Understanding Your Dysfunctional Family

family-dinner

By Pastor Mike Lotzer

Family of Origin

As followers of Christ, we believe that we have all been born into a dysfunctional family. I’m not speaking of your individual family, although they were far from perfect as well, but rather, the entire human race. Romans 3:23 puts it like this:

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Think of it like a terrible pandemic, which is not hard to imagine presently. The virus of sin has infected every human being since the beginning of history. The symptoms of this virus in include pride, greed, lust, malice, deceit, laziness, and a general self-centeredness. It makes sense that if we all have the virus, we all have some degree of these symptoms. The result is that small groups of people (families), transmit this virus in various ways to the children born into them. If all this is true, doesn’t it seem wise to take inventory of how your family shaped your worldview?

The COVID-19 shelter in place is the perfect time to take inventory of your family of origin and start living with more intentionality. After all, “You don’t go into a coal mine without getting some dust on you!” That is true about combat zones, cultural experiences, and perhaps most universally true about one’s childhood.

How much did the family you grew up in influence the way you think, act, and relate to others today? Probably more than you think. Whether you are single, dating, engaged or married. Taking the time to write out your own genogram is one activity that will help you come out of this global pandemic more empathetic, self-aware, and resilient. 

genogram is just a family tree that helps you write out and think about the attitudes and approaches that were normal in the system in which you came of age. Self-awareness works wonders for any relationship, particularly marriages! 

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You don’t have to repeat the mistakes, bad attitudes, and cycles of dysfunction that were common in your family system. 

Unfortunately, if you don’t take the time to understand them, you probably will. This principle goes for the good things you learned in your family of origin as well. Understanding precedes application. 

So how do you make a Genogram?

1. Map it Out

  • Draw out your family tree with men represented as squares and women as circles. Go back to your grandparents, if possible.  You can do this by hand or find a number of free templates online.
  • Label the names of each person.
  • Write a few observations, facts, or defining traits next to each representational square or circle.

For example, Grandma Jane: Generous, worried, never sat down but served others continuously Dad: Distant, harsh, no religious faith, hard-working

2. Identify & Clarify:

  • Put an X through the circle or square of a person who has died. 
  • Explain each person to your spouse or friend, prompting each other to clarify through specific questions.
  • Add as much detail as you like to your genogram. It should look messy because no family system is perfect. 

3. Write Out How Your Family Did Life:

Write your observations of the written or unwritten rules and attitudes in your family system around critical topics. For example,

  • Money: Money is for spending. We didn’t talk about saving because money was always tight. I felt like other kids were rich, and we were poor. Or, money was meant to be saved for emergencies and giving to charity was expected.
  • Sex: We didn’t talk much about it. It was shameful to do so. Or, we were very open about it. Sex was nothing to be ashamed about. 
  • Religion: We went to church but never prayed at home. It was just ritual. Or, following Jesus was at the center of everything we did.
  • Roles: Moms always cooked and cleaned, and dad worked to provide. That’s how it was, and that’s how I think it should be. Or, we all did chores and slit things up but dad always made sure to do the dishes. 
  • Vacations: We didn’t take many. The message was that we were too poor. Or, vacations were important to my parents. I have great memories.
  • Occupations: You are valuable if you serve in the Military and rise in rank. That was the clear message in my home. Or, it doesn’t matter what kind of work you do, so long as you enjoy it. 
  • Divorce: Homicide before divorce! It was never allowed in our family system. Or, my parents never married, so divorce was not even something we talked about growing up. 
  • Conflict: Whatever happens, just keep the peace. Or, if you’re not yelling at each other, you don’t love each other! 
  • Consider adding more topics like: Addictions; Politics; Responsibility; Parenting; and Pain and Suffering. The sky is the limit.

4. Decide how You and Your Family will Do Life: 

Write out which unwritten rules and attitudes you want to keep and which ones you want to change. Write out your new and improved approaches and attitudes towards each topic. Remember, many of us tend to overreact to unpleasant the things we did not value growing up. For example if your parents were overly strict you may become more passive with your own kids that you know is wise. Strive for a balanced, thoughtful approach. 

If you’re doing this activity as a couple, be sure to write these new rules for life around key topics together. If you’re doing this as a single person, pick a friend to share your rules with so they stick better. Taking the time to think about how your family of origin shaped you is wise. Giving real thought to how you want to live going forward is not only wise; it will reshape the rest of your life! In the time it takes to watch two or three episodes on Netflix, you can make and learn from your genogram. After all, a little reflection and intentionality have the potential to impact generations to come. 

Yes, we all have tested positive for the virus of sin and so there is wisdom in thinking about how to notice and alleviate those symptoms. Self-awareness is critical but is simply is not enough. The good news is that, Jesus Christ is the vaccine for this virus. Only by accepting his forgiving love and learning how to trust and obey Jesus will we experience true life-change. Why not start today?

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