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Chapter 4 Multigenerational Family Therapy

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Chapter 4 -

Multigenerational Family Therapy

Key Concepts

Therapy Goals

Therapist’s Role and Function


The Quest Family


Gender & Cultural Issues

Suggested Reading and References

Multigenerational Family Therapy


Murray Bowen was one of the original developers of mainstream family therapy. His approach is often referred to as Multigenerational (transgenerational or intergenerational) Family Therapy. His approach is more theory based than any other model we will consider. For Bowen, effective clinical practice followed from an effective theoretical orientation. Bowen and his associates introduced much of the mainstream language for family systems therapy, including concepts and clinical practice related to multigenerational assessment, family life-cycle development, ordinal birth position, genograms, triangles and triangulation, emotional cutoff, and differentiation of self: All of these ideas will be addressed below.

Bowen began his training in a psychoanalytic model, and some of his ideas can be traced to that background. In fairness, Bowen would have seen his approach as a departure from psychoanalytic therapy. His approach operates on the premise that a family can best be understood when it is analyzed from at least a three-generation perspective, because a predictable pattern of interpersonal relationships connects the functioning of family members across generations. According to Bowen, the cause of an individual's problems can be understood only by viewing the role of the family as an emotional unit. A basic assumption in Bowen family therapy is that unresolved emotional fusion (or attachment) to one's family must be addressed if one hopes to achieve a mature and unique personality.

Betty Carter is both a Bowen family therapist, now retired, and a feminist. She has an M.S.W. and was the Director of the Family Institute of Westchester in Mount Vernon, New York1. Betty Carter’s contributions to Bowen therapy include an integration of gender issues as a part of family therapy, an appreciation for diversity of culture, differentiation in the consideration of death and loss, and together with Monica McGoldrick, the development of the family-life cycle perspective (Carter & McGoldrick, 2005). In a consultation session she conducted at the 1997 annual conference of AAMFT, Betty worked with a bi-cultural couple in relation to blending their two families (Carter, 1997).

In this session, Tito, age 40 and a Puerto Rican who was raised in New York, is married to Diana, age 27, a Caucasian who was raised in south Florida after her parents moved there from the northern part of the United States. Tito had a previous marriage to Mary, who also came from Puerto Rico. Tito and Mary had a difficult and painful divorce, partly because Tito was already seeing Diana. Diana, too, had been married before to a man who divorced her when their children were born. One of her children died at 2 months of age. Her only son is Robin, age 6. Tito’s children include Lenny, age 19, currently in the Air Force; Tammy, age 18, his only daughter; Andre, age 15, who assumed the role of peacemaker for a while; and Isaac, age 13. Isaac lived with his mother, Mary, in Puerto Rico after the divorce, but returned to the United States and to Tito, because he does not read or write Spanish well enough to effectively participate in Puerto Rican schools.

A genogram is a family map that outlines both the structure and the emotional processes of the family. Table 1, presented below, provides a guide to the symbols used in a genogram.

Place Bowen Table 1 about Here

A partially completed genogram of Tito and Diana’s blended family looks like this:

Place Bowen Figure 1 about Here

Just looking at this genogram, a host of questions and possibilities may come to your mind. What are the issues surrounding the blending or merging of families, and how might they be present here? Should the role of a stepparent be different than that of a biological parent? In what ways? How important is it for the therapist to have resolved issues with her own family of origin before she works with this family? How might the therapist’s own life experiences become involved in this therapy session?

In addition, there is another set of important questions to use that address cultural issues in the family. What effect will different cultures have on this family’s interactions? What place will issues related to being male from a Hispanic culture have in the family: Will these issues affect Tito’s relationship with his sons and daughter, with Mary, or with Diana? Will the culture define in some way Isaac’s relationship with his mother? What might you expect from the different cultures in terms of emotional expression? What do you think about children being removed from their culture of origin, no longer knowing the language or customs that were part of their parents’ or grandparents’ lives? What effects do differing cultures between a therapist and her clients have on the counseling relationship?

In reviewing Tito and Diana’s genogram, Ms. Carter offered the following hypotheses based on Bowen theory.

  • The goal of therapy seems to be for the new family to accomplish a more effective blending, to live happily together, or at least not be in turmoil all the time;

  • The attitude of Tito’s four children toward the situation most likely reflects the unresolved attitudes that Tito and Mary still express toward each other;

  • To the degree that the old marriage is unresolved, it is dead baggage in the new marriage;

  • There hasn’t been enough time and space for Tito and Mary to achieve joint parenting for their children;

  • In this situation, Diana becomes the scapegoat, Mary stays in a victimized position, the children defend and stay loyal to their mother, and it is hard for everyone to move on.

Betty: Okay, let’s work. We’re just going to jump right in, right off the diving board and right in. I’m visiting from New York, so I am going to swim into your lives and swim right out.

