18. Multi-Generation Transmission - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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18. Multi-Generation Transmission

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Ghost Guest Family Past

Ghosts and Guests of Family Past in Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

An individual and thus the couple or family are influenced by multi-generation transmission- the transmission of the family emotional processes through multiple generations of families.  Transgenerational schemata may be relatively benign, positive, or negative intrapsychically or interpersonally.  The individual may be conscious of beliefs or values from the family-of-origin, or be subconsciously bound by them.  When schemata have negative content and associated with negative emotion, they are often very difficult to change.  Over time, they often become more entrenched as they elicit life responses that reinforce them.  "Furthermore, it is more difficult to modify schemata that are actually not within one's conscious awareness" (Dattalio, 2006, page 362).  The individual, couple, or family is often highly focused on immediate issues.  A precipitating crisis such as an affair, an emotionally brutalizing argument, a drunken binge, or a domestic violence incident may have brought them into therapy.  While managing any crisis issues for immediate stabilization and safety, therapy will often eventually require deeper examination of the relationship precedents.  Current stresses and influences on the relationship should not preclude identification of historical influences.  Bringing them into conscious consideration from each person's family thus is a vital initial goal of therapy.

Larson (2000) says, "Overall, these results provide some initial evidence that perceived emotional, sexual, and intellectual intimacy in young adult dating relationships may be negatively affected by the transmission of dysfunctional rules from one's family-of-origin.  In the broadest context, these results support multigenerational transmission theory (Hoopes, 1987; L'Abate, 1998).  Although the correlations between the perceived dysfunctional family rules and the three types of intimacy were relatively low, this was not unexpected.  Nor do the low correlations mean that these results are not clinically significant (Deal & Anderson, 1995).  Perceived family-of-origin rules were not expected to explain a great degree of variance in young adult perceived relationship intimacy, because family-of-origin influences are by nature distal rather than proximal influences.  However, the distal family-of-origin factors have not only a significant direct effect on relationship intimacy (as found in the current study) but also likely have a significant indirect influence on intimacy by the way they influence proximal factors.  For example, introjected dysfunctional family-of-origin rules may be expected to have a direct negative effect on an individual's self-esteem, personality, and anxiety in relationships.  These three proximal factors also are likely to be directly related to relationship intimacy.  The distal family-of-origin effects are what Bradbury (1995) refers to as an 'enduring vulnerability'—a relatively stable historical or experiential factor that individuals bring to relationships" (page 169).

Clients may not understand the need to examine "old stuff."  However, current patterns of behavior that may otherwise appear illogical are often discovered to have logical origins in an earlier family-of-origin context.  Individuals may discover that the other person is not just arbitrarily choosing choices distressing to them.  This can free them from a sense of betrayal that the person has no reason to choose "against" them.  The therapist should elicit various rules, rituals, patterns, roles, life experiences, cultural and social background, economic issues, and anything else that may be replicated in new relationships.  Family researchers have found that children who experience parents engaged in repeated and intense marital conflict often become more prone to have their own marital problems as adults.  If relationship problems result in divorce, children then experience multiple physical and emotional health problems, financial strain, and social and educational disadvantages.  Both positive and negative consequences persist beyond the children of divorce, but also later generations.  "…research has documented that supportive and positive interactions observed between parents and children are predictive of more supportive and less hostile behaviors in the children's later romantic relationships, while negative and hostile parent–child interactions are predictive of increased hostility and negative affect in the communication of the children with their romantic partners years later (Conger et al. 2000).  This negative emotionality and hostility has been found to uniquely predict relationship distress and even divorce in children's later romantic and marital relationships (Donnellan et al. 2005; Story et al. 2004)" (Gardner et al.,2007, page 115).

While there is significant evidence that poor marital outcomes and divorce seem to transmit from generation to generation, it is not clear why.  Parental divorce may not cause the next generation's vulnerability to repeating divorce as much as the poor parenting that frequently accompanies parents divorcing.  "Holman and Birch (2001) also found that parental divorce's impact on offspring's current marital satisfaction was totally mediated by the quality of the childhood parent–child relationship.  Amato (1996) suggests that if children (of either divorced or married parents) have a good relationship with one or both parents, they may gain emotional stability and social skills required for successful adult relationships (i.e. non-hostile conflict resolution styles)" (Topham, 2005, page 106).  Parental warmth, a close parent/child emotional connection, and the quality of parental discipline are key factors in individuals' later couple's interactions.  Consistent, clear, and calmly applied discipline predicts children's adult marital success.  On the other hand, controlling and hostile parenting tends to produce children with adult marriages that lack affection, are explosive, and conflictual.  Overly strict parents who do not explain discipline or punishment tend to produce individuals with low confidence and poor social skills likely to persist into adulthood.  These traits may increase emotional reactivity and hostility in marital conflict.  Permissive and inconsistent parenting on the other hand, raise individuals more likely to be impulsive, less self-reliant, and more likely to lack social and cognitive skills.  Such poor inhibition paired along with poor social skills "may be partly responsible for partners' sudden, eruptive and hostile approach to conflict.  Gottman (1994) found that this quick and hot 'start up' to couple conflict by wives was particularly damaging to the marital relationship" (Topham, 2005, page 106-07).

