An Emotional Family Tree

I like to make emotions, thoughts, and feelings tangible for my clients.  One of the ways I do this is by creating a genogram.  Think of a family tree but with emotions, events and patterns instead of pictures.  A good genogram provides a rich history of family nuances.  They help explain how patterns and problems evolve and why they are often repeated through the generations.  

During couples counseling, we talk about the merging of 2 cultures.  That’s true if you are from the same small town or from different countries.  Every person grows up in their own unique culture that often clashes with how their partner grew up.  If you grew up in a small southern town, you might be a polite person who is sensitive to social norms.  If you grew up in a fiery tempered Italian family, you might have a loud arguing family who lets the tempers flare and then regroups immediately with no ill will. Pairing people from these different worlds often causes some relationship issues.  But when we are able to map out the family structure on both sides, it becomes clear to both partners why the other acts like they do.  We get clarity but also understanding and acceptance.

The genogram has a myriad of different uses.  Monica McGoldrick, in her book Genogrmas: Assessment and Intervention, notes the many uses genograms serve:

-to elicit family narratives and expand cultural stories


-to reframe and detoxify family legacies

-to discover unique strengths and resources

-to look at key family or personal events that were life changing

-to sensitize clinicians to systemic issues

-to uncover sources of current dysfunction

-to find sources of resilience

-to place the current issue in the context of the family evolutionary patterns

The list really goes on and on.  The genogram shows patterns vertically and horizontally.  They expand your mind to see multiple patterns at the same time and how they impact one another.  Family patterns not only grow from past generations, but, according to Goldrick, via larger social structures like religion, politics, gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, schooling, etc.

Genograms are fascinating.  They are colorful and have lines and symbols drawn all over them to depict emotions and events.  I once made a genogram in one of my drawing programs for a couple I was counseling.  It turned out to be about 5 feet wide and 2 feet high.  We went back multiple generations.  They wanted to stop the generational abuse from showing up in their children’s lives.  When we put it all out on paper, they were amazed.  After about 6 months of working together, they moved away from all those negative habits.  

If you have a complicated relationship or situation, examining your family through a genogram might shed a ton of light on the issue and help you solve it faster.  We keep gigantic sticky notes in the office and lots of colored pens to make the genogram a fun and enlightening experience.  Please call us today so we can map out your history!