Family of Origin Explorations
The late Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist and family therapist, began to develop his interest in family systems therapy because he was perplexed by how those patients with a serious mental illness, who made a satisfactory recovery in the hospital setting, frequently relapsed when they returned home. This observation led Bowen to: (1) change his focus from the individual, as the identified patient, to a focus on the family emotional unit, and (2) develop family systems theory as a way of organizing his clinical and theoretical findings. Bowen discovered that the more familiar someone became with his or her family of origin(see glossary), the more he or she was able to move towards differentiation of self. The more differentiated the individual, the more he or she was able to break away from historical patterns and personal characteristics that prevent change.
Because we are all involved in an ongoing process of differentiation of self, the benefits of the process are as true for those who consider themselves mentally intact as for those labelled mentally ill. The process of exploring the family system and the process of differentiation is frequently referred to as family of origin therapyor family of origin research. Everyone can benefit from family of origin work. Through it we can come to a better understanding of ourselves in relationship with members of our own family. We can also become more aware of our relationship with others outside the family, who we frequently relate to in ways we have learned in our families. The more differentiated we are: the more likely we will be able to respond rather than react, the more likely we will be able to treat each interaction as a unique encounter rather than a shadow from the past, and the more likely we will be able to realise our unique potential rather than living according to others’ expectations.
When we have achieved some degree of differentiation of self, we are able to relate to others in a less reactive way, because we have addressed family of origin issues, and they no longer have the same control over us that they might otherwise have. Know thyself … and your family.
2) Why go home again?
2.1) Importance of family heritage
McGoldrick suggests that learning about our family heritage is a way of freeing ourselves to change the future. Family ties are the most important connections in life because our family gave us our first concept of “home.”
Wherever we go, whatever we do, we remain connected with our family:
Family will inevitably come back to haunt us – in our relationships with our spouses, our children, our friends and even at work. Beneath each family’s idiosyncrasies there lie patterns that cut across cultural and time differences. And though the specifics of family structure and roles are changing dramatically, the basic ways of family are universal. (McGoldrick, p. 22)
Using illustrations from biographies (including Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Queen Victoria, and Benjamin Franklin), McGoldrich introduces us to the ways in which family impacts on individual lives, often unconsciously.
2.2) Shaping influence of family biography
McGoldrick suggests that every fact of our family’s biography is part of the many-layered pattern that becomes our identity.
Whatever has happened in your family shapes you. Events that occurred long before your birth, never mentioned in your family during your lifetime, may influence you in powerful, though hidden ways. Take, for example, a child who dies before another’s birth, for whom the next child becomes a replacement. If the “replacement” child tries to leave home as a young adult, the entire family may go into crisis. Yet no one links the upheaval to the loss that occurred years earlier (McGoldrick, p. 30).
2.3) Family life cycle
In order to understand your family’s biography and its patterns, it is necessary to develop a perspective on the shared multigenerational evolution of the family life cycle.
A family life cycle perspective:
Tracks family patterns over time, noting especially those transitions at which families tend to be more vulnerable because of the necessary readjustments in relationships;
Frames problems within the course that families have moved along in their past, the tasks they are presently trying to master, and the future to which they are moving;
Situates the individual life cycle within the family life cycle;
Recognises that problems are most likely to appear when there is an interruption or dislocation in the family life cycle (whether because of untimely death, chronic illness, divorce, migration that forces family members to separate, inability of the family to launch a child, or inability of the family to tolerate the entry of a new in-law or grandchild).
3) Researching Your Own Family of Origin
3.1) Basic principles
In the first chapter of You Can Go Home Again, Monica McGoldrick provides some basic principles to get you thinking about your own family of origin research.
- When you start to think about your own family of origin, consider yourself within the entire three- or four-generational family as it moves through time.
- Be curious about how your relationships with various family members (parents, brothers and sisters, children and grandparents) have changed over time. These relationships go through stages as you move along the family life cycle, just as parent-child and couple relationships do.
- Be aware of the possibility of unresolved issues at various stages of the family life cycle. Issues that remain unresolved at one point in time tend to linger for resolution at the next phase of the family life cycle.
- Don’t be surprised if your impressions of what has happened in the life cycle change over time. We tend to evaluate our experiences differently at different points of the life cycle, depending on what is happening in our lives at the time.
- What family roles can you identify in your family besides; “hero,” “villain,” “jokester,” “victim,” “good guy,” “bad guy”?
- Look for the messages embedded in your family’s story. Which messages do you wish to adopt? Which messages do you not wish to adopt? What must you do so that you are not caught up in the messages of another generation or another family subsystem?
- Be aware that avoiding painful memories distorts family relationships, causing more problems than the original behaviour itself.
McGoldrick has a sombre paragraph on the cost of failing to become aware of one’s family history:
If you are estranged from your family [or any member of your family], there remains deep within you a buried part of your spirit. Your ghosts can haunt you: voices in your head, sounding out with disapproval, threats of further abandonment, and loss of your self. These ghosts can stand between you and all that you cherish in life, or they can taint an otherwise productive and satisfying life with sadness. By remaining unaware of family ghosts, a family can be locked forever into these formative experiences, unable to move beyond them (pp. 32 –33).