Tito: From New York City?

Betty: In Westchester, just above New York City.

Tito: I grew up in the Bronx.

Betty: Oh, you did? We are definitely neighbors, definitely neighbors. So you’re a New Yorker?

Tito: Well, yes and no.

Betty: What does that mean?

Tito: I wasn’t born there, but I lived there a good deal of my life.

Betty: You’re from Puerto Rico originally?

Tito: Si.

Betty: Si. My Spanish isn’t as good as it should be coming from New York. So how did you get mixed up with a Southerner? You see, that’s a story I should tell too, because my husband is from Tennessee, so I am interested in how we native New Yorkers get mixed up with Southerners.

Diana: I’m from Orlando.

Tito: She’s a native Orlandoan, but her parents are from Michigan and Canada.

Betty: I see. I guess everyone in Florida comes from out of town. (Pause) Now, here is what I [want you to] know. I really want to be, first of all, helpful to the two of you. It is sort of like a little opportunity to get together and talk. I work with lots of stepfamilies, families who are mixing and blending like your [family] is trying to do.

Tito: Ours is mixing like oil and water.

Betty: Like oil and water, huh? Well, I’ve heard that story before too. What I have here, what I’m looking at—have you seen this before?—is a genogram. It’s a family diagram, and it gives the basic facts of your family. (Showing the genogram to Tito and Diana) So this diagram, Tito, shows me that you were divorced from a woman named Mary, who’s now in Puerto Rico. And you’ve got four kids: the oldest, Lenny, 19, going down to Isaac, 13. Okay, and Diana, you were divorced in about 1980, right?

Diana: Right.

Betty: And you have one living son, Robin, age 6. And all of you together (Lenny is in the air force, right?): so it’s the other three kids and Robin and the two of you, trying to figure out how to make that into a family, I guess. Were you divorced, Tito, in September, 1985? Is that right? [Tito: Yes.] So that’s very recent. (Pause) I have a lot of questions, and there’s a lot of information I want to hear [about] how you are handling this stuff, which is very complex. But first, I would like to hear what you think is the most important thing that you can talk to me about. What would be helpful to you today—each of you? It may be different things.

Tito says that Isaac’s rejection of Diana is most on his mind, and he goes on to explain that Isaac is the youngest, very loyal to his mother, and that accepting Diana would be for him an act of disloyalty. Diana agrees that her main concern is with Isaac, because he also seems to be an influence on the other children. Initially Tammy was quite hostile toward Diana, but Diana has noticed in recent months that Tammy is being nicer to her. And Lenny, who is away, has always accepted her as his father’s spouse. Andre, the middle boy, seemed to be more like Lenny in attitude, but since Isaac’s return, he has started to follow Isaac’s lead. Mary told Isaac that if he came to live with his father and Diana, it would mean that he didn’t love her anymore. And since he returned anyway, if he did anything to upset Diana, Mary told Isaac that Tito would beat him. Diana feels that Mary sets all of the kids against her, and that she cannot win.

Betty: It sounds to me as if Mary doesn’t feel adjusted yet, huh, hasn’t accepted the


Tito: I think she has. I think she’s accepted it.

Betty: As a fact, yes, but emotionally?

Diana: I think you’re right there. I don’t think she’s accepted it emotionally.

Betty: What about you, Tito? Do you think that you had enough time to finish your first marriage before the two of you started? It sounds like maybe you were going in two directions at the same time for a while.

Tito: Yes. That’s when I first [went to see a counselor].

Betty: You were torn and were going in both directions there. One of the complications may be that there wasn’t enough time for Mary. The divorce wasn’t her idea, I guess. Maybe she hasn’t had enough time to get over it or something . . . to be more supportive about moving on.

Tito: Even though she is the one who divorced me.

Betty: Was it her idea to get divorced? Well, it’s an upsetting process even if you are the one who decides. But she’s the one who decided. And what do you think was the cause of that? Why do you think she decided that? Because of the relationship you had with Diana?

Tito: Yes. And because we had had long talks, and she knew our relationship was breaking up. Definitely.

Betty: Now, what kind of communication do you have with her? With Mary.

Tito: I talk to her on the phone.

Betty: You do. And how does that go? I mean, fighting . . . or . . . ?

Tito: It’s down to business now.

Betty goes on to explore the reasons that Mary returned to Puerto Rico. Mary seems to have felt that it was too hard to make it in America financially. She incurred a $2000.00 debt on a Visa card before she left that Tito and Diana are trying to handle. She took a number of trips before leaving, but mainly, her return seems to have been to regain the support of family and friends in Puerto Rico.

Betty: As you go through the ordinary day-by-day, who’s mostly in charge of the children?

Tito: I am.

