Family-of-Origin, Differentiation of Self and Partner, and Adult Romantic Relationship Quality


family-of-origin, family systems theory, differentiation, romantic relationship quality


Bowen's family systems theory posits the importance of differentiation of self for functioning in adult romantic/marital relationships. His theory suggests that adults enter into marriages and marriage-like relationships with a basic level of differentiation of self developed largely in the parental home and this level of differentiation affects relationship quality. However, there has been limited research on these propositions. Therefore, we examine these ideas by hypothesizing that (a) a complex relationship exists between family-of-origin variables as they influence adult romantic relationship quality, (b) differentiation from negative family-of-origin processes is one means whereby the past carries forward into the present, (c) there is a actor-partner effect of differentiation of self on each partner's relationship quality, and (d) that gender differences are expected. We tested an SEM model with data from the RELATionship Evaluation (RELATE) (N = 1,839 couples). Results support the hypotheses and suggest the usefulness of Bowen's theory for understanding how family-of-origin processes from both partners carry forward via differentiation of self into adult relationship quality. Therapeutic implications and research needs are articulated.

Original Publication Citation

Holman, T. B., & Busby, D. M. (2011). Family of origin, differentiation of self and partner, and adult romantic relationship quality. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 10, 3-19.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date



Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy




Family, Home, and Social Sciences


Family Life

University Standing at Time of Publication

Full Professor