Multigeneration Transmission and Couple Conflict

By | May 24, 2024 | |

How decoding messages inherited from your family of origin can inform on how you deal with conflict in your relationship.

In my childhood, a bowl of cut fruit could mean a thousand things. It could mean: “You need some good vitamins, and I need you to be fed.” Or it could mean: “Good job on your test, here are some sweet treats to last you through another study session.” Sometimes it is simply: “Love you, eat well.” And most of the time, it is: “I’m sorry I shouted at you in public.”

It took me a while to decode what each bowl of fruit meant, and why my mother couldn’t seem to say these things aloud, even when pressed. In place of apologies or congratulations, there was always the fruit. Then I visited my maternal grandmother’s house, and began to notice the bowl of cut fruit materialising on the coffee table, or the flash of the knife in my grandmother’s tremorous hands while she sliced up a pear. My grandmother and my mother never got along, but after each vicious argument or snide remark, the bowl of fruit would slide quietly across the table like an olive branch.

“I’m sorry,” it said, in the tense silence after my grandmother threw a plastic footstool at my mother when she tried to help her off the sofa. “I don’t know why I’m so angry all the time.”

It is often said that children are a reflection of their parents, who are reflections of their parents, and so on. In a relationship, the messages we communicate to our partner—both subconsciously and consciously—may be influenced by the kinds of messages that were communicated to us by our families of origin. This implies that the way we manage conflict within our own families may be reflected in the way we communicate with our partners during conflict.

Differentiation of self

A family’s patterns of social interaction and adjustment are echoed throughout generations in a series of subconscious mirroring processes. What is actually transmitted is the level of differentiation of self. In other words, our ability to independently distinguish ourselves from others—primarily, family members—emotionally and intellectually.

A healthily differentiated person is able to distinguish their identity and emotions from others, and also form intimate relationships with others. They are able to exhibit flexibility while maintaining healthy boundaries in those relationships. This understanding of nuance may be learned from childhood, traced back to their family of origin.

Likewise, when faced with an emotionally charged situation, a poorly differentiated person may react badly, purely from a place of emotion, instead of taking a step back to assess the situation and express their own perspectives clearly. Low self-differentiation is characterised by the inability to separate one’s emotions from another’s, typically in familial relationships. When a family member is in a negative emotional state, the poorly differentiated person feels emotionally impacted, responding with negative affect, even though the situation might not apply to them personally.

This can lead to either of two polarising reactions: emotional cut-off, or fusion.

Emotional reactivity

I was a teenager when I began to notice my mother’s withdrawal from me each time we fought, the conflict still simmering between us—unfinished homework, unfinished chores, unfinished business. Halfway through the argument, she would leave the room, closing the door on both me and the conversation. It would take hours—sometimes even the full day—before the bowl of fruit would appear on my desk, a band-aid over the wound. (“Ok, I allow you to be loved again.”) In time, I stopped bringing things up, too.

Emotional cut-off is characterised by emotional avoidance, occurring when the individual manages the emotional intensity of relationships by reducing or cutting off emotional contact. They abruptly distance themselves physically or emotionally from the conflict to protect their own emotional state.

Alternatively, the fused person absorbs the emotions and needs of others, and, fearing separation, might react by overwhelming the other person with closeness, often blurring boundaries and losing their individuality. Fusion is most commonly exhibited in codependent relationships.

Both of these come from a place of emotional reactivity, in which intense emotions are triggered by external problems. These reactions are impulsive rather than empathetic and logical, and are used to disseminate the intensity of the emotions, rarely ever dealing with the problem itself.

My parents aren’t the kind of people who talk about feelings. They are not the type of people to comfort or coddle, nor will they work out the emotion entangled with the conflict. When the tension escalates, my father returns to his phone as many times as laundry will magically appear for my mother to suddenly remember. Eventually, he will leave and come home with fruit. My mother would slice up his peace offerings. And we would swallow down the resentment between wedges of apple and orange. While their relationship is built on acts of service and prioritising ‘peace’ within the family, I’m forced to wonder how many bowls of fruit my parents have left in them.

Our parents’ relationship patterns program our social, emotional and cognitive development, influencing how we interact with others. The patterns are informed by the values, behaviours, and implicit attitudes that each family emphasises. Based on this programming, people tend to select partners with similar levels of differentiation.

Research suggests that the more differentiated an individual is from their parents, the higher the likelihood that they will experience marital satisfaction in their relationships (Bartle‐Haring & Sabatelli, 1998). As a result, their adolescent offspring will likely experience greater positive adjustment (Bartle‐Haring & Sabatelli, 1998). This demonstrates the successful transmission of psychosocial maturity and healthy attitudes toward intimacy, resulting in a well-adjusted child.

A well-adjusted individual displays the qualities of adaptability, capability in experiencing and expressing emotions, warmth, genuineness, self-confidence, emotional stability and resilience in the face of stress. These are traits associated with successful conflict management, alongside positive problem solving, engagement and closeness (Gesell et al., 2020). Conflict between couples is inevitable and necessary for the development of the relationship. Conflict signals unsustainable systemic flaws and indicates need for restructuring within the relationship. The success and quality of a relationship is predicted by the couple’s conflict management styles. To avoid conflict is to stunt the progress of the relationship.

However, the transmission of lower levels of self-differentiation suggests a conflict communication style rooted in emotional reactivity. Communication patterns such as emotional cut-off or over-focusing on your partner’s emotions during conflict represent key multigenerational transmissions, which hinder the couple’s ability to resolve conflict in a healthy and mutually satisfying manner.

