It’s All in the Family

One of my mentors, Rev. Charles Gravenstine, believes that the only really effective kind of pre-marital counseling is to have the couple prepare and discuss Genograms. Genograms are family trees of behavior that were developed by Monica McGoldrick and Randy Gerson. A Genogram is a graphic tool that allows ministers and couples to visualize hereditary patterns and psychological factors that will effect their relationships. It can be used to identify repetitive generational patterns of reactions, family cultures and behavior and to recognize inherited tendencies, like addictions or diseases.  

 All sorts of counselors, clinican and geneologists use genograms in their work, as they not only reveal the past, but also warn of the patterns that people are likely to fall into, whether unconsiously or just unthinkingly.  

 For instance, one family may treat differences by ignoring or even estranging the offender. They know no other way of handling conflicts. A person entering into a marriage may have no way of knowing that his/her behavior is extreme or even negotiable. But the unsuspecting partner may benefit from knowing that their arguments may result in silence and withdrawal at best, and know how to interpret the treatment. Indeed, the couple may be able to discuss their ways of arguing and even negotiate some changes in advance. It requires each individual to have some frank discussions with their own families in order to unearth many of these patterns, but weddings offer an excellent reason for reminiscing and most couples find it enriches these relationships. In fact, many people are relieved to know that their behaviors were learned, and that they do not have to follow the family trend. They can take control of their actions and their fates. Forewarned is forearmed. 

 Other examples of family patterns include father/son estrangement (typical of Eugene O’Neill’s family, as well as addictions), domestic violence, and depression

 Genograms are not that hard to use. The trickiest part is learning the symbols for the different elements, and using them consistently. One step is to buy the original book, Genograms: Assessment and Intervention by Monica Goldrick and Randy Gerson. There are also computer software programs that diagram the chart for you. One site to check is Another is Genopro, which has a free trial program available at You can also google some of the many sites available online.  

 Even if you don’t you use Genograms consistently, they are an excellent tool for clergy, whether for pre-marital counseling, marriage conflicts, or your own personal family perspective.  

 The past is always present. But we can only appreciate it if it doesn’t have the power to control us.

About Rev. Alison Hyder

My name is Rev. Alison Hyder and I am a Unitarian Universalist parish minister from Baltimore, MD. I am a professional Clergy Coach, with degrees in divinity and social work. I specializing in parish issues, helping ministers and rabbis determine their goals in areas like pastoral counseling, congregational relationships, worship, administration, and social outreach, and then develop practical steps for improving their skills and achieving their vision. I find that a fulfilling ministry is often the cure to spiritual malaise. The more confident we feel about our abilities, the better our relationships with other people, and the closer we feel to God. I also find spiritual sustenence in music and painting. I am a sometime artist, performer and handyman. Please visit my site at
This entry was posted in addictions, divorce, families, family conflict, family patterns, growth, marriage, pastoral counseling, pre-marital counseling, tools for mininsters, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to It’s All in the Family

  1. eftzoe says:

    This is very interesting. As a psychotherapist, I never thought about doing genograms to get at family behavioral patterns. Other things I’ve found useful is to look at the family roles that people have unconsciously been “assigned” in their families. For example, someone may have grown up in the “caretaker” role in their family, where, even as a child, they grew to feel responsible for solving all the problems, being emotionally there for one of their parents, and so on. Other roles can be “identified patient,” “outcast,” or “distancer.” I find these concepts useful in exploring people’s behaviors.

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