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The family is a complicated system. But again, what is a family? James and Nancy and Jimmy are a family, yet families are more than parents and children. Families include all the generations and all the people we consider relatives, whether by birth, marriage, or adoption. We need to distinguish between nuclear families [parents and their children] and families of origin--where we all come from.

Reasons for paying attention to multi-generational issues


When we look at previous generations, we find the wisdom and answers for which we're looking. I wouldn't want to count how many times I've assigned couples in marital therapy the task of asking their parents for "3 powerful suggestions for improving their marriage." I am constantly in awe of the creativity and relevance of the answers I hear.


We learn to relate to our children and other people from our parents, and they learn to relate to us and other people from their parents, and so on. Of course, this is a tremendous oversimplification--we also learn from our kids and many others in an ongoing give and take process. 

Every family has its story--its myths and rituals that embody truth as the family has experienced it, and these myths affects us and our world view whether or not we are aware of them. Since wisdom, ways of relating, and even how we see and define the world are handed down from generation to generation, we should pay attention. When we recognize our legacy--what we get along with the love and caring from our families--we can accept the traditions and patterns which are useful and meaningful to us, and change those that are not.

A Multi-Generational Example:

   This example is a fairly benign expression of a "leaving home issue." The daughters of this family tend to be perhaps just a little more connected to their family of origin than to their nuclear families. This is not necessarily abnormal--neither I nor any family therapist has a right to say how much connection to either family is right.

In this example, we have grandparents, parents, and a granddaughter. The grandmother died 3 years ago [indicated by the line drawn through her circle]. Now, in this family, the daughter was always close to her father and distant from her mother (when we see a pattern like this, we might wonder if relationships between parents and children are more intense or more important than those between spouses). When her mother died, she naturally became the caretaker for her father and devoted so much time to him that her husband became angry and lonely. He gradually drew closer to his daughter. What kind of relationship will the granddaughter have with her husband, if she marries? One possibility is that she'll marry a loving, fatherly kind of guy who will probably, in fact, be an excellent and involved father to his children, freeing up his wife to care for her father.

Multi-Generational Example

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Jonathan P. Levine, CSW
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Updated on 05/30/2002
2002, Jonathan P. Levine, CSW