4d) WHO BELONGS IN OUR MULTI-HOME STEPFAMILY ?
Using Genograms To Help Fix Membership Confusions
By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Co-founder, Stepfamily Association of Illinois, Inc, (SAI)
This is one of almost 100
SAI, Inc. Web pages describing factors that promote long-term re/marital
and stepfamily success. If you haven't yet, read the brief introduction
to this online series for perspective on it's purpose, author, and
8 ways to use it.
Each of these SAI articles is part of a complex mosaic, and is important to your seeing the whole stepfamily picture. These articles are intended to augment, not replace, qualified professional assistance. Thruout these articles, the "/" in "re/marriage" and "re/divorce" reminds us that it may be one partner's first union.
Three related SAI Summary Webpages review:
This is the second of 2
Webpages describing a powerful tool for co-parents: a "genogram",
or stepfamily-member diagram. The first
page summarizes "Why make a genogram ?", and the initial
steps in how to make one. This page finishes describing these steps,
shows you a sample genogram, and proposes ideas on how to use one.
If you haven't yet, print out (or at least scan) the sample stepfamily map below and refer to it as you read. If you have any problem doing that, experiment with adjusting the page-setup (margins) via your browser's "File" dialog box. See the result with the "Print Preview" File-box option. You can (probably) also change the genogram-image's (pixel) dimensions if you right-click on the genogram image below, and select "Image properties" in the dialog box that appears.
Now that you've sketched in the (1) co-parents' and (2) kids' rows of your stepfamily genogram, you're ready to...
4) Add Significant Bio and Step Kin, And Others
symbols about 5-6" above your own symbol, representing your DNA mother
and DNA father. Connect these symbols with a solid horizontal line
if they were married, or a dashed line if they werenít. If they divorced
or separated, note that with an "X" or " // " on the
connector line, with the approximate date. If either is dead, put a slash
or "X" thru their symbol, and note the date and cause of their
death. Add your bioparentís ages now, or at death, and any nicknames they
were/are known by to you, and any grandkids. If either of your bioparents
re/married, or had a child with another partner, draw symbols and solid
or dashed connectors for each of those adult partners and children. Add
their names and ages to your diagram, and any other info you feel
is relevant to represent them.
Below the horizontal connector-line linking your bioparentsí symbols, draw down slanted solid lines to new circles and squares for each of your living and dead DNA brothers and sisters. Locate them about 1/3rd of the way between the grandparentsí row and your co-parents row. If these sibs are or were married, add symbols and connectors for each of their past and present partners, and each living and dead child of theirs. These are your kidsí aunts, uncles, and cousins - and your stepkidsí step-relatives. Add full names and nicknames, ages, and any other relevant info like major illnesses, disabilities, addictions, "in college", "Peace Corps", or "in the Army".
Now, repeat this multi-level "ancestor" step of your genogram for each of your 2 to 5 other co-parents, one at a time. Stay focused on the goal here, for this can feel tedious and overwhelming: youíre aiming to represent all the people who comprise the web of genetic and emotionally-important relationships that currently form your whole multi-home, multi-generational stepfamily now.
To guard against overlooking a valid member, stand in the imaginary shoes of each co-parent, and ask your Self "honestly, who do I count as my DNA and emotional family now - even living and dead relatives I Ďhateí or have Ďno relationí with ?" Add names, ages, and any other relevant info. Include any 4th-generation people like great-grandmothers or great-uncles, of high current emotional significance to any of your co-parents or minor or grown children, whether living or dead. They count !
Final check: one at a time, slip into the skin, mind, and heart of each bio/stepchild. Ask "is everyone I have strong (+ and -) feelings about - on this map now ?" If any adults or kids are missing to any child - even if you donít feel they belong - add symbols and connector lines for them now.
