I’m not saying Freud was right to blame everything on our mothers (his misogynistic views on women are well documented), but he did have the root of an idea that Murray Bowen leveraged decades later into Family Systems Theory. Sometimes it’s easy to trace our personal challenges as adults to specific events or traumas tied to our personal histories, but other times it’s a far more subtle, potentially insidious thing to trace the nuanced impact of internalized behavioural models and “invisible values” inherited from our family systems.
Even clients who have no notable red-flag-raising events in their loving, textbook-perfect families can be surprised at just how much of their behaviour *can* be tied directly back to how they were raised, or what they experienced in the home where they grew up. One of the most common examples of this that we see in relationship counselling with individuals, couples, or poly groups, comes from people who present as happy, seemingly-well-adjusted people from families where the parents never fought, who come into counselling because they have issues connecting with their partners, or because they are anxious in their attachments, and they can’t figure out why. “My parents never argued” is probably the single most common indicator that this was likely to be a family with unhealthy coping strategies for tension and conflict, up to and including outright avoidance of contention. Given that kids inherently use their family of origin as models for behavioural development in most things inter-relational and (once they are adults) and intimacy-building, it’s unsurprising that otherwise “happy home” kids grow into adults who don’t do well with emotional intensity or all-out conflict.
I use the family of origin “snapshot” fairly extensively with many of my clients. It helps me create a picture of the client in terms of where they come from, what kinds of models they grew up with, what kinds of default responses might have been programmed in for emotional self- or co-regulation within the family system from a potentially early age. Within the first session or two, we don a verbal sketch of the principle members of the system: mom and dad, siblings, step-parents and blended family members. If there are interesting things in parental histories that seem impactful on the client’s development, we often look at the relationship between parents and grandparents as well. This tells us what family values might have been passed (or shoved) down from that generation onto the parents that potentially informed how the parents raised their own kids, at least one of whom is now sitting in my office in crisis. It’s this part of the process that’s more about the art of reconstruction, interpreting what we can discern about the family behaviours through the lens of Bowen’s System Theory into a narrative that sheds a little light on why my otherwise-happy client can’t now seem to tolerate any kind of disagreement in the relationship, and falls into an anxious fugue at anything even remotely suggesting that conflict is present.
The family of origin snapshot also sheds some light on intersibling dynamics that may impact personal development into adulthood. Looking at where the client falls in a multi-child birth order, for example, might tell us something about issues like “middle child syndrome” (perhaps the client IS the middle child, or was heavily impacted by a middle child’s behaviours), or parentification of an eldest child. Unconscious parental favouritism can have a huge impact on how kids in such a family develop into adults, as can being the “normal” child in a family that also includes a differently-abled, ill, or developmentally-handicapped child.
Sometimes the family of origin snapshot can pinpoint exact historical incidents that manifest as seemingly-disconnected physical trauma much later in life. Sometimes the group portrait makes it very clear up front that there is a systemic behavioural pattern that has produced challenging or toxic patterns in the client’s own adult life and relationships; toxic parenting or corrosive sibling rivalries will also have a profound effect on how the adult client has come to view relationships.
Once we have created the word picture of the family and the set players on the stage, we use that construct to look at how the client perceives both their role in relational drama, and how they are likely to interpret the behaviours of others around them based on what their families taught them. This runs the gamut from uncovering anxious narrative of imperfection to ego-invested narratives of “Of course I’m always right”, to “Love mean we never fight, doesn’t it? So if we’re fighting all the time, why does my partner hate me??” Because this is an interpretation, I make it clear to the clients when we do this work that just because we construct a narrative explanation that resonates with the information as we perceive it, that doesn’t mean it’s the truth, or that it’s the only truth. We put all the pieces on the board: what the client can relay about their own lived experience, what the therapist can bring in terms of clinical education and observational perspective, and we move the pieces of information around on the board until we have a storyline that explains what is known in a way that fits with both shared and unshared information (clients *ALWAYS* have more information in their heads than they share verbally in therapy; that’s just a truism of the work). Theories that don’t fit get tossed and we start again; the therapist’s own flexibility and refusal to get stuck on their own perspectives becomes a key component here, just as the client’s own willingness to see their long-held historical snapshot explained in a new perspective is important.
This part of shifting perspective is part of the narrative reframing process in which we challenge the client’s understanding of “how things work” on which they have quite likely based their adult values and decision-making models. And if they are coming into therapy because their internal models don’t seem to be influencing or sustaining the kinds of connections they say they want to have in their lives and relationships, the family of origin snapshots will go a long way towards potential roots of the problem. When we change the historical perspective, we also open the opportunity to change how the client relates to both their own history and, perhaps more importantly, the future of their own relationships. For example, a client coming from what they described on intake as, “really close and super-happy home” was struggling with the surprise dissolution of the parental marriage at the same time as the client was facing a power struggle in their own marriage. Because they feel they “turned out just fine” from this “super-happy home”, to the client it was apparent that the parenting strategies that raised them “are obviously the right ones, so if I’m using them to raise *MY* child, I’m obviously right, aren’t I?” But when we circled back around to the dissolution of the parental marriage and all the conflict that was engendering in the family, we had cause to wonder about how it was that the parents were so unhappy for so long that dissolution finally seemed the only option. That led to a conversation about emotional suppression and what that taught my client about emotional suppression and emotional validation, and we began to see how the parental choices had informed my client’s development… and how if we began to see the parental model as potentially deeply flawed in new or still-unseen ways, what did that mean for how my client had internalized that “perfect parenting model” that was at the heart of their own relationship power struggle? Suddenly, simply by looking at the family of origin snapshot from a new angle, we had a whole new perspective on what was happening for the *CLIENT* in terms of attempting to implement a flawed model, or a flawed understanding of an imperfect model.
It’s common for clients to wonder why their families become important to me as a therapist when we’re talking about what they perceive as disconnected issues. I explain about my Systems Theory background, and how it’s part of my job to hold in mid the potential impact these other factors might have on our work. It’s a lot like radio astronomy, I tell them; there are a lot of important objects out in deep space, like black holes, that we can’t see directly, but we can see and measure the effect they have on the things we *CAN* see. Family impacts on client issues work the same way; we can only determine the impact those factors have when we observe the client’s behaviours as an adult. And I freely admit, the times when my clients are most likely to perceive what therapists do as Pure Magictm is when we can put the pieces of their intake story through the Family System Theory filter and feed back to them an enhanced reflection that suddenly “explains so much”. Being able to see light bulbs or couch bombs go off in client’s heads is, I also admit, a big secret part of why we therapists Do What We Do. We love those moments when the revised narrative gains a toehold, and the new vista opens up for the client; it’s one of the things that makes it easier for clients to go forward into the work they’ve come to do. It’s like we’re the mountain sherpas who, by showing them a new understanding of the past, have opened up an unexpected path to go forward from there… and simply catching a glimpse of the path, that new understanding, gives the client tremendous hope that they’re in the right place to do the right work.
Some days, what we do really does seem like a kind of magic 🙂