Both husbands' and wives' reported marital quality is also influenced by the family-of-origin experiences of their partners.  It is intuitively logical that positive skills for conflict resolution in one's partner may help mitigate deficiencies in one's own skills.  Certainly, two partners with poor conflict resolution skills would bode badly for a functional relationship.  Family communication and conflict resolution skills are clearly important predictors of later marital interactions.  Children do not learn productive and effective conflict resolution and other interpersonal skills from parents who themselves cannot resolve conflicts functionally.  As their parents were worn down and possibly overwhelmed by conflict, individuals often repeat the dynamics in their adult relationships.  In contrast, individuals who have learned in their family-of-origin to manage interpersonal squabbles tend to have better marital relationships (Topham, page 108).  Topham further adds that research suggests that women's versus men's family-of-origin experience are more influential in predicting parent perceived marital hostility.  This may be because of cultural traditions in heterosexual relationships that often assign women the primary responsibility for the relationship.  It is hypothesized that the family-of-origin influences may hold stronger for women versus men.  Marriage is considered to extend and deepen women's family-of-origin influences.  "This again supports the research of Holman and Birch (2001) and Wamboldt and Reiss (1989) which suggest that, in regard to their own marriage, wives are more influenced by family-of-origin experiences than husbands.  This may be due to wives being more attuned to the subtleties of marital interaction than husbands.  Because wives tend to monitor the marital relationship more closely, they may be more likely to be sensitive to and are more likely to report marital conflict (Gottman & Levenson, 1985).  It is likely that wives' greater sensitivity to the marital climate also makes them more vulnerable to either their own or their husbands' negative family-of-origin experiences" (Topham, 2005, page 115-16).

The poor parenting perspective on later relationship difficulties may also qualify the two following explanations presented.  One is that dysfunctional couples present inappropriate modeling of spouse roles for their children.  Children in families with unhappy parents are hypothesized to duplicate their parents' poor interactional style, and thus have similar problems in their relationships.  A second explanation proposes that parental unhappiness and divorce cause children to develop problematic personality traits that harm relationship interactions.  Parental marital discord has been associated with children's poor social competence and problematic peer relationships and is predictive of conflict as adults in their marriages (Topham, 2005, page 205).  Both theories are reasonable to consider and fit into family-of-origin principles.  The beginning therapeutic process would therefore focus on getting history about the individual, couple, or family relationship. The therapist should ask how individuals first met each other, and what the initial attractions between them were.  The individuals present the problems or conflicts in the relationship such as conflict about money, child discipline, decision-making, emotional connection, and sex.  The therapist should elicit from each person his or her family-of-origin belief system regarding relational issues and behaviors such as sexual relations, love, and intimacy. This helps them understand that each person's beliefs and behaviors about intimacy, nurturing, and supporting one another may be based on conscious, semi-conscious, and unconscious family-of-origin models.  With a couple that has been together for a long time, the templates or scripts of interaction may have become very stereotyped and predictable.  Unfortunately, individual, relationship, and life changes may have caused what had been tolerable to become untenable.  Therapy would be an attempt to break the enduring patterns, hopefully to be replaced with more functional behaviors.

