Family Patterns of Communication

Genogram Clues: Understanding Relationships and Patterns

There are many ways to interpret a genogram. Beginners may start by looking for issues that serve as clues when confronting a jumble of lines and words. The following examples of clues may be helpful in discovering patterns and meaning in all types of genograms. We will use small sections of genograms to highlight key issues.

To practice evaluating and interpreting genograms, refer to questions in the clue descriptions. Some questions include suggestions for answers and others simply encourage reflection. Spend some time with these questions, as they will provide the practice needed to create and interpret genograms.

Clue One: Dates

Dates provide information that helps place events in perspective. They indicate simultaneous related events or suggest possible sequences of experiences. For example, if you discover that a person or family was dealing with three significant losses within a year, you can question the effect of these stresses on family members, such as a new baby or a child leaving home.

Lillian and Laura
For example, imagine that a mother (Lillian) is trying to cope with the death of her elderly mother, the diagnosis of her sister's breast cancer, and her own depression. With all of these significant events, Lillian may create problems by fighting against her youngest daughter’s decision (Laura) to leave home for college. Not understanding what is happening to herself, Lillian may overreact when her daughter gets ready to move out, experiencing it with great dread and fear. Lillian and Laura may experience high levels of tension and anxiety for a few years. Such concerns may be transferred to another generation without any sense of why this separation seems so frightening. When Laura's daughter (Sandy) prepares to leave for college, Laura may then become extremely protective, surprisingly emotional, and resistant to the separation. One would have to view the major separation issues which confronted Lillian (Lillian's sister's cancer and her mother's death) concurrently with fights that erupted with Laura to understand the fear of this separation its transmission to the next generation.
Lillian and Laura's Genogram:

Look at the dates on Sharon's genogram, especially those in close proximity, and guess about their significance.
Sharon's Genogram:
You probably noted the connection between the death of Sharon's father two months prior to the birth of her son. Clearly Sharon experienced great pain after Joseph's death because of their closeness. In fact, Andrew and Sharon named their first son after his recently deceased grandfather. Looking closely, perhaps you also noticed that Sharon and Andrew married the same year that Andrew's parents were divorced. You may be curious whether those similar dates have affected Sharon's poor relationship with her mother-in-law and Andrew's poor relationship with his father.
What else would you like to know about this family? Questions include:
  • What kind of relationship does Sharon have with her sisters?
  • What kind of relationship does Sharon have with her husband Andrew?
  • Why was Sharon closer to her father than her mother?
  • WHat kind of relationship do Sharon and Andrew have with their children?
  • What kind of relationship do Andrew and Sharon have with Andrew's brother?
  • What are some possible outcomes of the death of Sharon's father?
  • Sharon could bond extremely deeply with Joe, which would have implications for the mother-child relationship and to her relationships with other family members.
  • Sharon could be in such deep grief that she cannot bond effectively with her new son, relegating his care to her husband Andrew or daughter Constance and setting up a lifetime of mother/son distance.
  • Not directly related to the "dates" clue, but also a possibility: Sharon's mother, in losing her husband, may begin to demand more from Sharon. Sharon, being the oldest child, may feel responsible to care for her mother, physically and emotionally, and in doing so, may leave little time for Andrew and her children. This also may lead Sharon to have a confluctual relationship with her mother and her sisters.
  • Clue Two: Gender

    Gender beliefs and values may thread through families in powerful and subtle ways, creating difficulties when a member marries or partners with someone with different gender beliefs. For example, discovering that a particular family has sent clear messages that men are strong and do not show emotions may provide greater understanding of the struggle of a younger generation husband and wife.

    Mike and Sally
    Mike's background reveals that his grandfather, Leo, was a young WWI veteran who lost an arm in the fighting. Leo struggled through the depression by taking odd jobs, never allowing his family to go hungry. Everyone described him as a saint and a giant. Leo and his wife Agnes had four children, two girls and two boys, one of whom died of pneumonia at age three. When Agnes fell apart, Leo again remained the rock and held things together. Their remaining son, James, grew up as a dutiful son who looked out for his sisters. James married Rebecca and they became the parents of five children, including Mike. James worked two jobs, provided well for his brood and for his sisters' families. He was a quiet man, often called "the rock." Mike and his brothers were raised as hardworking, athletic and competitive young men, devoted to their mother and father.