3.2) Questions and stories as keys to understanding
To be able to get to know your own family in a different way, you need to become an expert at asking questions. Asking the right questions is not easy. Even if you believe you know the right question, it is often difficult to ask because you may feel it will upset others. Unspoken family rules may prevent you from asking or even considering other questions. Family “wisdom” (long-established assumptions) may also prevent you from questioning certain family members (e.g., “Aunt Sally wouldn’t know anything about that if her life depended upon it,” or “Uncle Jack is never sober long enough to know anything about what’s going on around him.”).
3.3) Some notes on questions (adapted from McGoldrick)
Question each assumption you have about family members.
Question each assumption other family members have about family.
Ask yourself (and others) who came to each conclusion and how.
Ask questions about the facts of birth and death in a family – who, when, where, how? (In doing so you may uncover emotionally charged events such as suicide, pregnancies outside marriage, stillbirths, miscarriages, abortions).
Be prepared to dig for facts. Decide carefully how and when to approach different family members for possible answers.
Develop a questioning attitude and a healthy scepticism (Never be too sure that anyone’s point of view is the “truth”).
Watch a Lieutenant Colombo rerun. Study his style. You may not want to copy it but your questioning style needs to be more like his than that of an inquisitor.
Be sensitive about connections (between important dates, between kinds of relationships patterns, between the way you are and the way your parents were at your age).
Ask relatives about the facts as well as the myths and stories heard in childhood.
Ask family members about the reactions of others to a given family experience (e.g., “Mum, how did your mother react when your brother left home?”).
Be curious about the constriction of gender roles in your family. How did members of your family respond to these restrictions? Which family members did not strictly conform to societal gender norms? How did they free themselves from these norms?
Review the above notes and decide what questions you think will be relevant to assist you in your family of origin research. What other questions will help you understand your family and decide how you wish to establish yourself as an adult in your family.
3.4)Observations on the process of family research (adapted from McGoldrick)
1. As McGoldrick emphasises:
. . information is power; you try to learn whatever you can whenever you can because you never know when a certain piece of information will help you to make a connection. Any detail may turn out to be significant (p. 47).
Respect the family’s resistance to change. Respect family member’s reluctance to expose secrets or change the way they relate, however harmful these ways may have been.
Essential to all the questions you ask and relationships you develop while you are researching family of origin (and you may wish to adopt this in all your interactions) is the assumption that all human beings are always doing the best they can, in the context in which they live, according to the perspectives they bring to their lives. Develop empathy for the “programmed” behaviour of others. (This is not to say that past history justifies present actions – taking personal responsibility for one’s actions is a given.)
Be sure of your intentions before you ask a question. Ensure that the questions arise out of genuine curiosity rather than self-serving grandiosity.
Don’t begin asking questions unless you are prepared to handle the answers (Remembering the past can be a painful emotional experience).
Ask questions form a self-differentiated perspective (easier said than done!).
As McGoldrick explains this level of maturity:
The ability to maintain your sense of yourself without becoming defensive, regardless of how others perceive you, is essential to this process. It requires coming to the point where you are the sole judge of your own worth and do not depend on the approval of others. This means that you do not “need” others to feel “worthwhile” and can judge the rightness of your own values and behaviour for yourself, whatever perceptions of you might exist. (p. 48)
Listen carefully to the stories of family history that people tell you – both for what they tell and for what they omit.
Becoming defensive or argumentative in reaction to an answer to a question you have asked is antithetical to family of origin research.
Be prepared to hear negative answers. Remember that all reactions, however hostile or rejecting, are also “information.”
Differentiation of Self: A concept from Family of Origin Therapy that defines a family member’s ability to function autonomously in the context of being emotionally connected to other members. It has also been used to describe the process whereby a family member learns to regulate anxiety by objectively coordinating thinking with emotional responses (Jones, 1994; Schnarch, 1991; Kerr and Bowen, 1988; Bowen, 1978) [See Family of Origin Therapy]
Family Life Cycle: Family life cycle is a concept from family theory that describes predictable patterns or cycles as a family progresses through developmental stages. Such stages may include: separation from family of origin, marriage, child bearing, child rearing, divorce, retirement, aging and death. The family therapist attempts to normalize the family’s presenting problem in the context of the family’s respective developmental stage. (Carter & McGoldrick, 1989; Nichols, 1984)
Family of Origin: Family of origin is a concept that defines the family origins of one’s birth (i.e., the biological family). The role that a family member plays within their family of procreation (i.e., the family they create) may be determined by her/his former roles in that family of origin. (Framo, 1992; Bowen, 1978) [See Family of Origin Therapy]
Family of Origin Therapy: A clinical approach, developed by Murray Bowen, which asserts that individuals and families should be understood in the context of their multiple generations and not as isolated individuals. Bowen believed that relationship patterns within the family system developed and repeated across the generations. He described eight interlocking concepts: differentiation of self, triangles, sibling position, nuclear family emotional processes, family projection process, emotional cutoff, multigenerational transmission, and societal emotional process. The goals include: (1) reducing the level of chronic anxiety in the family system; and (2) increasing the level of differentiation of self in family members in order to interrupt maladaptive relationship patterns (Framo, 1992; Kerr and Bowen, 1988; Bowen, 1978)