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Smith family genogram
sepia colored old family photo


What is a genogram?


A genogram is a multigenerational family diagram that depicts the relational ties between and among family members. A genogram may be imagined as an elaboration of the family tree. Genograms provides a means to map patterns of familial interactions and relationships across multiple generations–at least three generations. Genograms are structured similarly to family trees.

How are genograms constructed?


Individuals who know their family history and the genogram coding system may develop genograms on their own because they wish to understand the influence of their families-of-origin on their current family life. More frequently, partners may encounter genograms during relational counseling sessions. In some cases, couple’s therapists spend one or two sessions exploring each partner’s family history. Drawings of both partners’ family genograms are analyzed and compared. Very frequently this leads to “Aha moments” or times when one partner suddenly understands why his or her partner acts a certain way or hold a particular belief about family roles, such as how to enact mothering or fathering.


It is critical to remember that genograms reflect one individual’s point of view and they depict a family at a specific point in time, usually the present. Therefore, a genogram drawn in 2014 may look significantly different in 2017. The person whose perspective is represented in a genogram is referred to as the Index Person (IP). Most members of a family agree on the basics of a family tree, but major differences may appear when relatives describe the relationships among family members. For instance, siblings of different ages, genders, and other characteristics may create significantly varied genograms.


How do genograms relate to family communication?


Genograms provide a broad framework in which we can make sense of certain family relationships and communication patterns. Understanding any family depends, in part, upon analyzing family communication. Family members’ communication both shapes and is shaped by family relationships. For instance, couples who attend marriage education classes or workshops may change certain problematic communication practices and develop more effective ways to communicate with each other. In many cases, partners who view each other’s genograms may begin to understand the background of certain behaviors.


Consider a situation where two male siblings lost both parents at an early age and become very close to each other. When one marries, his wife may not fully understand her husband’s intense ties to his brother and his desire to talk or visit him so often. However, as a genogram might suggest, the relationship the brothers developed as children may have a lasting effects on their adult communication. As they grow older, partner, and move far away from each other, they may still communicate frequently, disclosing their disappointments and joys with each other or talking through their problems at work or at home.


The genogram of the Smith family is an example of how alcoholism spread within this family beginning with grandpa Joe and moving down to Joe Jr, Joey and Mary… a multigenerational disease. The shaded areas represent the addiction and the squiggly lines represent conflict between family members. Males are shown in square boxes and females in circles. Susan is the caretaker, enabler and is in a triangle with her husband and daughter. A triangle is a three-person relationship system. A two-person system is unstable because it tolerates little tension before involving a third person. Spreading the tension can stabilize a system, but nothing gets resolved.


Those interested in family communication will gain a great deal of information from analyzing genograms. As you learn more about genograms, keep the following question in mind: “How might this history of interaction patterns affect the family’s current communication patterns?”

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