized concepts for structure where Bowen theory is perhaps unique for its generalized concepts for function. Academically speaking, Computer Science is the field that develops generalized concepts for modeling function across all kinds of systems. Therefore, analogies from computer science are the appropriate starting point for modeling emotional systems in Bowen theory. See more on this subtle but important topic in the Bowen theory literary tradition here: The Role of Modeling in Scientific Theory.
  2. A priori versus testing a theory. Any idea that contains assumptions from a theory (i.e. “a priori“) cannot be used to test that theory. However, ideas that contain a priori are always used when applying the theory. A theory merely explains how independent trackable data that are free of theoretical a priori relate to one another. To be useful, this explanation must also predict something. For example, the terms mass and distance are trackable data that do not contain the theory of universal gravitation in themselves. But the theory of universal gravitation defines how these independent data relate in a manner that predicts how material things attract one another. The theory does so by defining a new concept called gravity. Therefore, the term gravity contains theoretical a priori, while mass and distance do not. Similarly, the new toward and away symbols are isolated trackable data that do not contain a priori from Bowen theory in themselves. Bowen theory proposes one explanation for how they relate in a manner that predicts how one move necessitates a subsequent move. It does so by defining new ideas like inside, outside, and many other ideas like defined-self. Therefore, toward/away can be used to test Bowen theory in formal research, while inside/outside and defined-self can only be used to apply Bowen theory in professional practice or in speculation on potential research hypotheses. Accurate predictions depend on a priori-free data being collected in a separate, isolated step from the step of a priori-containing prediction. An effort that does not remove a priori from what is tracked will only confirm the hypothesis, which is against scientific principles. The priority of these two steps is reflected in the standard ordering of article sections in accepted scientific journals. See more on this subtle topic here: The Role of Modeling in Scientific Theory.


Bowen, M. (1978). Family therapy in clinical practice. New York, NY: Jason Aronson.

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