You get more than your eye and hair color from your family. Understanding as much as you can about your family of origin is incredibly helpful as a starting place for working on yourself. Just as we inherit DNA, we also get patterns of behavior and ways of being in relationships scripted for us. If we have insight about what our parents' and grandparents' lives were like, how they related to others, and what their emotional lives were like, we can better understand ourselves.
As a structural family therapist, I often draw out maps of family experience known as genograms. In them, I work with individuals, couples and families to illuminate and bring the family history to life. We go as many generations back as we have information about. Here are some family patterns to consider:
1. Where were your family members raised? Did they immigrate from somewhere else? Why?
2. What do you know about their childhood experiences? Socio-economic status of each part of the family?
3. What educational level did people have? What kind of work did they do?
4. What do you know about how happy the marriages were in both sides of your family? Were family members expressive? Unexpressive? Affectionate? Aloof?
5. Are there family members who struggled with alcohol or substance abuse? Was it treated or untreated? How did family cope with challenges in healthy or unhealthy ways?
6. Who struggled with anxiety or depression? Was it treated or untreated?
7. For deceased family members, at what age did they die, and from what cause? How did losses impact the family? Are there suicides in the family? Are there chronic or life threatening illnesses? Deaths from war?
8. Who stays married no matter what ? Do people divorce and/or remarry? Are there patterns of infidelity?
9. What role does faith play in any of the family?
10. What is each generations' style of parenting? How small or large are the families? How did parents discipline? Do families stay close, or splinter apart?
11. Where are the alliances? Who is close to who? Who fights with who?
12.What are the family traditions and values on each side of the family?
13. Who moves away? Who stays close to home?
14. Who cares for aging relatives? What is home like?
15.What is the family most proud of in terms of accomplishments?
There are many subtle impacts of your family of origin role models. For example, if your parents fought a great deal and were not openly kind or affectionate with each other, that's the script you get by growing up with them. If you understand that, you can choose to love your parents but decide to rewrite how couples interact with each other. You can decide to be caring and loving, and model something completely different to your own children. That's powerful change.
Knowing your family genogram isn't about blame. It's about understanding where and how your story begins and what feels "normal" to you. When you marry, your partner comes with their own family story. Neither one is all good or all bad. It's just where you start. The more honest, open and non-defensive you can be about the patterns in your family, the better. It allows you the emotional freedom to make choices about which parts of the family transmission pattern you want to continue, and where you chose to edit and rewrite your own life story.