    When Sally married Mike, everyone told her what a wonderful man she had found and remarked on how well he took care of her. Mike worked two jobs, built a lovely home for Sally and was thrilled at the birth of their two children, Jimmy and Caitlin. When Jimmy was six, and Caitlin was 8, Sally happily returned to work. At age eight, Jimmy was struck by a runaway car and suffered severe head injuries. Although he lived, specialists told them he needed years of special education and that he would never be able to function as a fully responsible adult. Sally was devastated and gave up her career to stay with Jimmy. She went through periods of severe depression and grief while trying to deal with doctors and rehabilitation specialists. Mike was deeply shaken but seemed to cope a great deal better than Sally. He never cried and took on another job to pay the medical bills, reassuring Sally that everything was going to be all right. He participated in discussions with the doctors, but usually told Sally, “They don’t really know all that much. Jimmy is a very strong little boy. He’ll be okay.” Two years later, Sally still heard Mike telling relatives about his plans for Jimmy, “He’ll be a first baseman; he’ll go to the state university.” Mike and Sally grew apart, fighting over little things. Sally began to accuse Mike of not caring about the family.
    Mike and Sally's Genogram:
    What other gender issues do you see that may be relevant to this family?
  • Looking at the intergenerational patterns on Mike's side of the family, you may have noticed that the socialization of the males to not show emotion also seems to affect the relationships they have with their children. In all three generations, the children have been more closely bonded with their mothers than with their fathers.
  • You may also have noted that both Mike and James (after his brother's death) were the oldest sons in their immediate families. Some would argue that the additional responsibilities they may feel to their family may also be a result of being the oldest make child
  • Additional Questions:
  • How might the family react if Caitlin was to grow up and marry a man who openly showed his emotion?
  • If you were Sally and Mike's therapist, what other information might you want about the family?

  • Jessica and Josh
    Evaluate the following genogram using gender clues.
    Jessica and Josh's Genogram:
    What types of problems do you think Josh and Jessica might face in their relationship given Jessica's family history?
  • Looking at four generations of Jessica's family, it is clear that marriages in this family do not generally last. Although her great-grandparents were separated by death, Jessica's maternal grandparents, her parents, and an aunt and uncle have been divorced. Even her grandfather, Barry, "left" psychologically through his depression. In Jessica's family, the dissolution of these marriages has been generally viewed as the man's fault. “Men leave,” is what Jessica's mother and grandmother told her as a young girl growing up. Since her father has evidently not played a strong role in her life, Jessica may not have been able to develop healthy, trusting relationships with male family figures in her life. Jessica's romantic relationship with Josh may have the potential for a problematic future.
  • Since she has always been told that men leave, Jessica may not see this (or any) male relationship as long-term, which may affect her commitment to the relationship. On the other hand, Jessica may fear Josh’s abandonment (thus fulfilling her mother's and grandmother's words) and become very possessive and jealous. Jessica's relationship with Josh might also affect her relationship with her mother. If Jessica and Josh are able to have a healthy relationship, perhaps Jessica's mother will feel threatened by Josh.
  • Keep in mind that coming from a family that has had troubled relationships doesn't cause a person to have a troubled relationship. As you can see from these genograms, there are many potential problems that come from certain situations, but no guarantee that those problems will happen.
  • Clue Three: Secrets

    Secrets, still unrevealed or unknown to some, provide information the boundaries and communication patterns in certain families.

