Genogram Rules

Most people are familiar with the layout that depicts our line of descent from mom and dad through all the grandparents, great-grandparents and beyond. Similar to that graphic portrayal of our heritage is a genogram. But genograms are much more sophisticated drawings that show more than just line of descent. A genogram reveals hereditary characteristics and psychological patterns of family members of only several current generations and follows a distinct set of rules when being composed.

Basic Information

Like your family tree, genograms contain basic information such as:

  • birth dates
  • gender
  • spouses
  • children
  • dates
  • marriage
  • divorce
  • deaths

Genograms contain much more information such as education, illnesses, careers and major life events. When doing your genogram, collect facts on relationships including social, emotional, family and the nature of these relationships. Were the interactions healthy, toxic or strained? Were there chronic illnesses or disabilities in the any of the family member? All of these events will be included in your genogram. This information usually comes from one member of a family that is interviewed for the genogram. It will be her perspective that will be shown in the genogram.

Basic Components

All genograms use the same components to represent various people, circumstances and events. Placement of these components is also consistent, although some variations do exist under certain circumstances. A male is represented by a square, a female by a circle. If a relationship exists between the two, the male is on the left, the female to the right. If it is a marriage, a line connects the two. Children from that marriage will be shown underneath the line, oldest to the left and younger to the right in succession. The person who the information is being drawn will have a double line around their component. Birth years are inserted to the upper right of each person.

Rules for Relationship Positions

Often there is more than one marriage or relationship. On the line between spouses or partners, a spouse must be closet to his first partner, then his second and so on. Children from that relationship will be shown underneath the line, oldest to the left and younger to the right in succession. If the children come from the second or third relationships, they will appear under that part of the line respectively. Unless otherwise certain, assume a male-female relationship. If the relationship was a marriage, the line is solid, if the couple were living together, it will be a dotted line. If the liaison came after the first relationship, the line continues from that line. If a marriage ended in divorce, a short double line will be angled through the connecting line. If the couple were or are separated, make a single short angled line. A death is represented by an X through the male/female symbol with the date noted above.

Rules for Family Ties

Genograms are an important tool for therapists because they also indicate the types and quality of relationships between family members. Two close family members would be indicated by a line between the two; an exceptionally close tie by a double line; an even closer bond by a triple line. A dotted line, not to be confused with a romantic attachment, indicates a distant relationship; a large zig-zag line means a hostile relationship. Two lines joining people are seen as a close, hostile bond and three lines indicate a fused hostile association. Sexual abuse is shown as a jagged line with an arrow from the abuser to the abused; and physical abuse is portrayed by a small jagged line with an arrow. If a relationship is torn apart, their connecting line is separated by two short perpendicular lines.