Family Works: Speaking on intergenerational cycles
by ROB COOMBS ID. Min. Ph.D.
Apr 27, 2014 | 900 views | 0 0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As a young child, I have memories of visiting my grandparents’ home on their farm. Because we never lived close to my dad’s parents, upon arrival for our yearly visit, we would be forced to sit in the living room and visit — just to be polite. My four sisters and I would sit listening to the clock tick, wondering when, if ever, the polite time would be over and we could exit out the back door to the plentiful outdoor adventures waiting for five city kids.

On one such visit, I got so bored that I picked up my grandmother’s family Bible, which was always carefully placed on the same carefully dusted table, just under a window in the living room. Within its introductory pages was a history of our family including marriage, birth, and death dates.

There was even a tree with many fruits. My name was on one of those fruits. I could see clearly that I was dangling on the same branch produced by my parents who were on a branch produced by my dad’s parents. There were many fruits on that tree, as my family is quite large.

Some fruits had names on them of family members I had never met, like great-uncle Harold. “Is he alive?” I asked Grandmother. “There’s no death date, like great-grandmother Alice.”

“Oh,” she laughed, “He’s very much alive. That’s your crazy Uncle Harold.” Then my grandmother glanced at my parents and the conversation ended abruptly.

I didn’t care because the next thing I heard my grandmother say was, “Why don’t you children go outside and play?” We were out the door before the next tick of the clock!

Most families follow a predictable cycle from one generation to the next. In family systems theory we call this “intergenerational cycles.” Some intergenerational cycles are very healthy such as generation after generation of family members valuing and receiving higher education or strong loyalties between family members who openly share ideas, feelings, and dreams with one another or a high commitment to work and productivity.

Such families, generation after generation, seem to find the needed strength and resources to collectively measure up to the challenges of life in a positive and healthy manner. These families become known by the wider community as being healthy and strong, which reinforces continued healthy functioning.

Other intergenerational cycles are unhealthy. Cycles of failure in school, drug addiction, unproductivity at work, strained or abusive relationships at home, a multiplicity of chronic problems, also find expression generation after generation. Rather than success, the expectation for such families from the wider community is failure.

Breaking an intergenerational cycle is possible, but not probable. Eighty percent of the time each successive generation follows the pattern of family function from past generations. For the 20 percent who live a uniquely different life from their family’s intergenerational patterns, the outcome is usually one of increasing distance from one’s family of origin.

Understandably, if your family is accustomed to failure and you succeed, you share little in common. In the same way, if your family is accustomed to success and you fail, you will share little in common.

I’m still wondering about great-uncle Harold. Whoever or whatever he is, I’m certain he lived a life quite different from the rest of my family. Maybe one day I will find out. But, the clock is ticking and I’m eager to get outside and play.