    Josh Nichols
    In the Nichols family, members of the 20 to 30-year-old generation report unfamiliarity with the workings of their family even though they live within a few miles of each other and see each other with regularity. The oldest child, Josh (29), and his girlfriend, Ruth, are considering their engagement, but it is unclear if or when, though they have been together for five years. This would be Josh's second engagement. Ruth pushes him about his feelings, values and beliefs while he pulls away, feeling smothered. Ruth complains that he never wants to talk about problems or painful things. Josh's genogram notes indicate "unknown" "Something odd but unclear" or "There's a secret here." Even the lines have question marks in many cases since Josh reports, "I don't know about their relationship.” Cutoffs are reported with comments such as, "They had a fight and don't talk" or "I'm not sure what happened to her. “

    Josh says, "My father, Frank, had three sisters, but there's something different about the oldest, Gert. I'm not sure if she was a full sister. My grandfather came from Italy but no one knew anything about his childhood or family there. My mother's mother died - she committed suicide or was killed - I'm not sure which one. She had two sisters and a brother. Her sister, Karen, lives near here. Her other sister is far away and we only get Christmas cards. I'm not sure where her brother Seth is."
    Josh's Genogram:
    Consider the following question:
  • What has Josh learned about dealing with highly charged or personal information?
  • How do you think Josh's family's secrets are affecting his relationship with Ruth?
  • Being part of a family that has so many secrets may have taught Josh that he can't really trust other people, especially those who are the closest to him. Because of this, he may have a difficult time trusting Ruth with his innermost thoughts and feelings.
  • Perhaps Josh is somewhat embarrassed about the spotted history of his family. He may be avoiding more intimacy with Ruth because he is unsure about hoe she will react to all the unexplainable or confusing aspects of his family.

  • Maria and Janice
    See how you interpret the following genogram.
    Maria and Janice's Genogram:
    Consider the following question:
  • Why do you think the family may have kept the secret of Janice's murder from Maria?
  • What issues do you think the secret of Janice's murder might raise for Maria and her mother Janice?
  • In looking at this genogram we see that Janice (Maria's mother) had a close, but conflictual relationship with her father, Mike. Janice had been named for her father's sister, Janice, who was murdered at age 16. Perhaps the relationship with Janice and her father Mike had been conflictual and close because Mike had created strong associations between his sister Janice and the daughter he named after his sister. It's important to note that Janice's murder was not talked about because it was too painful so Mike's daughter knew little of her aunt.
  • But how does the secret of her great aunt's murder affect the current relationship between Maria and Janice? There seem to be a couple of possibilities. First, Janice may just be reenacting the relationship she had with her father with her own daughter, though only managing to recreate the conflictual part of the relationship. Second, the family as a whole may be unconsciously overprotective of children, particularly daughters, as they reach their teenage years because of what happened to Great Aunt Janice. If Maria is currently in her teenage years, this may be causing her mother to be overprotective, leading to more conflict.

  • Clue Four: Losses

    A key genogram factor is the issue of losses. Numerous factors fit in this category - critical illness, death, disabilities, economic reversals, job losses, miscarriages, divorces, and several health and well-being losses. The experience of such losses and the depth of pain vary widely. A key question is "To what extent was this event perceived as a loss?" Not all these events are perceived as losses, and the depth of loss varies greatly.

    Cara and Earl
    Look at Cara and Earl's genogram in terms of losses
    Cara and Earl's Genogram:
    In looking at Cara and Earl's genogram, it is evident that they came from very different families of origin. After six miscarriages in seven years, Cara's parents were understandably grateful and relieved to finally have a child. Cara's relationship with her parents was a very close one (and still is with her mother). Earl, however, came from a family that did not experience the same kind of loss and pain that Cara's family did. In fact, his relationships with his parents contrast sharply with Cara's relationships with her parents.

    How do you think the many miscarriages might affect Cara and Earl's marriage? How might it affect their relationships with their children?
  • The differences in families of origin may have a significant effect on Cara and Earl's marriage. Perhaps Cara thinks that the closer the relationship the better, and pushes Earl to be more disclosing than he wants to be. Cara may have difficulties understanding Earl's relationships with his parents, which could also lead to tension in the marriage.
  • Childhood experiences may certainly affect Cara and Earl's expectations of raising their children. Earl may take on an authoritarian role and maintain some distance from his son as his father did with him, but allow himself to be closer to his daughter. Cara may strive to develop very close relationships with both children, because she was so intensely connected to her parents.
  • Perhaps Earl is not satisfied with the conflictual relationship with his father. He may strive to have closer relationships with both of his children than his parents had with him. In addition, maybe Cara feels like her relationship with her parents was too close, at times smothering her. She may try to avoid their fused relationships. If these scenarios both play out, Earl and Cara may end up desiring the same types of relationships with their children.
  • Earl and Cara could struggle with the role of Joanne (Carol's mother) in their lives due to the intense mother-daughter connection. Yet, the lines indicate Joanne and Earl have forged a strong connection, perhaps because Joanne saw it as a way to remain closely connected to Cara.
  • Lea