Early therapy with may be largely psychoeducational.  Examining and learning about how each person's experiences had shaped their respective schemata prompts understanding and acceptance that each person developed in sometimes extremely different family systems.  "Schemata… may be communicated from parents to children in a variety of ways, either directly via specific statements or more subtly through observations of interactions within the family.  For example, in some families it has been a tradition passed down from generation to generation for a female to confide in her mother about her sexual activities, particularly during adolescence and early adulthood.  Even if a mother has not directly told her daughter that she expects such disclosures, the daughter may easily infer that this is normal mother-daughter conversation based on her mother's matter-of-fact questions about her sexual behavior.  Such exchanges commonly serve to forge a special bond between mother and daughter.  When such communications extend into the daughter's adulthood, however, a spouse may become offended that his wife has divulged to her mother what transpires in their bedroom.  This discrepancy in the husband's and wife's schemata about boundaries and privacy can have a significant impact on the couple's relationship" (Dattilio, 2006, page 360-61).  This example may help the couple understand the wife's beliefs and behaviors.  However, the psychoeducational process about family-of-origin learning does not simply condone problematic behaviors that are distressing to the other person.  It encourages each person to have compassion for other's vulnerability to have internalized whatever family-of-origin belief systems about feelings, intimacy, power and control, and roles.  In other words, that the person as a child did not choose to assume dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors, and thus may have difficulty not choosing to continue the beliefs and behaviors in the current relationship.  With this foundation of knowledge, the therapist can attempt to have the individuals accept that despite each person's held beliefs and instinctive behaviors, that it is not working sufficiently well enough for them.  

Jenkin (2006) encourages the therapist to solicit gendered stories from clients.  Gendered stories include the gender role expectations and behaviors in the present relationship and the legacy from prior generations.  Such stories examine transgenerational patterns between men, between women, and between members of the opposite sex.  For the heterosexual relationship, this may reveal how men and women relate intimately both between generations: child to parent or to grandparent, and among peer, sibling and couple's relationships.  Jenkin suggests, "that each of the couple speaks to parent, grandparent, other relatives of the same sex, about their stories of being male/female, son/daughter, intimate or being valued, drawing implicitly on a time-line perspective (Friedman et al., 1988).  On occasion, this begins conversations between the individual and the parent (or grandparent or other important relative) of the same gender, opening up avenues of communication and relationship that are deeply moving to hear recounted, and healing in their effects" (page 122).  One or both partners may discover that his or her grievances run generationally through all or many of the same gender (or opposite gender but with similar personalities) family ancestors.  As the individuals learns from their generational inquiries, therapy would explore how family-of-origin beliefs may need to be adapted for functionality in the current relationship.  Therapy may focus more on challenging and adapting the individual's or one partner's schemata, or alternately or simultaneously on both partners' belief and behavior assumptions if in couple therapy.  With same sex relationships, the therapist should still explore the gendered stories from the families-of-origin and how the individual has accepted, rejected, adapted, and/or reconciled them into his or her relationship expectations.  Conflict between the gendered stories from the prior generation and a personal story may occur in any case in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships.

Therapy prompts the couple to understand their schemata in order to change behavior charged with negative emotional reactivity.  "Through teaching, coaching, educating, and orchestrating, it presents to the couple an image of a higher-functioning relationship.  Most couples seek help because their relationship is not functioning adequately, usually because there is too much emotional reactivity, which stems from a degree of dissension, leading perhaps to violence, between them" (Farmer & Geller, 2005, page 81).  Occasional conflict is common or normal in couples and should not be seen as indicative of dysfunction.  In fact, the absence of apparent conflict may be more indicative of dysfunction as one or both partners may be overtly compliant but accruing hidden resentments.  Resolution of frequent ongoing relationship battles may sometimes require teaching partners to withdraw from or avoid conflict to avoid escalation into emotional or physical violence.  The process of therapy may depend significantly on the actions of the therapist, but also on the person or model of the therapist.  The therapist is not just teaching but also modeling positive interactional behaviors: listening, making "I" statements, validating feelings, being compassionate, and showing empathy.  "In the process of teaching such skills, the therapists serve as a model of interaction by taking responsibility for themselves over issues in the therapy relationship, making neutral statements, avoiding blame, and generally responding rather than reacting" (Farmer & Geller, 2005, page 81).  

The therapist may proceed with relatively open-ended questions or may be more direct in searching for problematic schemata based on his or her conceptual knowledge.  "Tilden and Dattilio (2005) distinguish two major categories of schemata: (1) the vulnerable core schema, or what Hoffart (1999) refers to as a split schema of self, or a 'wound' in the memory; and (2) the protective coping schema, or what Hoffart refers to as protective belt of associated schemata around the split schema of self.  The split schema of self refers to those aspects of past experience that are painful and avoided.  Welburn, Dagg, Coristine, and Pontefract (2000) also differentiate between schemata according to their place in a hierarchical organization in which some are determined to have principal importance due to their connection to basic needs, such as safety and attachment, and others are more peripheral but are related to the principal schemata, such as being accepted or acknowledged by others.  Clinical experience suggests that vulnerable core schemata have mostly been established during the early years of an individual's life as a consequence of adult caretakers' failure to validate and confirm the child's feelings and experiences, particularly those associated with his or her core needs, such as attachment (Bowlby, 1982; Snyder & Schneider, 2002).  Such a vulnerable core schema may also be established through traumatic events in adult life (Jind, 2000).  To protect and help oneself as much as possible, an individual carrying a core vulnerability schema will be in need of a protective coping schema, or strategies to deal with critical and difficult life situations and events that trigger the vulnerable schema.  The use of coping strategies, however, may be maladaptive and cause unwanted consequences.  An example of this circumstance follows in the case of Andre and Iva, whose respective schemata from their families of origin heavily shaped their beliefs about love and intimacy and the need to protect themselves from ongoing vulnerability.  Their schemata caused significant dissension in their relationship as conflicts arose between the partners' needs and preferences" (Dattilio, 2006, page 362-63).

