Charting a Family's Emotional History

by Bob Brooke

Tracing a family's emotional behavior patterns over the last few generations can shed light on present day problems. How one person or another behaves is no accident. Sometimes, the roots of erratic or pleasant behavior can be traced back as many as five generations.

Recently, a new field of medical study called psychohistory has developed. One of the experts in this field, Dr. Mary Matossian of the University of Maryland, said that a family is an emotional system, with each member developing a pattern of behavior toward every other member. Upon researching these relationships back through as many as five generations-- however, three will do--recurrent patterns of behavior will emerge. This search should not only become a hunt for family faults, but also one to uncover instances of accomplishment and perseverance in the face of disaster, for the qualities that led to such deeds are an important part of today's family members' inheritance.

There are obvious signs of an emotionally successful family, according to Dr. Matossian. Are there well-defined roles for individual family members? Do family members keep track of each other, giving support and encouragement all through life? Are there good ties with uncles, aunts and cousins? Are there warm and affectionate parent-child relationships? Do strong, stable family members come to the aid of those who need help?

Every individual derives his or her emotional strength from their family. Thus, the more an individual knows about his or her forebears, the more he or she will learn about themselves.

What kind of family emotional patterns should a researcher look for? In charting a family's psychohistory, it's important to ask a few questions to fill in what's already known. Chatting informally with older family members will reveal some of the answers, but it may be necessary to pry gently for the rest from those older relatives whom the researcher knows more intimately.

What is the family's attitude toward its older members? How did a grandmother get along with her mother, and that mother with her daughter? Also, how did a grandfather get along with his father and his father with his son?

Does the family have a long history of either dominant mothers or dominant fathers? Who was the father's favorite child and which child did the father discipline most?

What types of family conflicts occurred and what was the family's response to them? Does the family include an unusual number of marital separations, divorces, aggressive or violent individuals, or mental illness? How well does the present generation get along with uncles, aunts and cousins? Are there alliances and counter-alliances between branches of your family tree?

Does the family have a history of prodigal sons and scapegoats? Are there bad-luck stories of fortunes nearly made? How were family members ranked in terms of family prestige by age, sex, ability, profession, or money? Did the family pull together and help each other in times of trouble?

After gathering sufficient answers to the above questions, the researcher can chart a family's psychohistory. Will the chart reveal strong patterns of ambivalence and conflict or trace helpful and loving relationships between members?

Dr. Matossian sums up the results for particular family relationships in six ways: (1)A strong, positive bond with strong feelings of love and admiration; (2)A distant relationship between people who don't talk about any subject that might be anxiety provoking--they usually discuss the weather; (3)A positive bond with less intense love and admiration than in No.1; (4)An imaginary bond relationship between two people closely related by blood who know each other only slightly or not at all--or a relationship between a child and parent who died when the child was an infant; (5)An ambivalent bond with the simultaneous existence of conflicting emotions of love and hate; or (6)A conflictual bond relationship between people who fight a lot, but who obviously get something out of fighting, since they keep at it-thus, the conflict binds them together.

Using the above method of diagramming relationships, a researcher should be able to draw a chart of a family"s emotional history. Psychohistory can give today's family history a depth never known before. It shows how a person's ancestors thought and felt, and it can help that person challenge destructive family emotional patterns and shore up positive ones.

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