    Consider a variation on the issues of loss. Lea is twenty-three and deals with feelings of worthlessness and depression. Her mother Jenna is the second of six children and part of a large, extended Greek family. Her father Harry is also Greek and has three brothers. Lea has 20 first cousins and one sister, Cleo. Lea’s mother Jenna and father Harry had been married for nine years and had experienced three miscarriages before a doctor told them they were not likely to have children. It took two years for Jenna to convince Harry and their extended families to accept the idea of adoption. Three weeks after their twelfth anniversary they brought Lea home from the hospital, under a closed adoption arrangement. Although Jenna loved her very deeply, Harry was somewhat aloof, resentful of the loss of Jenna’s attention toward him and still unresolved about the idea of adoption. Eight months after the adoption, Jenna became pregnant, and Cleo was born when Lea was just seventeen months old. Harry joined more closely with Cleo, who became a family star in the extended family. Lea and Cleo grew up closely joined, but Lea never felt she really fit into the overall family. At this point Lea has had many boyfriends but nothing very serious; Cleo is engaged to be married next year.
    Here is Lea's genogram.
    Lea's Genogram:
    What questions would you wish to ask about Lea's life experience to date?
    What losses would you imagine she might have experienced?
    How could Lea's losses impact her current state?
  • Lea may be feeling different types of losses that are affecting her current state. First, she may feel a loss in the relationship with her father, Harry. As you can tell from the genogram, Harry is not as close to Lea as he is to Cleo. From the description, this lack of closeness is attributed to the act that Harry was initially not interested in the idea of adopting and was later resentful of the attention Jenna gave to Lea. The loss of a close relationship with her father may be contributing to Lea's trouble in maintaining a stable romantic relationship with the men she has dated. In some ways, Lea became Jenna's child, and Cleo became Harry's.
  • Lea may also feel the loss of not having a biological family to whom she can relate. Her adopted extended family is large, but somehow she has never really felt like she "fit in." This loss may be affecting Lea's self-concept and possibly her self-esteem, and may be playing a role in her difficult romantic relationships.
  • Lea’s adoption into a highly ethnic family (Greek), her background and her appearance called attention to visible differences between Lea and her relatives. As a result, she feels like an “outsider” and desires to know more about her birth family. Until she resolves some of her adoption issues, she may not be ready to invest in a committed romantic relationship that leads toward marriage and children.

  • Other: _____________________________________ (What other possibilities do you think might exist?)


