The concept of the multigenerational transmission process describes how small differences in the levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring lead over many generations to marked differences in differentiation among the members of a multigenerational family. The information creating these differences is transmitted across generations through relationships. The transmission occurs on several interconnected levels ranging from the conscious teaching and learning of information to the automatic and unconscious programming of emotional reactions and behaviors. Relationally and genetically transmitted information interact to shape an individual’s “self.”

The combination of parents actively shaping the development of their offspring, offspring innately responding to their parents’ moods, attitudes, and actions, and the long dependency period of human offspring results in people developing levels of differentiation of self similar to their parents’ levels. However, the relationship patterns of nuclear family emotional systems often result in at least one member of a sibling group developing a little more “self” and another member developing a little less “self” than the parents.

The next step in the multigenerational transmission process is people predictably selecting mates with levels of differentiation of self that match their own. Therefore, if one sibling’s level of “self” is higher and another sibling’s level of “self” is lower than the parents, one sibling’s marriage is more differentiated and the other sibling’s marriage is less differentiated than the parents’ marriage. If each sibling then has a child who is more differentiated and a child who is less differentiated than himself, one three generational line becomes progressively more differentiated (the most differentiated child of the most differentiated sibling) and one line becomes progressively less differentiated (the least differentiated child of the least differentiated sibling). As these processes repeat over multiple generations, the differences between family lines grow increasingly marked.

Level of differentiation of self can affect longevity, marital stability, reproduction, health, educational accomplishments, and occupational success. This impact of differentiation on overall life functioning explains the marked variation that typically exists in the lives of the members of a multigenerational family. The highly differentiated people have unusually stable nuclear families and contribute much to society; the poorly differentiated people have chaotic personal lives and depend heavily on others to sustain them. A key implication of the multigenerational concept is that the roots of the most severe human problems as well as of the highest levels of human adaptation are generations deep. The multigenerational transmission process not only programs the levels of “self” people develop, but it also programs how people interact with others. Both types of programming affect the selection of a spouse. For example, if a family programs someone to attach intensely to others and to function in a helpless and indecisive way, he will likely select a mate who not only attaches to him with equal intensity, but one who directs others and make decisions for them.


The multigenerational transmission process helps explain the particular patterns that have played out in the nuclear family of Michael, Martha, Amy, and Marie. Martha is the youngest of three daughters from an intact Midwestern family. From her teen years on, Martha did not feel especially close to either of her parents, but especially to her mother. She experienced her mother as competent and caring but often intrusive and critical. Martha felt she could not please her mother.

Her sisters seemed to feel more secure and competent than Martha. She asked herself how she could grow up in a seemingly “normal” family and have so many problems, and answered herself that there must be something wrong with her. When she faced important dilemmas in her life and had decisions to make, her mother got involved and strongly influenced Martha’s choices. Her mother said Martha should make her own decisions, but her mother’s actions did not match her words. One of her mother’s biggest fears was that Martha would make the wrong decision. In time, Martha’s sisters came to view her much like their mother did and treated her as the baby of the family, as one needing special guidance. Martha’s father was sympathetic with her one-down position in the family, but he distanced from family tensions.

Martha detested herself for needing the acceptance and approval of others to function effectively and for feeling she could not act more independently. She worried about making the wrong decision and turned frequently to her mother for help.

Analysis: The primary relationship pattern in Martha’s family of origin was impairment of one or more children, and the projection process focused primarily on Martha. The mother’s overfunctioning promoted Martha’s underfunctioning, but Martha largely blamed herself for her difficulties making decisions and functioning independently. Martha’s intense need for approval and acceptance reflected the high level of involvement with her mother. She managed the intensity with her mother with emotional distance. These basic patterns were later replicated in her marriage and with Amy.

Martha’s mother is the oldest child in her family and functioned as a second parent to her three younger siblings. Martha’s mother’s mother became a chronic invalid after her last child was born. As a child, Martha’s mother functioned as a second mother in her family and, with the encouragement of her father, did much of the caretaking of her invalid mother. Martha’s mother basked in the approval she gained from both of her parents, especially from her father. Her father was often critical of his wife, insisting she could do more for herself if she would try. Martha’s grandmother responded to the criticism by taking to bed, often for days at a time. Martha’s mother learned to thrive on taking care of others and being needed.

Analysis: Martha’s mother probably had almost as intense an involvement with her parents as she subsequently had with Martha, but the styles of the involvements were different. Two relationship patterns dominated Martha’s mother’s nuclear family: dysfunction in one spouse and overinvolvement with a child. Martha’s mother was intensely involved in the triangles with her parents and younger siblings and in the position of overfunctioning for others. In other words, she learned to meet her strongly programmed needs for emotional closeness by taking care of others, a pattern that played out with Martha.

Michael grew up as an only child in an intact family from the Pacific Northwest. He met Martha when he attended college in the Midwest. Michael’s mother began having frequent bouts of serious depression about the time he started grade school. She was twice hospitalized psychiatrically, once after an overdose of tranquilizers. Michael felt “allergic” to his mother’s many problems and kept his distance from her, especially during his adolescence. He cared about her and felt she would help him in any way she could, but viewed her as helpless and incompetent. He resented her “not trying harder.” He had a reasonably comfortable relationship with his father, but felt his father made the family situation worse by opting for “peace at any price.” It was easier for his father to give in to his wife’s sometimes childish demands than to draw a line with her. Michael related to his mother almost exactly like his father did. His mother expressed resentment about her husband’s passivity. She accused him of not really caring about her, only doing things for her because she demanded it. Michael’s mother worshiped Michael and was jealous of interests and people that took him away from her.

Analysis: Interestingly, Michael’s parental triangle was similar to Martha’s mother’s parental triangle. His mother was intensely involved with him and it programmed Michael both to need this level of emotional support from the important female in his life, but also to react critically to the female’s neediness. Michael’s parental triangle also fostered a belief that he knew best.

Michael’s mother had been a “star” in her family when she was growing up. She was an excellent student and athlete. She had a very conflictual relationship with her mother and an idealized view of her father. She met Michael’s father when they were both in college. He was two years older than she and when he graduated, she quit school to marry him. Her parents were very upset about the decision. Michael’s father had been at loose ends when he met his future wife, but she was what he needed. He built a very successful business career with her emotional support. He functioned higher in his work life than in his family life.

Analysis: Michael’s father functioned on a higher level in his business life than in his family life, a discrepancy that is commonly present in people with mid-range levels of differentiation of self.