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

Ronald B. Cohen, MD of compares the family to a forest as in members can't see beyond it when in crises and that it is a community of interacting components.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, PC Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530

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  1. Michael Yeager on July 5, 2013 at 3:33 pm said:

    Thanks for this post.

  2. John A. "John A" Warnick on July 9, 2013 at 6:46 am said:

    Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, asked: “(W)hat can be added to the happiness of the man who is in health, out of debt, and has a clear conscience?” Perhaps the answer might be a flourishing family.

    There is so much wisdom distilled within this post for which I’m grateful. But the one quote I’m adding to my quote collection is: “If you don’t believe in ghosts, you’ve never been to a family reunion.”

    Attending to our multigenerational relationship patterns can be so difficult. But the rewards are worth the price. Thanks Dr. Cohen.

  3. Nancy Threet on July 24, 2013 at 4:57 pm said:

    Your article is helpful to our family as we bring an older family member aged 77, to live with us. Thank You. Nancy

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on July 28, 2013 at 8:49 pm said:

      Hi Nancy,

      Two previous blogs The Sandwich Generation and Health Aging offer insights on the central transitional task of this life cycle stage, which a colleague of mine defines as “loss and reinvestment”. Best of luck.



  4. Win on September 30, 2013 at 8:43 pm said:

    A reflective piece that I enjoyed. Maori as a culture uses symbolism as a way of teaching and thinking. Thank you

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