    Emily, who just turned l7, is the only daughter of Frank and Sherrie. She acts out at home and fights with her father actively. They had a very close relationship until Emily was 13, when Frank started to complain about and object to much of her behavior. Sherrie simply assumed it was normal "teenage stuff" and did not think much about it, but Frank became increasingly concerned about Emily's friends, especially any male friends. By age 15, Emily was drinking and hanging out with a questionable group. Frank forbade her to bring these friends home and prohibited her from contacting them. Emily started running away and staying out overnight. At the time of the following genogram, Frank and Emily were totally estranged and Sherrie was caught in the middle.
    Emily's Genogram:
    When you look at Emily's genogram you find she grew up in a large family in which children were treated seriously and given many responsibilities early on. The family fought regularly but not viciously. Her parents argued and made up in a patterned way but the children felt secure. Children received the message, "We love you, but at some time you need to move out on your own." When you look at Frank's genogram you find he grew up with two siblings. When Frank was six, his father, Glenn, left for another woman, Susan, whom he married as soon as he finalized the divorce from Frank's mother. A baby soon followed. The children remained with their mother, Bonnie. Over the next two years Bonnie had a series of affairs and relationships with men Frank describes as losers. One day he and his siblings returned from school to find the house surrounded by police cars. Neighbors took the three children to their father's house. The children learned that their mother died but, to this day, do not know the whole story. They assume that their mother was murdered, but their father and stepmother will not discuss it. In fact, once they moved into their father's house, it was as if the years of separation never occurred and the family now lives with the fiction of this biological unit. Frank has only briefly mentioned this issue to Sherrie and has never spoken about it again. Sherrie acts as if Glenn and his wife are Frank's biological parents. Emily knows them as her biological grandparents.
    How do you think Frank and Sherrie's individual backgrounds are affecting the way the relate to their daughter, Emily?
    Frank has had at least two major losses in his life at relatively young ages: his father’s abandonment and his mother’s death. These losses may help to explain Frank’s interaction with his daughter Emily. Perhaps Frank feels that he must be very protective of Emily to keep her from experiencing some of the "darker" parts of life. He may also greatly desire to give Emily the kind of stable, protected home that he lacked.
    Evidently Emily has interpreted the behavior of her father not as loving and caring, but rather controlling and demanding. She may feel that he does not love her, when in fact, he believes he loves her, but is showing it through his controlling behavior. Sherrie is in a difficult position. On the one hand, she also wants to protect her daughter, but she may think that Frank is overdoing it. Her idea of a good family is one that allows their children independence, and she feels that Frank may have given Emily so little independence that they will remain estranged for a long period of time.

    Clue Five: Themes

    Themes speak to the questions "Who are we? How do we behave as a result of this identity?” Themes make evident a family's core values and belief structure that guide the family’s future behavior. Any theme may be played out in positive or negative ways; how family members act upon their themes is what is important. Look at the following themes and imagine how each could be played out with positive or negative impacts:
  • "Only your best is good enough."
  • "You can only depend on your family."
  • "You can always depend on your family."
  • "Coopers play to win."
  • "Always watch your back."
  • "Miller's turn the other cheek."
  • Aren and Elise

    Aren and Elise are recent college graduates. They have been dating seriously for two years and have begun to talk about living together with plans for a future marriage. Yet they frequently find themselves bumping up against some gender issues. Elise plans to work in consulting. She anticipates traveling two weeks to a month in the first years of her job. She is a good athlete and hopes to run marathons in the future. Aren becomes very anxious when she makes these plans, commenting, "Can't you just be like other women?" or "This won’t be as important when we're married." Elise is becoming noticeably defensive to Aren's reactions and they are experiencing more and more friction.
    Aren and Elise's Genogram:
    When you look at Aren's genogram, you see that Herman, his grandfather, still works part-time at 84. He officially retired at 75. He is a tough, active man who remains the family patriarch. He is well respected as the father who raised two children after his wife died in childbirth with her second child. Herman also withstood the painful death from pneumonia of his daughter, Eliza at age 16. His son, Mike, married a woman named Avis who was an only child of parents killed in a car accident. Mike worked as a real estate broker, and Avis stayed home with the children. Mike and Avis have three children Aren (23), Liz (18), and Daniel (17). Aren is a good student and is finishing his MBA. Liz is finishing high school. She has struggled with a learning disability but hopes to enter a community college in the fall. Daniel is a talented violinist.

    Elise's genogram paints a much different picture. Her grandmother, Leora, was the first woman mayor elected in her hometown. Leora's husband, Charles, quietly supported her, but did not want the spotlight for himself. Leora and Charles had four daughters, one of which was Marianne, Elise's mother. All four daughters were taught to be the best they could be. They excelled in sports, academics and music and maintained three established careers as they raised their families. Marianne was the exception, putting aside her career to take care of her family while her husband Brad worked long hours as a tax attorney. Marianne taught Elise and her sister Maggie that the sky was the limit. She pushed them to succeed at whatever they did. Marianne's three sisters have also been closely involved in Elise's life and shared their accomplishments with her.
    What do you think some of Aren's family themes are? Elise's family themes?
    Themes for Aren's family might include:
  • "Men are rocks in their families."
  • "Men are responsible caretakers."
  • "Women are wonderful and fragile."

