Multigenerational Transmission Process

4 Commentsby   |  10.03.09  |  Uncategorized

Multigenerational Transmission Process, coined by Murray Bowen, is a hypothesis that states that relationship patterns in previous generations can serve as a model for functioning in future generations (McGoldrick, Gerson, & Petry, 2008). This would mean that a good deal of how we learn to interact with one another, especially in our nuclear families we learn from our families of origin. This is also how we see cycles of dysfunction repeating itself within families. This makes sense as we grow up around our families and see their interactions and therefore develop our own understanding of normal behavior.

The level of differentiation of individuals is also closely linked to their family of origin. We learn how to be individuals in relation to community directly from our parents, who in turn learned it from their parents, and so on. As we observe our families and their interaction with one another we pick up what is perceived as the appropriate ways of behaving and interacting with our families as well as society in general. This is of course not always a bad thing; it is just more clearly observed and amplified in dysfunctional families.

Gilbert (1992) says that our patterns of behavior are learned through repetition. He believes that our behaviors are imprinted on us early in life through patterns in early triangles in our families of origin. We learn these as normal until proven otherwise in our interactions with others. It’s like a child who grows up in a dysfunctional family and all the child knows is dysfunction until he spends the weekend with a friend from school and witnesses a different type of behavior within families. He has a different understanding of what normal can be. Changing these patterns can be extremely difficult, as it has to do with our own level of differentiation, which Kerr and Bowen (1988) say is difficult to raise above our family of origin’s level. Which is like being set up to fail depending on the hand that you are dealt. As I mentioned earlier sometimes it takes us witnessing others and their levels of differentiation for us to become aware that there is something different and better out there for us. Which makes sense when Kerr and Bowen (1988) state that the child that is most enmeshed, or triangled, with the parents will have lower levels or levels closest resembling the parents than that of the more independent of the children. The more independent child will have more opportunities to become differentiated that the suffocated child.

There are pictures of this everywhere in our society. We are dysfunctional people being raised and cared for by other dysfunctional people. Unless we can deal with the anxieties around this dysfunction we will continue to deal with it down through the generations. Something that I am reminded of that closely resembles multigenerational transmission, is the concept of generational sin.

The concept of generational sin is an Old Testament concept that stated that those who are afflicted with some sort of disease, or blindness, or any other negative thing that happened in their lives was caused by the sins of either your parents or grandparents. This is similar to multigenerational transmission because it is what has happened in previous generations that are the cause of current generations problems. It helps paint a picture of how powerful this process is. It is interesting to think that people in the Old Testament had an understanding that what happened in generations prior could have an effect on the current generations. Perhaps it was early insight into multigenerational transmission. It is powerful to know that people throughout time have been aware of this concept of development and the power that it can hold over people.

I wonder if the Old Testament Israelites described it as punishment from sins because it was such a powerful thing to overcome. Generational cycles are so hard to break, often in these situations people become so used to the dysfunction that it is the only way the know how to operate, and thus hard to break the pattern.

Is simply helping people become aware of the patterns of behavior in their lives enough to help them break the cycle? What else do we as therapists try and do to help people break these generational ways of behaving?

Breaking Family Patterns

This is a video I found on YouTube, I apologize for the guy with the majestic Hawaiian Shirt on, this is a discussion on patterns in families and the difficulty in breaking them. Despite the shirt this video has some really good information and insight.

Gilbert, R.M. (1992). Extraordinary relationships: A new way of thinking about human interaction. Minneapolis, MN: Chronimed.

Kerr, M.E. & Bowen, M. (1988). Family evaluation: The role of the family as an emotional unit that governs individual behavior and development. New York: W.W. Norton.

McGoldrick, M., Gerson, R. & Petry, S. (2008). Genograms: Assessment and interventions, 3rd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton.