If youíre satisfied that everyone who is an emotionally significant member of your stepfamily - as judged by each co-parent and each grown and dependent child, not you alone - is included now, darken the lines of all symbols and connector lines with a pen or soft pencil. The structure of your stepfamily map is now done.
Once again, pause, and note your emotions and "inner voices". Try for objective, thoro awareness, as tho you were a reporter or scientist. Such awarenesses and insights are the real harvest of this project.
5) Genogram Options
As a finishing touch now,
you may decide to add some special notations for genogram "depth".
For instance: use different colored pens or markers to circle or note:
A final, powerful use for your genogram is for assessing how "functional", or emotionally healthy, the birth-family of each of your co-parents was. Doing this thoroly and honestly produces a strong indicator of how wholistically healthy your present home, and your whole stepfamily is now. I belive this is a vital pre-re/marriage project for each courting partner.
Sample (Partial) 3-Home, 3-Generational Stepfamily Genogram
This is a partial genogram of a real 6-co-parent, 3-co-parenting-home stepfamily. It's shown about half true size. Much written info (names, dates, death causes, etc.) is not shown, for simplicity. There are over 60 people here - and some are left out !
These family maps are discovery,
learning, planning, and teaching tools. Discover and learn what
? Things like ...
To use your genogram as a planning tool, decide - after honest discussion with your 2 to 5 other co-parents - if there are now excluded (or rejecting) members. If so, decide together if you all feel it would help your stepfamily as a whole (specially your minor kids) to offer these people inclusion. Practically, that amounts to inviting them to family gatherings (out of desire, not "duty"), informing them of key family events, and considering their needs and feelings in making key household and stepfamily decisions.
Keep your perspective: just as real friendships take years to grow and mature, "feeling" like a real family canít be rushed or dictated. Itís a "sense" that may or may occur among some or all of your emotionally-linked members after 5 to 8+ years of small and large shared events following a re/wedding.
By the way - if there are people who need to deny that youíre all a stepfamily, or need to reject membership in it, they are probably blocked in grieving some major divorce, death, and/or re/marriage losses. Go here for more perspective and suggestions on this common stepfamily challenge.
One of the best uses of your genogram/s is to teach certain members, friends, and any key current clergy, counselors, lawyers, educators, and doctors; that you are a multi-home stepfamily. If co-parents, kids, and/or key relatives donít fully accept this identity, theyíll probably hold stressful biofamily expectations of themSelves and each other. Theyíll also be unmotivated and resistant to learning and accepting "whatís normal in a stepfamily ?"
Stepfamilies differ from typical biofamilies in at least 60 specific ways. Understanding this can greatly help co-parents and kids avoid conflicts within and between themSelves and each other. What would happen if on some special occasion you mailed a copy of your genogram to every stepfamily member, with an appropriate note or letter ?
What if you invited everyone on your map to assemble and meet each other? (Notice with interest what your inner voice/s have to say about that idea !) How does stepfamily "loyalty" and "identity" build, over time ? Did these exist in your biofamily ? Your first-marriage family ? How has that affected you and your personal identity ? How will the youngest kids in your stepfamily be affected if you all never develop a clear, coherent, positive stepfamily identity ("weíre the OíRourke-Jacobsen-Chang Clan, and proud of it !") ?
When you feel "done" (1) making and thoroly (2) discussing your genogram with all relevant members, save it for later reference. Comparing it to a future version can yield helpful insights about your stepfamily identity-formation "progress" - however you define that.
OK, we're done considering defining who comrises your stepfamily, and what do you do with (inevitable) conflicts over this question. The ball's in your court now ! By the way, recall that SAI offers a series of 19 in-depth articles on these topics for deeper insight. These can be mail-ordered as booklets or on IBM-PC disk/s, at cost; and downloaded free.
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Copyright © 1997, by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW. This and related SAI, Inc. Web pages and articles may be cited, quoted, exerpted, and/or copied and distributed, if (1) appropriate credits are clearly given, and (2) no financial profits accrue.