  • Themes for Elise's family might include:
  • "Women have many choices in career and family life."
  • "Seize your opportunities."
  • "Only you can limit yourself."

  • How do you see these themes leading to conflict in Aren and Elise's relationship?
  • Although they might have talked extensively about their expectations, Aren and Elise each have dreams about their futures that are partly based on their gendered beliefs. Aren has planned to be the breadwinner husband and father, the key caretaker. Elise has learned to follow her dreams, to be self-sufficient and to avoid her mother’s pattern. Without multiple serious conversations and adjustments, the gendered values and beliefs could result in ongoing disagreement and disappointment for both parties.
  • Regardless what plans the couple might make in their early years of partnership, parenthood may create powerful disagreements. Aren is likely to interact very differently with daughters than sons whereas Elise may opt to raise them quite similarly. Again, conflicts may result.

  • What else could Aren and Elise do to improve the communication in their relationship?

    Clue Six: Culture

    A family’s cultural heritage may serve to provide clues to values, beliefs, behaviors and communication patterns. Usually a history of the family’s geographic roots, migration patterns and immigration experiences provide a sense of the significance of the experience. It is important to know how long ago the family members/ancestors immigrated and something about their experiences. You may discover histories of racism, strong religious beliefs, or elders who still live within an ethnic enclave. You may learn of generational reversals, or situations when children adapt to a new country much more quickly than their parents or grandparents did, leaving a child to serve as the family interpreter of the new culture and sometimes the go-between for his or her parents and siblings. When looking at partners’ genograms, their different cultural heritages may indicate why there are certain struggles in the relationship.

    Wei-Lin and Tom

    If you look at Wei-Lin’s genogram you will see that her father, Gus Chang, immigrated by himself to the United States from China when he was a young man. He grew up in Harbin, a smart student from a poor, uneducated family. Gus borrowed money to immigrate to California and worked in a Chinese restaurant for two years. He sent most of his money back to his parents and to repay his travel loans, only keeping enough to buy bread and sandwich meat for the days when he did not work at the restaurant and to pay for business books and English classes. He eventually studied at a community college and started three neighborhood restaurants. Over many years he brought three siblings to the United States for their educations. Gus married Mai Lee, a first generation Chinese young woman who taught pre-school until she became a mother. They had five children, of whom Wei-Lin is the eldest. Although both parents loved their children, Gus tended to be the disciplinarian and somewhat distant, while Mai was more nurturing. The children only met their grandparents once when the family traveled to China.

    Wei-Lin was raised to believe in the power of hard work and the need to support other family members. She also learned that women were expected to comply with the wishes of their fathers and to support their husbands and children. Although she worked her way through two years of college, she also contributed to the support of her grandparents in China and to the private high school education of the two youngest siblings. Eventually she met and married Ted Foster, a young man of mixed European heritage whose family roots in the United States went back four generations. His family was dual-earner, middle class. They became parents of twins after sixteen months of marriage. After college Ted worked in sales, hoping to return to graduate school for an MBA once their twins were older. Now, 14 years after marriage, Ted and Wei-Lin often encounter issues around money. Ted expected Wei-Lin to work to support the family as he entered graduate school. She not only resists working outside the home until the twins leave for college, she insists that money Ted earns be sent to her family in China and to the support of her siblings’ education. Ted’s parents are reluctant to provide funds for his schooling, given that he was sending his money to in-law relatives in China whom he never even met. They are resentful of the demands Wei-Lin places on her husband, the pressure she places on their grandchildren to be successful and the distance she keeps from her in-laws.
    Tom and Wei-Lin's Genogram:
    What key differences in values characterize this marriage?
    Coming from an individualistic cultural background, Ted’s parents grew up believing that they were responsible for planning for a retirement that did not depend on their children and thus raised their children to see themselves as self-sufficient. Therefore, short of a catastrophe, the siblings would not expect monetary help from other siblings nor would the parents suggest that the more successful siblings finance the dreams of nieces or nephews. His parents resent how We-Ling “drains” money from the family to help her grandparents and other relatives, whom she hardly knows, and to finance her siblings’ private school education. They believe Ted should support his own graduate education with Wei-Lin’s help. Ted is slightly more understanding but feels personally unsupported by his wife. Wei-Lin grew up learning her responsibility is to take care of family members, but she also believes her children currently need her at home, replicating her mother’s pattern.

