In article four of the Family of Origin Exploration for the Therapist series, I explain initial steps for creating your genogram. Before adding more detail to your genogram, including relational patterns and dynamics, it's important to explore the family rules and structure of your family of origin, so that you can add the appropriate relational dynamics to your genogram.
The ideas presented in this article about family rules and structure will be mainly based on the work of Salvador Minuchin (1974). While "diagnosing" family rules and boundaries is valuable, it is not meant to encourage a negative view of your family of origin and its members; it is meant to give you tools for assessing your family of origin experience realistically, based on traditional family therapy ideas.
Structure and Boundaries
According to Minuchin (1974), "Family structure is the invisible set of functional demands that organizes the ways in which family members interact" (p. 52). "Invisible" is an important descriptor to consider as you assess your family's rules and structure, because many rules governing relational interactions in families are unspoken.
Family structure is determined by a family's boundaries. When Minuchin (1974) defined boundaries, he was referring to the rules that underpin families' transactional patterns; i.e. how the larger system (the nuclear family) operates, as well as subsystems (specific relationships and categories within the family) within it.
According to Minuchin (1974), "The clarity of boundaries within a family is a useful parameter for the evaluation of family functioning" (p. 54). In other words, the clearer the boundaries, the higher the functioning. Minuchin specified the following boundaries:
Clear: The lines of responsibility and authority are overt, communicated, and understood.
Disengaged: The lines of responsibility and authority are strictly enforced and must be followed; however, they are not necessarily communicated or explained. Access to all family members, especially parents or those in authority, is limited. Appropriate communication and expression across subsystems (e.g., children to parents) is stifled.
Enmeshed: The lines of responsibility and authority are blurred. Communication that crosses appropriate relational boundaries is frequent; for example, a father expressing his frustrations with work to his daughter rather than his wife. In extreme cases, any act of individuality or separation from the family is considered, " . . . an act of betrayal" (p. 113).
Invisible rules, also known as implicit rules, are rules that are accepted as reality. Because they are unspoken rules, they go unquestioned and hold a great deal of power in the family's day-to-day interactions (Day, 2010).
Donaldson-Pressman and Pressman (1994) specify common invisible rules in families where there is addiction, abuse, or neglect. These rules are also present, to some degree, in many families with disengaged and enmeshed boundaries; they include:
Indirect communication: Family members do not express their needs directly, and instead use sarcasm, criticism, or other ways to communicate their feelings.
Triangularization: Parents communicate with one another through a child or other family member. They may also use the children to create distance in their relationship.
Lack of parental accessibility: Children's feelings do not have a voice in the family; they are negated, ignored, or minimized by the parents.
Unclear boundaries: Boundaries are set, but can be broken by parents at any time. Children are expected to meet their parents' emotional needs, but parents do not meet the children's emotional needs.
Lack of entitlement: Children are not entitled to have, express, or experience feelings that are unacceptable to the parents. This may also extend to a lack of entitlement regarding children's physical possessions and boundaries, such as their body, physical space and privacy, ownership of belongings, etc.
Mind reading: There is a belief that people who love and care about you should be able to meet your needs and desires, without you having to express them.
It is noteworthy that Minuchin (1974) emphasized that family boundaries and rules fall within the normal range for most families, and that the range from disengagement to enmeshment is a continuum. His explanation of functioning as a range allows for family of origin "explorers" to reflect upon their specific experiences in their families of origin, without fearing the need label the family as "dysfunctional."
Realistic vs. Idealistic
In order to begin and pursue differentiation of self (Bowen, 1985), an honest assessment of and reflection upon your experience of your family is necessary. It is natural, as you reflect, to feel a sense of discomfort, or the need to rationalize your experience and emotions as well as a family member's behavior. Rationalization may sound like this, for example: "But, I know he only did that because his dad was the same way with him;" or, "She worked so hard for us, and she was too busy, even though I know she wanted to spend time with me."
These statements may be true, and their veracity is not to be debated. However, as you explore your family of origin experience, it is essential that you concentrate on your perspective without the rationalization or explanation of another's behavior. The reason for this is that you must first extend empathy to yourself, feel your feelings, and accept your experience, before you can offer full understanding to your significant others.
The time will come to put other family members' behavior in context, so that you can see them as full human beings within their life story, and if necessary, forgive. But, those steps are possible only when you've first honored your experience.
Now that you've reviewed family rules and structure:
- Try to identify the types of boundaries present in your family of origin.
- Articulate as many invisible family rules as possible that have influenced your family of origin. If you have difficulty, and you're married or partnered, ask your partner; oftentimes, those outside the family system can see these rules more clearly, because their family system operated on a different set of rules.
- If you'd like examples of invisible family rules, I've put together a list and included it in the free resource library. If you are not yet registered for access to the library, you can register here.
Assessing the structure and rules of your family of origin will help you get a sense of the ways in which the family operated, the expectations for behavior, as well as your experience within these parameters. This will prepare you to add more detail about your family of origin to your genogram. In the next article of this series, I will explain how to add relational dynamics and family rules to your genogram using the appropriate symbols.
E-mail me, or let me know in the comments below:
- What is one invisible rule you identified from your family of origin?
- How was the information in this article helpful?