  1. Amie Campbell
    5:29 pm, 10.16.09


    I like the correlation you found with generational sin, and I would like to offer another one from my own life. Philip and I both have alcohol/addicted parents. Studies have shown that children of alcoholics are much more likely to become alcoholics themselves. Part of the research points towards a genetic or biological component, but I think there’s a lot of influence in a Bowen sense as well. This is something that Philip and I have both been made aware of as we have looked into our families and learned to cope as children of alcoholics.

    In answer to your question about whether or not awareness is enough, I think it can be. I think that if therapists are able to bring awareness into a client’s life about their generational patterns before the patterns have taken hold, or when they are still only weakly shown in the client’s life, the client can then take action to change those patterns.

    I think a therapist can be a great help in making those changes. Sometimes the pull of family patterns can be incredibly intense and it takes more than one eye-opening experience to bring about a willingness to change. Sometimes, even if we want to change our family’s patterns and work towards healthier functioning, it creates a lot of anxiety and stress.

    Personally, I believe that such cycles can be broken. I don’t think it’s easy and it can cause a great deal of stress within a family, but it can be done. In my life, Philip and I have chosen to break the cycle of addiction in our family and have taken steps to ensure that the family we create overcomes the obstacles that were handed down to us from our families of origin.

  2. Blake Berryhill
    9:37 am, 10.19.09

    Is simply helping people become aware of the patterns of behavior in their lives enough to help them break the cycle? What else do we as therapists try and do to help people break these generational ways of behaving?
    As a therapist, it is important to help clients become aware of patterns of behavior. If one can see and realize the pattern of generational behavior in their own family, the will be able to better understand their own personal pattern of behavior. This information can be a useful tool in the process of therapy and change it the client.

    While this is an effective tool for therapy, it needs to be supplemented by other theories and interventions. The goal is to help the clients understand their need for change and break the cycle of generational patterns. I feel the hardest part is to help the client resolve their fears of breaking this cycle. This cycle is all the client knows, and has known all of their life.

  3. Tara Stephens
    3:08 pm, 10.20.09

    Is simply helping people become aware of the patterns of behavior in their lives enough to help them break the cycle? What else do we as therapists try and do to help people break these generational ways of behaving?

    Do I believe that simply helping people to become aware of the patterns of behavior in their lives is enough to help them break the cycle? I do believe that in many situation it could be. As we grow up viewing the ways our parents, grandparents, and other members of our extended family behave, we learn that those are the somewhat ‘default’ behaviors for those specific situations. When we are placed in those situations as adults we fall back on our automatic responses which are these learned default behaviors. Simply becoming aware that these behaviors are learned make us more powerful in owning them and changing them.
    Now, I do not believe that making people aware of these patterns helps to break the cycle in all circumstances. Simply because the client was made aware that their behavior stemmed from a cycle that was learned doesn’t mean that they are necessarily interested in changing it. Even if they were interested in changing it, they may not recognize what steps to take differently. Another example could be that maybe the client’s behavior is stimulated by an overwhelming emotional state and the behavioral pattern can’t be broken by simply recognizing the pattern but by dealing with the emotion behind the behavior.
    Like stated previously, therapists can help make the clients aware of their own family patterns. Once aware of these patterns the client and therapist can discuss what areas of behavior they want to work on and change. Together they can search for alternate behaviors that will benefit both the individual client, their immediate family, and the generations that will follow.

  4. Jaime Goff
    6:39 pm, 10.26.09

    Tyson, I appreciate your humor regarding the shirt. I was kind of wondering about both of their clothing decisions. I mean, that’s what I expect when I walk into a therapist’s office…a Hawaiian shirt and a camisole.

    Anyway, to focus on what’s really important…I think that genuine change has to include both insight and behavior. When we only change a specific behavior, that’s really just first-order change. When we are faced with a stressful situation again, we’ll be likely to fall back into our old pattern. Adding insight or awareness to the mix makes it more likely that a second-order change will occur. However, insight alone generally does not bring about significant change. As with most things, I think it’s better to think in terms of both/and as opposed to either/or.

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