    Amir and Miriam

    Amir Sriram and his wife Miriam grew up in an Indian-American community outside Detroit, where each set of parents had immigrated when they were in their early 30’s. Although Amir, who is 8 years older than Miriam, dated quite a few women who did not come from his cultural background, he knew he would be expected to marry a woman who shared his background. Miriam was the only daughter born in India; her parents emigrated when she was five and her siblings were born in the U.S. She grew up in a rather sheltered environment, spending most of her time on schoolwork and excelling on her high school and commuter college debate team. She did not date because her parents did not see it as appropriate.

    The couple met through their parents who developed a friendship over the years and, believing that their children would be right for each other, set up a meeting between them. Having reached age 30, Amir was ready to settle down and, though Miriam had hoped to attend graduate school in history, she responded to parental pressure and agreed to marry Amir. The families made the arrangements and the marriage took place six months after the couple met. They moved in together after the honeymoon. Much to the parents’ joy, Miriam became pregnant after two months and within six years, the young couple had four children, a reality that meant Miriam did not return to school and spent the next two decades raising her family while Amir worked long days and traveled regularly as he rose up the corporate ladder. Miriam has suggested she would like to return to school to become a high school history teacher but Amir does not support this dream. Their current lifestyle meets with approval from Amir and both sides of the extended family.

    Currently the family is in turmoil as their second child, 15-year-old Aparna, is challenging the family’s expectations of her. Although her brother,16-year-old Sadiq, is already in advanced placement classes and is an accomplished musician, Aparna is an average student who has developed high school friendships within the theatre crowd. She is known to sneak out at night, cut classes and lie about her plans; her parents heard she has a boyfriend, but she will not discuss the subject. The extended family sees her as rebellious. Although both parents are concerned, her father and grandparents are pressuring her to follow her brother’s lead, whereas Miriam tends to protect her, which leads to marital conflict.
    Scan the Sriram genogram for possible points of explanation:
    One possibility is that Miriam covertly supports her daughter’s rebellion. Despite Miriam’s disappointment in Aparna at the moment, this is her only girl and she wants Aparna to have an experience different than her own. Aparna represents the independence she never experienced and, though Miriam loves her children, her dreams of graduate school and a career were lost as parenthood started. Her husband is a good person, but is generally unavailable both physically and emotionally. She does not want that for her daughter. Another possibility is that Amir fears a loss of family image and his own successful image. Amir sees Aparna as an acting-out, rebellious young woman who needs to be brought into line quickly or she will never be academically successful nor will she find a good husband. He supports his sons’ attempts at independence and sees his oldest son as a good role model for the other children.

    Clue Seven: Boundaries

    Family boundaries establish the members’ relationship with the “outside” world as well as between and among family members. The external boundary serves to separate the family system from its environment; the internal boundaries establish the extent of closeness or distance among individual members. Essentially external boundaries distinguish family members from the rest of the world, whereas internal boundaries keep family members positioned in relationship to each other. Boundaries may be imagined as physical or psychological lines that regulate members’ access to people, ideas, place and values. Boundaries may be imagined along a continuum ranging from non-existent (totally open) to powerful and rigid (totally closed). Most family’s boundaries lie between these extremes. They are represented visually in the following simple manner:
    Boundary Examples:
    The regulation of boundary openness or closeness affects the openness or privacy of individuals and of whole family units. Such regulation patterns become part of an individual’s understanding of family and, unless someone purposely rejects their family of origin experiences, they are likely to replicate the boundary model in which they were raised. Simple boundary concerns may include issues such as: How free are you to bring friends home whenever you choose? How wide a range of friends (values, religion, gender, ethnicity, interests, etc) are you allowed to develop? How hospitable is the family? How free are you to explore new ideas? To what extent is access to persons, media, ideas, or places, restricted? On a deeper and more specific level, family boundaries may surface around issues of adoption, inter-religious or inter-ethnic marriage, choice of career, religious practice, homosexuality, divorce, alcohol/drug use, or other emotionally charged topics.

