In Class: Marriage Counselor

Human development and family studies professor Jennifer Hardesty on “genograms,” partner violence and listening to women’s stories

Human development and family studies professor Jennifer Hardesty. (Image by L. Brian Stauffer)
Human development and family studies professor Jennifer Hardesty on “genograms,” partner violence and listening to women’s stories

My area of research is domestic violence, and the majority of my students are human development and family studies majors. 

I teach an undergraduate class on family stress and change. It’s focused on understanding family dynamics and how families change over time. Students do what’s called a “genogram.” It’s like a family tree, but it has more information about how a family functions. It’s my favorite part of the class. You draw the genogram out on a big piece of paper. You have three generations that go vertically. Genograms today are getting bigger and bigger horizontally because of remarriages. 

The students chart out three generations. Next, they draw relationship patterns that show developments like closeness, conflict and cut-off. When you draw out a genogram, you might notice that dads often have high-conflict relationships with their oldest sons. You also might see that those unresolved issues get carried over through generations. One of the most rewarding things that happens is when students start seeing their parents as people—understanding them in a generational context.

Many students have immigration stories. In their genograms, they might go back three or more generations to track when their family members first came to the U.S. They can examine patterns of physical and mental health issues, but also positive things. For example, people who have several generations of family members who have attended the U of I like
to track that. 

(Image by L. Brian Stauffer)

I also teach an eight-week class on intimate partner violence. People come to that class with a variety of related experiences. Some people have absolutely no knowledge or any personal experience with intimate partner violence. Others have had experiences in their own families or in their own relationships. I spend a lot of time talking about the dynamics of domestic violence, helping students understand what it is like to be in an abusive relationship and the difficulty in breaking free. I try to dispel the myth that if you just leave, you’ll be okay. Because the data do not tell us that. The risks of being harmed or even killed increase when you leave a violent partner, and if you share children with that partner, those risks can continue. 

One thing I tell students is: I don’t think you will be able to effectively work with women who’ve been abused if you think that would never happen to you, or you would just leave if it happened once, or you would just call the police. You have to get past that kind of simplistic thinking.

One of my favorite things about teaching and doing research is hearing people’s stories. Their stories might be sad, but I like bearing witness to them. When doing in-depth interviews with women who have been abused, I know that this might be the first time they’ve been able to tell their stories from start to finish and have someone listen and not judge them.—Mary Timmins 

Edited and condensed from an interview conducted on April 2, 2019.