The relationship presentation or one or both of the individuals' presentation can direct the therapist's clinical intuition to explore for the vulnerable core schema or the protective coping schema, or some other relevant theoretical conceptualization.  Specific information or non-verbal cues from tone, affect, facial expression, body language, and the like can be indicative of such schema.  Further examination should elicit more specific experiences and resultant beliefs and behaviors.  Dattalio described in a case vignette addressing each partners' schema and its effect on the relationship.  "…as treatment progressed, May was able to modify her dysfunctional schema from her family of origin about not relying on her own judgment.  She also reduced her adherence to her schema that she must spend as much time as possible with her children, rather than taking time to nurture herself and her marriage.  May adopted a new view that her children need some time away from her as well, and she also needed time to nurture her relationship with her husband.  Helping May address her schemata while in Paul's presence was also very powerful in validating the revised views and increased his understanding of her internal struggle… (Paul's affair) was a subtler schema of 'taking care of yourself.'  What was instilled during his upbringing was that when one is in need or hurting, one has to soothe himself or herself rather than seek comfort from someone else.  In this respect, self-reliance became of paramount importance in Paul's family, and if you wanted something for yourself, you needed to take it regardless of the consequences… in Paul's mind anger gives people license to act in whatever way they feel necessary in order to fulfill their own needs.  Thus, when he felt neglected by May and angry about it, Paul ended up repeating the pattern of both of his parents: to fulfill his needs outside of the marriage if they were not being met at home… Paul was able to identify involved the belief that one cannot talk openly about resentments, which he realized was dysfunctional in many ways.  This was less of a conscious thought than a subconscious belief.  Once Paul was able to embrace this schema and understand that it had negative consequences in any relationship, he learned that it was something that needed to be addressed more overtly" (page 369-370).

This case vignette describes the overall process of examining key schema.  May could be seen has having a vulnerable core schema, while Paul has a protective coping schema.  The specific behavioral expression of May's vulnerable core schema manifested not self-nurturing and instead over-involvement with and constant nurturing of the children.  Paul's protective coping schema in taking care of himself expressed in his affair.  The therapeutic process with a couple like Paul and May often requires step-by-step examination of embedded inflexible beliefs that create relationship problems.  Therapy would simultaneously facilitate negotiations that direct experimental changes in behavior that may better meet the individuals' mutual needs.  This requires a cognitive and behavioral flexibility essentially non-existent or previously lost in the relationship.  The therapist needs to get the partners to accept the impact of other's pre-couple's experiences and the limitations to belief and behavior change.  The partners would need to consider the degree of belief and behavior change that is necessary and their tolerance for differences.  Essentially, the partners need to decide if the relationship is worth the work to change and grow and living with what cannot be changed.  

As the thresholds of change and tolerance are determined, the willingness of both partners to continue to work on adapting beliefs and behaviors becomes critical to the relationship.  If both partners become confident that they will work on the relationship, the tension in the couple diminishes significantly.  The implicit "or else" of relationship demise recedes as an issue, and the couple settles down to the work of growth and change.  They are no longer as anxious about whether oneself or the other person is willing or capable of change and is invested or not.  As therapy continues, close attention is given to how each partner interprets the other's behavior.  Partner behavior has a functional component but it is often the symbolic component that challenges the relationship intimacy.  When behavior is interpreted from the dark shadow of some family-of-origin experience, it can lead to distressed interactions. The therapist can teach the partners to recognize problematic attributional thinking using the terminology of "It must mean…"  If both partners can self-monitor their thinking and note how it may duplicate beliefs acquired from their families-of- origin, they may be able to substitute "It might mean…" for "It must mean…"  If they can do this, they are more likely to able to investigate the underlying assumptions or symbolism for relevance, and make adaptations that better serve mutual needs in the relationship.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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