Betty: You are. So it’s not a problem then where Diana has to come in and do disciplining or . . .

Diana: I’m not even allowed to do that. And that’s one thing I don’t like about it. When Isaac tells me to “shut up,” I can’t say anything, because I don’t want to start anything. So in order to avoid it, I just ignore it.

Betty: I see.

Diana: But the bad thing about it is that I’m worried about [the influence on] my son, because he’s treating his peers badly at school. He’s not respected in the home. Isaac’s always making fun of him and calling him names, and telling him to “shut up,” and nobody says anything about it. And I can’t.

Betty: When you say, “you can’t,” [is it that] Tito has asked you not to do the disciplining?

Diana: (nodding) I can’t say anything. If he swears in front of me or if he wants to disobey in front of me—even for what his father’s told him to do—I’m just totally not allowed to do anything. And I feel like a child myself.

Betty: I see. So you feel kind of undermined by having no authority.

Diana: Well, I don’t really want to have authority a lot. I just want to be able to correct, when necessary, and say, “don’t tell me to shut up.” Or “show a little respect, please!”

Betty: So what do you do about that when they’re disrespectful to you?

Diana: When it gets really bad and keeps on getting out of hand, I wind up running to him, as if a tattle-tale child would run to him, and say, “Daddy, would you please tell him not to tell me to shut up.” And I feel like that. I don’t like being in that position, because he [Isaac] can do the same thing, and then it’s my word against his.

Betty: So, it’s like you’re the oldest daughter, running to complain about the other kids.

Diana: Yes. And he will actually pick on me to make me get upset.

Betty: Who will, Isaac?

Diana: Isaac.

Betty: So he baits you.

Diana: He does. Like he’ll be doing his homework, and it’s 8:30 at night—he usually doesn’t go to bed until 1:00 AM—and all of a sudden, he’ll want me to get off the couch, so he can make up the bed and go to sleep. And he’s in the middle of doing homework, and he has dishes to do after that, and all of a sudden, he wants to uproot me and make me go somewhere else. And he’ll say things, like “GET UP!” It just starts getting to me sometimes. I’ve lived there since June, and there’s been a lot of hate and a lot of hardship, but I’ve very rarely even stood up for myself. I’ve always been patient. I’ve tried. It’s been hard, especially with that kind of baiting going on.

Betty: Well, it sounds like it’s been hard. . . . Do you feel that Tito appreciates how difficult it is for you?

Diana: I think he does more now, but I don’t think he was aware of it.

Betty: What do you mean by “now”?

Diana: He still thinks I have total control over the situation. By leaving the room: I am in total control by not letting him get to me, not letting him bate me. Well, that’s hard to do over and over again, when you keep on getting tried. It’s hard to do. He still sometimes blames me and thinks I have control.

Betty: So you don’t feel entirely supported by him. Maybe at least, he doesn’t appreciate how hard your position is. It’s not simple.

Diana: I guess I don’t feel entirely supported. Also, my son needs to be supported. I need to be supported so that I can give support. My son is going through as much of that as I am. It kind of bothers me, because I don’t know what to say or what to do. And I don’t want my son to cry on my shoulder every time [Isaac] does it, because then he will be a mama’s boy.

Betty: You mean you don’t know how to handle it when Robin complains?

Diana then goes on to explain that she is afraid that Robin comes to her too often, seeking comfort. She notes that Isaac calls Robin a mama’s boy, and Robin doesn’t seem to say anything about it.

Betty: Of course, society tells you, right, that a mother has to be very careful or you’ll ruin your son. Do you believe that nonsense?

Diana: I know it’s happened in the past. I didn’t let Robin play outside until he was three or four, because I was scared of him getting hit by a car. We lived on a dead-end road. I was over-protective.

Betty: So you buy some of it.

Diana: Yeah. . . . Well, when he was three years old, he said things like, “When I grow up, I’ll be a big girl, and I’ll put make-up on.” And I said: “No, you won’t be a big girl. You’ll be a big boy.”

Betty: So you’re afraid he’s going to be gay?

Diana: Oh, yes.

Betty: Are you? Really?

Diana: Yes, sometimes. Because he’s interested in make-up and . . . things like that, because that’s what I do.

Betty: Well, I never heard of a situation where a child became gay, because he was raised by a parent of the opposite sex. [Betty later explained to some gay students that she didn’t say this because she (Betty) thought it was a problem, but because she could see that Diana did.]

Diana: Okay (relieved).

Betty: So I wish you could stop worrying about that. I mean, there are a lot of things to worry about. I wish you’d at least stop worrying about that. I’ve never heard of that happening. Would you try to let go of that one?

Diana: Okay. He doesn’t have a lot of security. He doesn’t have a lot of confidence in himself.

