Constructing and Interpreting Interaction Patterns

Multigenerational Transmission of Communication Patterns

Families repeat themselves within and across generations. Members become caught up in predictable, but often unexamined, life patterns, which are created in part through their interactions with others. Some of these patterns are communication patterns. Before delving into the intricacies of genograms, we need to briefly discuss the transmission of communication patterns across generations, as it is one of the underlying assumptions of genogram developers and practitioners.

A communication approach to families reflects the belief that communication is “transactional,” which means that interpersonal communication mutually impacts each participant. Thus, in communicative relationships, participants affect and are affected simultaneously by the others. As two people interact, each creates a context for the other and relates to the other within that context. It does not matter how much more talking one person appears to do; the mutual impact remains the same. Within these views, relationships take precedence over individuals.

A communication perspective focuses on the interaction between two or more persons and the patterns which emerge as they interact over time. From a "family systems" perspective, it is nonproductive to analyze each individual separately. Each individual communicates within an interpersonal context, and each communication act reflects the nature of those relationships.

Transactional Communication Examples

Sarah: "From the first day that I met my sister Kelly's fiancee, Peter, I thought he seemed pretty distant. It was like he didn't want to get too close to anyone in our family. I've always been polite to him, but have never really felt very close to him. Now that they've been married for three years, I notice that he still seems distant -- it's like he still isn't used to us!"

Peter: "When I first met Kelly's sister, Sarah, I was pretty nervous. I knew how close Kelly was to Sarah and I wanted her to like me. She was polite to me, but I felt like she didn't really accept me. Even after three years of marriage, I still feel like I have to be very formal and polite whenever I am around her."

This example shows how communication patterns are created between two people. When Sarah and Peter first met, Peter was concerned about making a good impression on Sarah. Sarah perceived that Peter was distant and reserved. Peter perceived that Sarah didn't like him, and continued to keep his guard up around her. Each created an image of the other and related to that image. Over three years, this pattern between Sarah and Peter has become more ingrained.

"My father and brother had a very difficult relationship with each other for many years, although both of them had an excellent relationship with everyone else in the faily. Don saw Dad as repressive and demanding, although I would characterize him as serious and concerned. Dad saw Dan as careless and uncommitted, although no one else saw him that way. Whenever they tried to talk to each other, each responded to the person he created, and it was a continual battle."

In this example, knowing Dan or his father separately does not account for their conflictual behavior when they are together. Both influence the other's interaction. Both create a context for the other and relate to each other within the context. It is as if one says to the other, "You are careless," or "You are repressive," and "that's how I will relate to you." The content and style of the messages vary according to how each sees himself or herself and how each predicts the other will react. As well as taking the environment or context into account, the transactional view stresses the importance of the communicators' preceptions and action in determining the outcome of interactions.

Understanding how communication is transactional, however, is not enough. Genograms are concerned with multigenerational patterns of communication and relationships, and so we must take the transactional nature of communication one step further and examine how developed communication patters may be transmitted across generations. As we have discussed, communication patters are created by the actors' perceptions and their reactions to each other. Such patters can become very ingrained in a relationship, to the point where they can be called "scripts." That is, family members may act in certain ways toward other family members without stopping to think about why they are acting in this way. When such patterns become so ingrained, they may be passed down to other family members consciously or unconsciously.

Multigenerational Symptoms:

  • Influence, and are influenced by, individuals who are born into them.
  • Are developmental in nature, witnessing changes in individuals and subsystems.
  • Contain patterns which are shared, transformed, and manifested through intergenerational patterns.
  • Impact families as the partners' heritages reflect cross-generational influences.
  • Contain issues which may appear only in certain contexts and which may be at unconscious levels.
  • Have boundaries that are hierarchical in nature.
  • Develop functional and dysfunctional patters based on the legacy of previous generations and here-and-now happenings (Hoopes, 1987, 198-204).
  • Transmission of Communication Patterns Examples

    Mark grew up in a "traditional" family. His father worked outside the home, and his mother stayed home to raise Mark and his two younger sisters. Mark didn't see his father much, since his father often worked overtime to try to make ends meet. Whenever Mark or his sisters were misbehaving, his mother would say, "You better quite acting up, or I will tell your father." The threat of having his father discipline him was often enough to make Mark shape up. THe few time his father had disciplined him were rough. When he was young, his father would spank him; as he became older, his father would ground him or take away other privileges. With these punishments also came verbal attacks. Mark's father would call him, "dumb," "bad," "irresponsible," and "worthless." Mark assumed his father loved him, even though he never said the words.

