Connect2 Marriage Counseling

How to Do a Systems Review of Your Relationship

I’ve seen a lot of couples over the years that want to “fix” their marriage. They mostly want to continue doing exactly what they’ve been doing, and somehow have a different outcome. They often figure that if the other person shapes up, all will be well.

You both recognize that certain things are not working well between you. But before you spend time and energy improving your existing system (that you might not have explicitly discussed and agreed to), ask yourselves “Is this the system we want?”

It’s not necessarily easy to see, but much of how you interact comes directly from how your family of origin (FOO) interacted, and that was based on your parents’ FOO systems, and goes back through the generations. You’re in the midst of intergenerational issues (or trauma, depending).

I recommend that you begin by sussing out these intergenerational patterns without judgment or editorializing (my grandfather was an alcoholic vs. my grandfather was an alcoholic; the mean bastard). The goal is not to blame your families, but to understand where you came from psychologically, and to shine light into the dim or dark places inside you. Knowledge is power. The same is true interpersonally.

It’s probably best to let each person speak to their own family dynamics first (because saying stuff about your partner’s family may not be received well). After that, if you feel that something important was overlooked in your partner’s family system, bring it up in a curious way. For example: “I remember you telling me a story about your parents . . . (fill in the blank kindly and calmly). Do you think that has any bearing on your FOO system?”

One way to unearth the patterns is by creating a genogram which allows you to see hereditary patterns of behavior and medical and psychological factors that run through families. It’s a lot like a family tree, except it also includes information such as marriage, and if applicable, divorce dates, important moves, occupations, birth order, drug, alcohol, and medical issues, who was cut off from whom, who made the family decisions, who was the patriarch or matriarch and how the partner’s needs/wants were addressed–or not, typical stories told about the person, etc. There are free genogram templates online. You can handwrite it on paper, which is how I do it. The genograms I do are messy, with lots of information written next to each person.

Your process of looking at FOO systems flowing through generations is going to take a while. That’s okay. Don’t rush it. It’s important for your relationship because you are each driven by your differing FOO systems which can lead to clashes between you. (Unless you’ve intentionally worked on this already). Usually, couples think their issues are theirs alone, or it’s just his/her behavior that’s causing difficulties in their marriage. However, it’s much more likely that there are intergenerational systems and/or traumas at work showing up between you. In other words, your partner isn’t just trying to piss you off! S/he’s behaving normally in his/her family system.

Okay, now you see and understand your intergenerational family systems. You may have a lot of feelings about what you’ve discovered. Talk about them and support each other. Get outside support if you have even an inkling that it might be helpful (this is not easy work).

In light of all you now see and understand, which parts of your system are serving the two of you, and which are intergenerational patterns being acted out without awareness? Some of the intergenerational patterns might be healthy and useful, so beware of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. 

This is your life together. Put systems in place that are healthy and useful to both of you. Good systems provide the structure for you to make your marriage your top priority, keep growing, reach for your individual and shared dreams, be authentic, take care of one another, and build a better marriage. 

Over time, review the systems you have in place. As life situations change, you may need to make adjustments (e.g., having a baby, empty nest, career opportunities, new dreams, etc.).