The Family Diagram as a Tool

            I started attending Clergy Clinic in Family Emotional Process in 2012 led by staff at the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. As a participant, I learned about Murray Bowen’s Family Systems’ Theory and began the work of exploring my family of origin.

            One assignment that is given to clergy clinic participants is to construct a family diagram. A family diagram is a graphic representation of family members and their relationships over at least three generations. It is different from a family tree because it includes more than just basic facts of our family. It also includes information about the kinds of relationships that exist between family members.

            Victoria Harrison shares in her book The Family Diagram & Family Research “Developing a family diagram with facts about the functioning of the family over generations is one way to transform the way one thinks about the family and human nature. It is a cure, of sorts, for simplistic cause-and-effect thinking and for blaming or diagnosing individuals…It is a tool for seeing the family as an emotional system, for recognizing patterns of reactivity that govern the lives of family members, and for observing the family as it adapts to circumstances of life. It is a tool for working on differentiation of self.”

            As Devon Miller shared in his blog post “The Art of Peacemaking”, one tool in our LMPC toolchest is Family Systems Theory. One concept of that theory is Differentiation of Self. As we lead churches through conflict mediation, we are aware that our level of maturity and functioning—differentiation of self—impacts the process. One way of understanding differentiation of self is to create a family diagram. A family diagram helps us to explore what our particular relationship patterns are within the family. It helps us see our part of the emotional process, and especially the patterns we use particularly when we experience increased anxiety. These patterns are deeply ingrained in us and will surface automatically in our relationships with family members and others outside the family. Once we become aware of our automatic reactions, we can try and modify them to help us grow into maturity. As we work on our own differentiation of self, we become better equipped for the task of peacemaking.

            The Family Diagram is a tool for working on differentiation of self which assists us in bringing our best selves to the mediation table. There are helpful resources we use to create family diagrams. One resource is the book The Family Diagram and Family Research which I quote in this post. There are also several software programs. One program we recommend exploring is GenoPro:          

            Ideally, people will make use of these resources while coaching with someone who has training in Bowen Family Systems’ Theory. We invite you to contact us at Lombard Mennonite Peace Center if you are interested in us assisting you with this work.

Tammy Martens