    When Mark married Julie, everything went really well until their first child, Alex, got into the "terrible twos." Mark relied on what he had learned from his father about discipline, spanking Alex and calling him a "bad boy" and "dumb kid." Such behavior caused a great deal of tension between Mark and Julie, who preferred much milder disciplinary tactics. It wasn't until Mark and Julie began marital counseling that Mark realized he had "become" his father -- that he was recreating the unhealthly communication pattern he had had with his own father to his relationship with Alex.

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    Lucy grew up in a family where love was shown openly among family members. Hugs, kisses and the words "I love you" were often exchanged between parents and children, between Lucy and her siblings and between her mother and father. It was completely natural for her to show her affection to family members. Lucy married Matt, and soon had two children of her own. She raided her daughters with the same norms of affection of her upbringing.

    When Lucy's daughters were five and three, her husband, Matt, died. The bond between Lucy and her daughters increased. Three years later, Lucy remarried. Her new husband, John, had three children of his own. As Lucy and John attempted to create this new blended family, she found it challenging to continue showing a lot of love. John had never been one to hug and kiss his children, so they resisted when she tried to show her love. She felt uncomfortable continuing to show great affection toward her own daughters, as she did not want to seem to favor them over her new stepchildren. Her young daughters could not understand why their mother would not hug and kiss them and say, "I love you" as much as she once did.

    When she was around, John's parents and siblings, Lucy realized that there were not many hugs, and nobody eveyr said, "I love you." John and his father shook hands when they arrived or departed, and the one time Lucy tried to hug John's mom, she quickly backed away. Lucy began to understand that she and John communicated affection in different ways due greatly to how their families had raised them.

    Or, we may see family members react to ingrained communication patterns in the opposite way, also affecting family relations.

    Generational Change of Communication Patterns Examples

    Debbie grew up in a home where children were "better seen than heard." Her parents often entertained important guests, so they would parade the children out for a few minutes and then send them off to bed. As Debbie grew older, and began to develop her own ideas and opinions, she felt her parents never took her seriously. She vowed that when she had children she would listen to them and include them in family activities.

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    John did not really have a father growing up – his parents divorced when he was just three. When he was fourteen, his mother got remarried to Ron. Ron was from a blue-collar background and worked hard at his own job at a local factory. John knew that he did not desire that kind of life and began applying to colleges when he was a senior in high school. Ron told him that going to college was stupid, a waste of time and that he and John's mother would not support him if he chose to continue. John paid his own way through college and told himself that he would encourage his children to go to college and help support them.

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    As the youngest in a large family, Sharon was often teased by her older siblings. They would tease her about being young, liking boys in her class, and about the music she and her friends enjoyed. It bothered Sharon, but she tried to just laugh it off. One particular night, however, her older brother was teasing her about something when one of her friends was over. She became very upset that he embarrassed her in front of her friend and told her mother about it. From that point on, her older siblings rarely teased her. A few years later she finally found out from her mom what changed their behavior. “The night that your brother teased you until you started crying reminded me of how my older brothers and sisters used to tease me,” Sharon's mom said, “I suddenly remembered how bad that felt, and how I promised myself that I would never let that happen to one of my children. I talked to your brothers and sisters, and made some mild threats of punishment if they teased you any more. It seemed to work.”

    Cultual Communication Patterns Example

    Another factor that influences multigenerational communication is culture. When people are asked to identify themselves ethnically, there is an attempt to focus on cultural continuity and cultural identity (McGoldrick, Giordano, Garcia-Preto, 2005). Occasionally individuals do not realize the impact of their cultural heritage on the ways in which they function in their current family systems. Issues may focus on the extent to which family members have experienced discrimination due to their ethnic and racial background, the extent to which the family has lived in an ethnic community or maintained religious or spiritual beliefs reflective of their cultural heritage. Furthermore, individuals may maintain strong beliefs about gender roles in families based on their cultural heritage as well as beliefs about the importance of individualism versus collectivism.

    As a young woman raised in a family whose roots ran through generations in the American Midwest, Karen had little sense of her ethnic heritage. She believed that because her fiancé, Raj had lived in the United States during high school (as an exchange student), college and for five years of corporate life, that his ethnic ties to India would be mainly ceremonial. They lived a life that seemed very similar to her other friends who were engaged to men raised in U.S. households. In the first years of marriage, Karen and Raj found themselves fighting over the arrival of his cousins or aunts who would come to visit and stay for five or six weeks in the couple’s small apartment. During this time, Raj expected Karen to be extremely attentive to the needs of the guests and to be available at times when she would typically be at work or with her friends. Whereas Raj explained that these people were his family and needed to be treated in an extremely hospitable manner, Karen could not imagine her cousins or aunts expecting or receiving this type of treatment. For the first time she saw Raj as sexist in his expectations of her and it made her very angry. He viewed her objections as rude and inhospitable to members of their family.

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