Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Winter 2003

Leaving a Legacy

As we eagerly await the birth of our first grandchild this spring, the transition to (grand)parenting provides many opportunities for our family to ask ourselves how our legacies will influence the next generation.

With stories of genetic engineering and baby cloning in the news daily, most of us are aware of the genetic legacy passed to our descendants and how we are a product of our ancestors. Most people don't have the same awareness about their psychological legacy.

When most people think of what they are leaving to their children they think of money. You might not have ever thought about how our life stories could inspire our descendants. For example, few of us know much about the 6 to 8 million people killed in concentration camps. But we have all heard of Anne Frank, the teenage victim of the camps, because she left a diary. What kind of legacy will you leave?

Preventing Negative Legacies

You leave a legacy whether you are aware of it or not. Do you want to leave a positive or a negative one? For example, did you know that a parent's or grandparent's suicide increases their descendants' risk to suicide by a factor of 8? Children whose parents have divorced have a divorce risk of twice that of the normal population.

Alcoholism and other addictions run in families both because of genetic factors but also because of learning as well. As children see their parents coping with stress with substance abuse, the foundation is laid to do the same. Likewise, violence and interpersonal difficulties are other negative legacies passed down in families.

Angela grew up in a restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy, the oldest daughter of three. As she and her younger sisters got older, they took on more responsibilities for cooking, and seating and serving customers. Although it was presumed that Angela would take over the restaurant at her father's retirement, she felt a call to be a teacher. Her father was furious because he wanted her to major in business and refused to pay her tuition for courses in education. Angela worked nights and weekends in the restaurant to pay her tuition and continued helping out even when she became a teacher, wife and mother. Her youngest sister decided to go to culinary school and take over the restaurant and the middle sister became a stay-at-home mom.

When the father died, his personal estate was divided among the three daughters. Angela's sisters got large, evenly divided sums of money as did their children. Angela and her daughter were each bequeathed $1. What kind of negative legacy did that father leave to his children and grandchildren? What kind of atmosphere will they have at their family gatherings for the rest of their lives? How will they think of him?

Ask yourself: what are some negative legacies from my family of origin that I do not want to perpetuate? They might include:

Designing a Positive Legacy

It will not be enough to name your "monsters," the negative legacies. You must vision how you want your behavior to influence others and what kind of positive legacy you want to leave. If you are not proactive you will tend to reproduce familiar dysfunctional patterns. Even if you have no children of your own, you have "psychological heirs" in your sphere of influence such as nieces and nephews, friends and their children, and people with whom you work.

Legacy of Values

What are your values and how do you put them into practice? Your children will learn what you live. What kind of adults would you like your children to be at 18? What is your plan for instilling those attitudes, values, and skills by the time those young adults leave your household?

In her excellent collection of stories about the "Right Words at the Right Time," Marlo Thomas tells the story of how her father responded to her complaint that people were judging her early attempts at acting by her last name. He said "I meant to raise race horses. They run the race with blinders, ignoring the competition, staying the course until they win." When a beautifully wrapped package arrived the next day at her dressing room at the theatre, Marlo was shocked to find a pair of old horse blinders inside.

Great advice from a man who left a fabulous legacy of values! Marlo Thomas still does TV specials about the children with rare diseases whose lives are saved or extended at Danny Thomas' St. Jude's Hospital.


Write out your values and ways you specifically live them. Ask your spouse to do the same. Talk about those values with your children and ask them some ways your family can widen its sphere of influence. Write them down. Here are a few suggestions about value education:

Communication Skills

Sprucing up your skills of "I" statements, active listening, feedback, problem solving and conflict management will help you and your spouse get along better. In addition your example of good communication will be an essential example for your children to live in an increasingly complex world.

We teach our clients how to adapt the marital sitdown to a "Family Meeting" format that includes the children in decisions appropriate to their ages. How do you bring up problems, plan vacations, and make decisions?

Family Rituals

Your legacy is not just about serious things. It is also about having fun. How does your family have fun - especially inexpensive, stay-at-home fun? What funny stories do you pass down about parents and grandparents? What are the ways you celebrate successes, holidays, and birthdays? How do you build traditions and memories? Here are some of our family's favorites:

Whatever your circumstances, married, single, childless or parenting, your legacy begins today.


Our audiotape series, Secrets of Extraordinary Marriages, covers communication skills and the marital sitdown. .

For more tips on how to enlarge your sphere of influence: Marlo Thomas, "The Right Words at the Right Time" Henriette Anne Klauser, "Put Your Heart on Paper"

Copyright 2003 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information.

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Phone: 410-465-5967
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