Betty: That may be, but that can happen to men and women. I thought you seemed like a pretty nice person, and if he turned out like you . . . (pause) After all, Tito picked you out. (Turning to Tito) There must be something okay about her. Would you think Robin would be so bad off if he turned out like her?

Tito: No, I wouldn’t.

Diana: (moved) Oh.

Betty: Well, the other thing, too: I want to congratulate you, Tito. I think that the direction you’re going in is a good one. It’s difficult, but it’s better than what usually happens. In other words, the idea that you’re going to be in charge of your kids and not expect Diana to step in and become their mother or take charge of them or something like that. However many problems you have, you [saved] yourself about 150 others by not falling into that one. And that’s a very common one, where men expect their new wives to sort of step in with the kids and take over. And that . . . really . . . doesn’t . . . work!

Some discussion about the pressures of parenting follows, and then Betty introduces the problem of triangulation in the family system. Triangulation occurs anytime that two people in conflict pull a third person into the relationship to defuse the anxiety or difficulties present.

Betty: Now, Tito, I’m interested in your position in the middle. Diana says that you’re not firm enough with the kids regarding how they treat her and Robin. How do you plead to that one?

Tito: I could be a little stronger. What keeps me from being as strong as I should be, maybe, is a combination of feelings of guilt and not wanting to alienate them more than they already are. I don’t want the feelings of hostility to become intensified, and I think they would be if I took a real hard stand.

Diana: Every time he asserts himself, Isaac says he doesn’t care, he doesn’t love him. Everybody says that. So he just feels like he shouldn’t say anything because of that. (Turning to Tito) What do you think?

Tito: I do. I do. I do tell them how I feel. And when they say I don’t love them, I tell them, “Yes, I do.” When they say I don’t care for them, I show them how I care for them.

Betty: But still, it gets through to you in a certain way. I mean, I think you’re very tenderhearted. (Diana nods.) . . . She’s nodding. She’s agreeing. I suppose you think you are supposed to look tough or something, but I think we’ve got your number. Maybe you’re too tenderhearted, Tito, and that’s why you’re caught in the middle. You can understand that Diana’s in a tough spot, and you sympathize with her; but on the other hand, you feel deeply for your children.

Tito: I do.

Betty: So you’re caught in the middle, trying to understand both sides and make them happy. (Tito nods.) They end up shooting you. If they’re shooting each other, you’re in the middle getting it, huh?

Tito: I think sometimes I’m standing with one foot on an elevator going up and the other on an escalator going down.

Betty: Yes. Well, you see, it probably is a little bit out of guilt. I mean in the sense that because of the divorce, the children are upset, and therefore, you’re trying to make it up to them in some way, trying not to alienate them further. But you know what? I think that you can be firmer with them without really alienating them—even though it will hurt you. It hurts you to hear them complain or be upset. But probably, they need a stronger message from you about how they have to act toward Diana and Robin.

. . . Probably, they need a stronger message, and you see your tenderheartedness prevents you from doing it. You don’t have to be mean about it, but I would probably be more persistent about it—and even if they complain. . . . (pause) They’re not going anywhere. They know you care about them. [But] I think the whole message about how they have to act toward Diana and Robin has to come from you in the beginning.

The discussion turns toward the protests that Isaac and the other kids might put up if Tito were to send a stronger message about what he expected of them in terms of behavior toward Diana and Robin. The main focus is still on Isaac, his baiting of Diana and his selfishness, which Betty reframes as part of being the baby of the family. In the course of talking about how Tito winds up in the middle between his spouse and his kids, Diana notes that Tito sometimes threatens to leave when the going gets tough. This is especially hard on her since that is what her first husband did.

Betty: Well, Tito, did you know that she takes this seriously? That she gets so scared when you make threats like that, that she’s afraid you’re really going to do it? Did you know that she takes it this seriously?

Tito: I didn’t really think about it much. It’s just that sometimes you say things that you wish you didn’t say.

Betty: Do you mean it?

Tito: No.

Betty: No. But now you see that she thinks you do, and she gets scared to death. So now, there’s a new piece of information for you.

The substance of the session concludes with Betty offering some coaching to Tito regarding his place in the middle.

Betty: I agree with you [Tito] that you need to be the person in charge, and you need to do the discipline. I agree with you. I think that’s the wisdom of you having so much experience. It would never work for Diana to be trying to discipline them. But some relationship, she needs to have with them. It’s going to take time. But with you in the middle, explaining each of them to the other, you’re going to get killed by both of them, and they’re going to have a harder time getting there.

Diana: That’s what happened the last time [between Isaac and me]. We both got mad at him.

Tito: This is when I say I want to throw in the towel.

Betty: Sure. That’s when you feel “I spend all this time trying to help these people understand each other, and they’re both mad at me.” Yeah. I think you ought to resign from that job of explaining both of them to each other. To hell with that.

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