Connecting the Generations

Family genealogy is one of the fastest growing market places on the Internet as well as a hobby of choice for many today. People on every continent are engaged in it.

What it’s all about

The first stage of exploring your family’s genealogy involves talking to older family members and asking them to relate to you anything and everything they can remember about the family. You record every detail. You may even need several visits to some of the older relations who tend not to remember details until after you have left and they continue to think about the family events that you and they discussed.

Genealogy research also involves finding birth, christening or baptismal certificates, and marriage or death certificates in the family. To make a start on your research you generally need your grandparent’s birth certificates and marriage certificates. Even if the marriage certificate is not in your family’s possession, as long as your parents know the names of their parents and the marriage date, the certificate is easily obtained from the Office of the Registrar of Births Deaths & Marriages.

A marriage certificate is a great link to the past.

There are a variety of other types and sources of information that you may eventually find yourself wanting to access in your genealogy research; things like parish registers, tax records, census enumerator forms, wills, militia muster rolls, military service records, electoral rolls, cemetary tomestones, to name but a few. If you want to register your findings with the DAR then there are even more hoops to go through.

Graves stone of Artist Carrie L. Hill

However, don’t forget those attic-bound boxes of old family mementos! They can be a treasure-trove of family information including hand-written letters, old photographs with descriptions scrawled on the back, newspaper clippings, death announcements, family bibles with notations, etc.

But there is more

Just collecting names and dates can be a sterile pastime even though this is where most genealogists tend to concentrate.

You should aim, as well, to gain an understanding of your ancestors and the kind of lives that they led. Finding out about where they lived and also researching the historical periods in which your ancestors lived will greatly enhance your overall understanding of your roots.

The term ‘Family History’ used to be regarded as synonymous with ‘Genealogy’ but that’s really not the case any more. A family history with documentation of repeating emotional patterns is essential, and is one of the hallmarks of the Bowen Theory of family emotional functioning.

I have been a student of this theory since the mid-1970’s when I was in graduate school and also working in the community mental health system.

The study of the family becomes particularly interesting when you are able to discern repeating patterns of divorce, of deaths by specific causes, of childbirths and stillbirths, as well as of sibling constellations and their relationships to human successes and failures. Such patterns merge over time to characterize a family’s general level of life anxiety, out of which various levels of mature functioning emerge (or not).

The Bowen Theory addresses just these kinds of patterns in families and it makes predictions about the emotional functioning of future generations based upon certain identifiable patterns from the past. The genogram is one of the clinical assessment tools that helps us think systematically about how events and relationships are related to patterns of health and illness.

The nature of the beast is that patterns repeat and they do so at all levels of nature. Crystals, minerals, fractals, DNA, coast lines, even tree shapes, all evidence inherent structural patterns. Patterns are also common in many areas of mathematics, recurring decimals being one example.

To quote from Bowen Center publications: “Bowen family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally. Often people feel distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Family members so profoundly affect each other’s thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.” People solicit each other’s attention, approval, and support and react to each other’s needs, expectations, and distress. The connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. A change in one person’s functioning is predictably followed by reciprocal changes in the functioning of others. Families differ somewhat in the degree of interdependence but it is always present to some degree.”

Attention to such things is critical in any effort to discern patterns of family emotional functioning across the generations. The data is there, it just takes a little extra effort to ask the right questions and to get the FACTS that genealogists are so famous for. And then it takes a little more effort to put those facts into some kind of ORDER.

The facts will ultimately speak for themselves.

When family members get anxious about something the anxiety escalates by spreading infectiously amongst them. As the anxiety goes up certain family members begin to feel overwhelmed, or isolated, and soon symptoms of depression or relationship cutoffness erupt in them. These represent the most vulnerable and anxious family members, i.e., those more caught up in what Dr. Bowen calls the family projection process.

These emotional lineages can be tracked down the generations of a family in the form of a family genogram, which is a unique visual representation of the family tree. It typically includes three or more generations and it shows how different family members are biologically and legally (and emotionally) related from one generation to the next. The genogram shows relationships amongst family members such as the strength of emotional ties, patterns of illness and causes of death, types and dates of significant life events in family members, and significant life stressors for family members.

This information is portrayed in coded form and in a standardized way, such that important patterns can be gleaned. Basic data include, for each person on the genogram, name, current age or age at death (or date at birth and date at death), cause of death, occupation, marital/relationship status and history of same, and conflictual, overclose and distant relationships amongst family members.

A book by Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson, Genograms in Family Assessment, will give you some guidance and understanding in the use of genograms although I have to caution you; this is just the first step in the process. Only someone experienced in the Bowen Theory can help you ferret out the clinical applications of the information obtained in a genogram. That’s where family systems theory can be of great help because it will extend your genealogy research into realms that will enrich your family today and for many generations to come.

The genealogist has access to exactly this kind of information; they just don’t know what to do with it for the most part. Consequently, it is often discarded in the inquiry process.

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