Did you know that your family has been passing things on – like physical and emotional patterns – to you from generation to generation? You may have noticed some but probably not all of them.  For example, if you are tall, have brown hair and blue eyes, someone may have told you that you probably inherited those traits from your grandfather or someone else in your family tree.  If great-grandma had a special piece of jewelry, you could trace how that was handed down to your grandmother and now to your mother.  Family educators call this passage a multi-generational transmission process; patterns, interactions and behaviors get passed down just like family heirlooms.  Sometimes, they are on the surface; other times they are invisible and harmful.  When I would interview families and ask them the question, “why do you do something that way?” they would look at me befuddled and say, “I don’t know…we just do it that way, it’s our habit…doesn’t everybody do it that way?”  The response often comes without thinking; it’s instinctive.

We all know that these patterns didn’t fall out of the sky and hit us on the head.  No, they came from experiences observed, lessons learned and repeated many times – sometimes for years, often unwittingly.  I call your attention to this process so that you can examine these same processes in your own family and become a bit more aware and cognizant of them.  When these patterns and habits are more visible to you, you can begin to re-examine them, decide whether or not to keep them, or maybe, replace them with something more workable for everyone.

Let me show you what I mean by looking at the Reilly family.  John, age 60, has a son Bill (35) who is having relationship problems with his wife because, according to Ruth, “he doesn’t talk to me, he rarely shares how he feels about anything, doesn’t talk much to our teenage children – Nick (15) and Sally (12).   Ruth says, “I worry about Nick.  I see traits in him that make me feel that he’s going to turn out “quiet and withdrawn” just like his dad.  Well, is Bill a negligent husband and/or father?  Too early to tell what the problem really is without taking a much more extensive look at the family’s patterns.

My first question to Bill would be: “describe what your relationship with your father was like?”  Bill says, “he was very quiet, worked long hours at his job to make ends meet…and, therefore, was seldom around.”  Did you talk much with him?  “No, not a lot, he was always too busy…not because he didn’t care…I know he loved me…because he worked so hard to provide for us.”  How would you compare your relationship with Nick to yours with your father?  “Oh, I’m much closer to Nick, at least I get some more time around the house with him…I try to talk to him but I’m not sure how to do it or where to start…it’s hard for me.  My wife is always on me for not opening up more…but I don’t know how? (See the patterns that are developing?)  I decide to ask Bill about how he viewed his mother’s relationship with his father.  He says, “my mom was always complaining because he didn’t talk much to her.  He just tuned her out and worked longer hours at the plant.”

We don’t have any bad people in this story.  We have good people, who want things to work, but, who are angry with each other because their needs for communication and emotional connectedness are not being met.  Should we condemn Bill or Nick for following the patterns that they were unconsciously taught and had modeled to them?

I will offer no solutions right now.  It is more important to see how strong an invisible pattern can be!  Let’s also remember, and not lose sight of the numerous, positive patterns, traditions and ways of interacting that are passed on from generation to generation.  Right now, I am calling your attention to what might not be working in your family so you can think about possibly addressing it.

Look around your family system and notice some of these patterns and ways of interacting.  Enjoy the ones that are working!  Be grateful!  Be patient if you see ones that aren’t working.  Being angry and shouting at someone will never change anything.  We will talk later about how to change something.  For now, recognizing a problem and taking a step back to examine it are the best beginning steps to making it better.  Let’s talk more about this article in the comments below.