What emotional cut-off looks like:

  • Withdrawing from the conversation, dismissing and disengaging emotionally. This is also known as stonewalling.
  • Suddenly finding something else to do midway through the conversation.
  • Icy distance.
  • Short, curt replies.
  • Changing the subject, or deflecting the conversation back onto the other person’s faults.
  • Never addressing the problem, but making up in roundabout ways (i.e., the bowl of cut fruit.)

What the fused partner looks like:

  • Putting your partner’s needs ahead of your own, trying to single-handedly fix the situation rather than letting it be a collaborative effort.
  • Appeasing your partner at the cost of your own boundaries and feelings regarding the conflict, feeling anxious until the emotional tension is dissipated.
  • Finding difficulty in standing your ground and speaking up for yourself.
  • Pushing to resolve the conflict immediately, regardless of your partner’s need for space.

Different relationship dynamics carry different communication styles. A pairing of fused individuals may engage in people-pleasing tendencies, whereas a pairing of emotionally cut-off individuals may ignore the conflict in favour of maintaining harmony. A pairing of a fused individual with one who responds with emotional cut-off (otherwise known as an enmeshed-detached dyad) may have the fused partner pushing for emotional connection, often overstepping boundaries, neglecting their own needs and over-functioning in the relationship, while the other either shuts down or distances themselves, taking a passive role in the relationship and neglecting their partner’s needs. These combinations often seek to maintain a fragile sense of peace, but will foster resentment and dysfunction that may boil over with time.

If you identify with some of these signs, or perhaps feel as though your relationship dynamic may be unbalanced, there are ways to work towards healthy conflict management.

Working through Multigenerational Transmission

My first argument with my partner forced me out of the room, detaching from the place of discomfort and into my own solitude where I could avoid his negative feelings, as well as my own. I thought about my mother, how the door would slam in my face, and how I felt in that moment—abandoned, frustrated, unheard. I did not want someone I cared about to feel that way. After a few minutes, I came back with a bowl of oranges. Instead of leaving it there for him to decode (“I still care.”), I forced myself to sit down and listen to my partner talk about the problem. I am lucky, in that my partner prefers to work out a solution mutually, and has a higher level of differentiation. This gives me hope that, given time, I can break the pattern of emotional cut-off that I’d grown up with.

One way is to begin reflecting on your family of origin to work through the emotions. Gaining awareness of the messages passed down from generation to generation and how they influence the way you think and perceive the social world is important to understanding your own patterns, as well as your partner’s. You may start with examining how your parents react to conflict, and compare it to your own communication patterns. Do your parents exhibit emotional detachment in the face of an argument, and walk away when tensions run high? Or do they tend to force connection, coddling and over-involving themselves to appease the other? Do you notice the same with yourself? This can be aided by a professional in an individual or couples counselling setting. Understanding these intergenerationally transmitted messages can foster empathy between couples, which aids the healing process, creating a more supportive environment.

Restoring functionality during conflict requires emotional regulation. This lessens emotional reactivity, such that both partners are able to listen to each other and manage the conflict effectively. For individuals who react with emotional cut-off, this is especially important when working towards functioning during emotionally overwhelming situations in conflict.

Fused individuals could establish a clear identity outside of the relationship. Learning how to set boundaries can be helpful to prevent over-functioning during conflict management. Additionally, learning how to take a step back and sharing the workload with your partner could encourage more initiative and involvement in the process.

Change takes time and effort. It is also important to maintain compassion and understanding while working towards breaking out of a multigenerational cycle of poor communication habits.

Bartle‐Haring, S., & Sabatelli, R. M. (1998). An intergenerational examination of patterns of individual and family adjustment. Journal of Marriage and the Family/Journal of Marriage and Family, 60(4), 903. https://doi.org/10.2307/353633

Bongiovanni, C. (2022). Stonewalling to a Disengaged Marriage EP 52. Christine Bongiovanni Coaching. https://christinebongiovanni.com/stonewalling-to-a-disengaged-marriage-ep-52/

Gesell, N., Niklas, F., Schmiedeler, S., & Segerer, R. (2020). Mindfulness and Romantic Relationship Outcomes: the Mediating Role of Conflict Resolution Styles and Closeness. Mindfulness, 11(10), 2314–2324.https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-020-01449-9

Jabbari, B., Schoo, C., & Rouster, A. S. (2023). Family dynamics. StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560487/

Lampis, J., Cataudella, S., Agus, M., Busonera, A., & Skowron, E. A. (2018). Differentiation of self and dyadic adjustment in couple relationships: A Dyadic analysis using the Actor‐Partner Interdependence Model. Family Process, 58(3), 698–715. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12370

Multigenerational Transmission Process — the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. (n.d.). The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family. https://www.thebowencenter.org/multigenerational-transmission-process

Rajendrakumar, J. (2024). Are you losing you in the relationship? Enmeshment, detachment, and differentiation. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/are-you-losing-you-in-the-relationship-enmeshment-detachment-and-differentiation/

Skowron, E. A., & Friedlander, M. L. (1998). The Differentiation of Self Inventory: Development and initial validation. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 45(3), 235–246.https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.45.3.235

Travers, M. (2020). 4 Traits of Psychologically “Healthy” People. Psychology Today. Retrieved May 11, 2024, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/social-instincts/202011/4-traits-of-psychologically-healthy-people

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