The Family Forest

The Family Forest

We can’t escape it….
our need to know where we come from,
to connect it to who we are,
and where we’re going.
— The Imposter Bride
— Nancy Richler

How would you finish this sentence? “A Family is like …. a circle, the stars, a book, an orange, a runny peach pie, a boat, a tree?” The possibilities are endless, but from the viewpoint of Systemic Family Theory and Therapy, the metaphor I find most helpful at present is that of an ecosystem i.e. a Forest. In contradistinction to a family tree, which is inherently linear and moves only in one direction, the Family Forest consists of interrelated patterns and processes that determine the form and function of the system.

A Ghana saying states, “A family is like a forest, when you are outside it is dense, when you are inside you see that each tree has its place.” From a systemic point of view this metaphor is not quite right, for caught up in the everyday normative crises of the family life cycle, few within the Family Forest can truly see the nature of the forest or of the trees. Furthermore, the forest is not just a collection of trees but also an ecosystem, a community of interacting organisms, smaller component ecological subsystems, and their physical environment.

Analogously the family forest, consisting of interacting and interconnected individuals, reacts and responds as a unified whole. On a larger scale, each family interacts with its societal (cultural, religious, ethnic, financial, gender, sexual orientation etc.) environment, which also functions as a unified whole. Both individual-level and group-level factors are important to a complete understanding of the family’s form and function.

The Marriage and Family Encyclopedia suggests helpful insights from the metaphor of a Family Forest including:

  1. Understanding families’ function and adaptation
  2. Understanding family decision making and its internal and external interactive effects
  3. Understanding family adaptation to transitions, including entrances and exits of individuals, and formation and dissolution of marital bonds, the only family relationship that is voluntary
  4. Understanding the larger societal influences on family life
  5. Providing direction as to how families and family professionals can contribute to the process of change in order to improve family functioning and quality of life

A Family Forest exists within a historical context – a past, present and future. Its members expand out temporally and spatially across miles and generations. Once you’re a member of your own Soprano’s family you can never leave, and nobody can ever get thrown off the island no matter what. “If you don’t believe in ghosts, you’ve never been to a family reunion.”

The interactive nature and interdependence of the members of the Family Forest means we’re all in this together. The generations that came before us will always be members of our families and trying to deny them is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Each of us is both a descendent and a future ancestor. Failure to attend to current stressors can render the future environment uninhabitable. How your family functions now leaves a powerful legacy. Attending to multigenerational relationship patterns helps ensure your legacy is a positive one. What say you?

Please share your thoughts and experiences concerning your own Family Forest in the “Leave a Reply” box below. To request more information and/or schedule an initial consultation, click here. If you found this post useful, don’t keep it a secret. Go ahead and share this article with your own networks. You are encouraged to click on the buttons in the second to the right hand column at the bottom of the page.

Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530
[email protected]