Understanding the Role Your Family… | Counseling | Therapy

Understanding the Role Your Family of Origin has in the way you Resolve Conflict with a Partner

Alex Robboy , CAS, MSW, ACSW, LCSW — Founder & executive director


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Genogram: Basic Therapy Tool image

This Genogram tip is designed for individuals in relationships who want to explore their family of origin as one way to learn more about their role in conflicts they have with their partner. If you are single, you can benefit from this tip by thinking about a past relationship you were involved in. Conflict is a part of any relationship and can help relationships grow or deepen. However, couples can grow frustrated and feel stuck when they continue to engage in communication that is not effective when dealing with conflict. While there are many factors that influence the way people communicate with their partners, this tip will examine the role of the family of origin. Family of origin can be defined as the immediate family or others who lived in the household and had a significant influence on your life. The following questions will help you examine the way your family of origin dealt with conflict and how this could be influencing the way you communicate with and behave towards your partner during a conflict.

Genogram Step 1: Identify Your Family of Origin

Consider who made up your household. Consider not only your immediate family, but any other family members that may have lived with you. Also consider other relatives you saw often or who had much influence over you. Foster parents or anyone else that provided significant care for you can also be considered part of your family of origin. The important thing is to identify people who you interacted with often, regardless of whether they were blood related or not. List their names and relationships to you.

Genogram Step 2: Explore How Conflict Was Dealt With in Your Family of Origin

Take at least an hour for yourself to answer the questions below. If you get stuck, take a break and come back to them. If you feel comfortable you may ask a sibling, parent or other family member these questions to get another perspective or to help you fill in any memory gaps.

  1. What was considered “a conflict” in your family?
  2. How did each person in your family of origin deal with conflict?
  3. What was conflict like for you in your family? How did you typically respond to each person if the conflict was between you and him or her (for example conflict with mom, dad or sister)?
  4. How would you react to conflict between other people in your family? Was your response different if the conflict was with parents versus siblings?
  5. When was conflict safe and encouraged? When constituted “negative” conflict?
  6. What emotions or feelings were not okay to express during a conflict? In general? Who determined this and how?
  7. Were there certain emotions or feelings that were used frequently during conflict? How were they used and who used them?
  8. What was each family members role in conflict in your family? Who was the peacemaker? Scapegoat? Provoker? Etc.
  9. How did each person’s role benefit / hurt them? Looking back what role do you wish you played? What would you want to replicate from your families style of resolving conflict.
  10. What skills did this role teach you?
  11. How did you cope with conflict or soothe yourself when there was a conflict?
  12. Think of a time when conflict was dealt with successfully in your family. Compare this to a time when conflict was dealt with poorly in your family. What were the differences between these two experiences?

Genogram Step 3: Examine Your Own Behavior in Your Relationship

Again allow about an hour to complete these questions. For this section, it will be helpful to think of a recent fight you had with your partner. You can also think of a conflict that was particularly challenging to resolve with your partner. Remember to focus on your behavior. While your partner likely needs to change their behavior as well, the point of this exercise is to examine and better understand your own role in conflict with your partner.

1. When your partner and you argue, what is typically your role?
2. During a conflict with your partner, what emotions feel safe to express? Which emotions do you find yourself struggling to express?
3. Think about the times when fights seem to escalate. What specific behaviors are contributing to this escalation?
4. Consider times during a conflict with your partner when you feel very triggered, or bothered by their actions. Why are these actions triggering for you? How do you then respond to these triggers?
5. How do you cope with, or soothe yourself during a conflict with your partner?

Genogram Step 4: Check for Parallels

Make sure to allow for at least an hour when completing this next set of questions. Before completing these questions go back and review your answers from the previous two sections. Feel free to review the answers to these sections as you answer the questions below. These questions will require a lot of reflection so it is okay to take breaks and revisit them at another point.

  1. Consider your role in conflict when with your family and when with your partner. What are the similarities? The differences? Why might these similarities and differences exist? How might your past be influencing your expectations today?
  2. Think about how the role you play in conflict with your partner benefits you, and then hurts you. How do the costs and benefits compare to those from the role with your family?
  3. Look at which emotions were difficult to express during a conflict in your family and with your partner. What are the similarities and the differences and why might these exist?
  4. In what ways is your coping or self-soothing when you argue with your partner similar to the ways you coped and self-soothed when in conflict with your family? What are the differences?
  5. When are you most likely to make yourself vulnerable? What happens when you do let your guard down?
  6. Revisit the times when fights seem to escalate with your partner and when you feel very triggered by your partner. Who in your family of origin perhaps acted the same towards you during a conflict?

Share all of your answers either with your partner and if you are single than with a close friend. Sharing this information out-loud will help you hear yourself. Once you can hear yourself than you may need to ask yourself the question “Do I like who I have become? And what behaviors do you I want to carry forward in my life?”

Remember…It is easier to change your behavior once you understand your behavior. This exercise will help you gain more awareness about your family of origins influence on the way you currently deal with conflict with your partner. Keep in mind that this work can be challenging so you may need to pace yourself and explore slowly. Looking into issues around your family of origin can also be fun too. If comfortable, consider asking other family members or even an ex-partner from years ago. Sometimes our ex-partners can have great insight about yourself or the relationship.

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