    An individual family member may seek to establish a strong boundary between herself and a member who abuses alcohol or try to establish an open boundary between himself and a sibling who is going through a painful divorce. Or the majority of family members may exclude a member who challenges their core values or who ignores a significant family theme.

    Look at the following genogram and imagine the boundary issues.

    Rob and Nathan

    If you look at Rob and Nathan’s genogram you will see how boundary patterns have influenced their lives in the past ten years. Rob (age 35) grew up in a small, highly conservative, religious family that experienced long marriages and no history of divorce. Most of the men were highly successful in scientific or business arenas. Most women became the primary caretakers of the children, even if they had professional degrees. Although family members cared about each other, there was a strong expectation of high cohesion and similarity. Differences in dreams or behaviors were discouraged.

    Rob, the youngest, seemed to challenge family expectations for most of his life. He exhibited a great need to be an individual and to engage in activities that surprised or dismayed the family. Rob was drawn to the arts and, against the family wishes, became a successful set designer. He reached this goal by paying his own way through the last years of college because his father would not fund such a college major. Although he appeared to evidence little interest in dating or romantic relationships when Rob turned 25 he informed his mother that he was gay and asked her to tell his father. She did so and his father did not talk to him for 3 years; their current relationship is distant but polite. His siblings exhibited varied uncomfortable responses although one sister, Jessica, remained close to Rob. He was able to talk to her about his lifestyle and romantic life. His mother and siblings avoided the topic entirely, never mentioning it to extended family and friends and discouraged Rob from bringing any “friend” to family events. Thus, even when he and Jose became partners, Jose was not welcome at any family gathering. Although Rob was a caring uncle, Rob’s siblings appeared uncomfortable when he got too close to any of the grandchildren and would never let him take them for outings on his own.

    Nathan, age 42, grew up as the third of six siblings. Due to a construction accident, his father was placed on disability when Nathan was young and was ill throughout much of Nathan’s life. Although the family did not have much money, education was prized and his mother encouraged her children to explore areas of interest and to follow their dreams. Because she was so busy with a job and taking care of her husband, the children learned to rely on and support each other. They also functioned as part of a large, extended family that included divorce, cohabitation and stepfamilies. When Nathan was in high school he told his oldest sister that he liked boys and thought he was gay. She told her mother who decided see how things developed over time. Nathan paid his way through community college and he became a vet tech, a career he loved. After dating various men casually for many years, at age 36 he met Rob through the clinic and they developed a firm partnership. Nathan’s family welcomed Rob into their lives because they were so pleased that Nathan finally found someone to love.
    Rob's Family Genogram:

    Nathan's Family Genogram:
    As you can imagine, Rob's family may respond negatively for a number of reasons.

    His family has almost no historical variation in biological or legal (marital) ties. This family has never had to accept a stepchild, or to take in a distant relative. They have maintained rigid boundaries about insiders and outsiders. Therefore, the idea of viewing a non-blood relative, actually a stranger’s child, as a family member is seen as uncomfortable and unthinkable.

    In contrast, Nathan’s family has incorporated new members across multiple generations through remarriage and adoption. Some family members have cohabited. Their boundaries are more flexible so they are not threatened by a new addition through adoption.

    It is also possible that Rob’s family has tried to keep his homosexuality a secret within the family. By choosing to become parents, Rob and Nathan have taken on more public roles. The family members can no longer refer to Nathan as Rob’s “friend”; instead, they will have to acknowledge his lifestyle choice to their community of extended family and friends. Given their religious history and their desire for conformity, the adoption plan seems unacceptable. Nathan’s family has acknowledged and welcomed Rob over the years. Therefore the parenting decision does not challenge their family identity. For them, this is wonderful news and they are happy for Rob and Nathan.

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