Family of Origin

Diane McGeachy

Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist
Accredited Gestalt Psychotherapist
Hobart, Tasmania

Understanding Your Family of Origin

Our family of origin is the family we were born and raised in. Although most of us leave our families physically, we are rarely able to leave them emotionally. We may still live close to our family of origin (FOO) and be in weekly or even daily contact. Alternatively we may have moved away following career opportunities or an important relationship. Some of us may have deliberately distanced ourselves from our FOO, putting oceans and continents between us and them, perhaps never returning to see them again. In all of these scenarios we remain psychologically impacted by our FOO to one extent or another. The dynamics (ways of relating) in our family of origin, are naturally taken forward by us into our new relationships, and it is often not until we find ourselves repeating familiar and unhelpful patterns of behaviour that we consider examining the impact of our FOO.

For most of us the ultimate challenge is learning how to remain emotionally close to our family of origin while continuing to feel like our own independent person. You may have experienced spending time away from your family and feeling capable, independent and mature, only to return home and within 5 minutes feel as though you are a ten year old child again.

Who Family of Origin Work is for

Family of Origin work can be undertaken by anyone at any age. It is commonly worked on by families and individuals who are curious and wish to explore how their family of origin has shaped them.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What are some of the problems you experience in your present intimate relationships?
  • What are some of the problems you experience/experienced in your relationships with your family of origin?
  • What were some of the openly acknowledged rules in your family?
  • What were some of the unspoken rules in your family (i.e. what feelings were and were not allowed to be expressed?)
  • How were differences and/or conflicts handled in your family of origin?
  • How do you currently handle conflicts and/or difference in your other relationships?

Closeness versus Distance

Each person has needs for:

  • closeness and
  • separateness

We also need:

  • affiliation
  • security
  • support
  • love
  • approval

While at the same time needing:

  • autonomy
  • independence
  • freedom and
  • self-direction

These seemingly opposing needs stay with us throughout our lifetime, and vary depending on our environment. Reflecting on the life cycle of a person; we are born as helpless infants completely dependent on the care of others. As we grow we test the waters with independence, depending on our parents, this age can vary. As adolescents, some of us struggle to achieve independence and autonomy from our families. When we finally set out on our own and meet a romantic interest similar needs and struggles may arise around closeness and separateness.

There are typically two roles that spouses or partners will take on; the pursuer and the distancer. The pursuer generally says “talk to me more” and the distancer responds “leave me alone.”

Relationship Roles


A pursuer is someone who has a need to be with people and who seeks reassurance. They generally have great difficulty being themselves unless they are in a close intimate relationship were they feel secure. A pursuer is someone who is motivated by the fear of abandonment; their thoughts are along the lines of “as long as you are OK, I am OK”.


A distancer is someone who has trouble being themselves in a close intimate relationship. They tend to feel “suffocated” and are motivated by a fear of engulfment. They often feel a need for space.

Generally, we often choose a partner who has the same comfort zone for closeness and distance. The struggles arise when partners have different needs and express their needs in a different way than the other. This can be frustrating and confusing. The distancer and pursuer roles can change though typically you hear about the female pursuing wishing her spouse would talk to her more and the male distancing saying he needs more space. However if the partner that usually pursues decides to distance themselves you will likely see a reversal of roles and the partner who was the distancer becomes the pursuer.

It can be helpful for us to consider which pattern we normally enact with our partner or perhaps in previous relationships.

  • Which role do you take up the pursuer or the distancer?

If we reflect on our parents, can we identify;

  • Who was the pursuer and who was the distancer in their relationship?
  • Were there any situations where their roles were reversed?
  • Was it OK to alternate one’s needs in your FOO or were family members expected to demonstrate needs in one way (i.e. always pursue or always distance)?


When thinking about pursuers and distancers it can often look as though the distancer has no interest in being in a close intimate relationship and perhaps might be overly independent. This can sometimes be named pseudo-independent. When a person is afraid of closeness (in fear of being hurt, abandoned or engulfed) they will use distance as a method of controlling their fears around closeness. Although on the outside it may look as though this person has no need or want of closeness they may actually have a remarkable need for it, however it’s possible that they may have become afraid of closeness or uncomfortable with it. Interestingly, often someone who is pseudo-independent will generally choose someone who demands closeness and togetherness. Although on the outside they may seem at odds with one another and most likely have a stormy relationship, they may actually have similar comfort zone to one another despite expressing their needs in opposing ways.


Differentiation refers to how developed our individual self is. Those of us who are highly differentiated, are aware of our individuality. In the face of conflict, rejection, or criticism we are able to think logically without becoming swept up in emotional reactions. We are comfortable with who we are and with our sense of identity, beliefs and opinions. A person who has a poorly differentiated self, depends on the acceptance and approval of others. They may behave in two extremes; either adjusting what they think or say to please others or by behaving aggressively and pressuring others to conform to what they believe. Many people are only able to behave in one of these ways; they conform in order to be close to others, or they distance (cut off) to be themselves.

Why is FOO Work Important?

Each of us are raised in a unique environment and we grow up with a variety of different values and beliefs instilled in us. Often when we grow and become independent we reflect on our upbringing. Many of us at some stage think about what we think our parents did right and what they did wrong and consider how this has impacted us. Many of us also vow not to repeat mistakes that we felt our parents had made. Often without meaning to, we replay the same dynamics we experienced in our own families with our new partners or new families. In order to create change for our future it is important to work on the past, to understand our family dynamics so that we can better understand our own behaviours, emotions, beliefs and attitudes. Exploring our family of origin can be filled with long term rewards and benefits. It can enable us to build different relationships with our parents and family members and it can also assist us in developing more meaningful intimate relationships

If you would like to learn more about Family of Origin you may wish to seek support with a Psychologist or Counsellor. Contact Diane McGeachy to explore family of origin issues more fully.

Diane McGeachy
Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist
Accredited Gestalt Psychotherapist

Phone: (03) 6285 8592

Hobart Counselling Centre
Level 1,
181 Elizabeth Street Hobart TAS 7000

Kerr, M. (n.d.). Bowen theory- summary [Handout]. (Available from the Faculty of Arts, University of Notre Dame, Fremantle, Western Australia, 6959).
Richardson, R. (2005). Family ties that bind. North Vancouver, BC: International Self-Council Press Ltd.