Strong feelings in most marriages are at or near the surface—driven by love and sex and sometimes by competition for power…

Marriages are intense, families complex.


Strong feelings in most marriages are at or near the surface—driven by love and sex and sometimes by competition for power. At times marriages are fraught with apprehension approaching sheer fear. A calm discussion can suddenly switch to anger and erupt in rage and even violence. Love and affection may turn to disgust and hate. When children come along—to form a family—the picture becomes increasingly complicated, for what goes on between three people or more alters the dynamics exponentially. Essential family functions start coming to the fore: nurturance and discipline, role modelling, the teaching of values. Children must be reared, socialized. Plans must be made for schooling and later work for gain. And as circumstances inevitably change, problem solving becomes a daily part of marital-family life. My contention above bears repeating with emphasis: marriages are emotionally intense and families in all ways complex.


The main goal of Cracking The Family Code is to disentangle and then interrelate this intensity and complexity. The job took me three decades of observing and documenting the goings-on in all kinds of marriages and families. One grand result, beautifully serendipitous, is the emergence of an open-ended (heuristic) spectrum of discrete themes or clusters of related forms and functions that are the true measure of marriage and the family group. Moreover, these themes, just ten in number, are common to all marriages and families on the globe! The themes, extrapolated, bridge geography, race, ethnicity and religion. The basic themes also can be made practical and applied in day to day clinical work. With a bit of fine-tuning these universal themes easily resolve into a useful format, a single-page marital-family schema or diagnostic guideline. This new format for assessment is the book’s centerpiece.

Most marital-family books stress the tricks and techniques of therapy. The major, and unique, focus of this book is assessment—the proper prelude to therapy. I think that marital-family therapists should be able to assess relationships every bit as well as a doctor does a physical exam. Heretofore, such has been extremely difficult if not impossible. No longer does that need to be the case. The key that opens the door is the fact that a single common thread runs through all of the marital-family themes—verbal and kinesic communication of information. Just as chemistry is the universal medium bathing all cells and tissues, communication is the unifying matrix of all relationships. Interpersonal communication conveys instant messages between people, across space, in the here and now, just as genes, over time, transmit biological information across generations. Thus, in marital-family work, there is no real need for countless little psychological methods and theories; communication is the book’s sole underlying theoretical orientation. Communication Theory (CT) is a relatively new discipline. Its basic pragmatic premises, or hypotheses, or better yet, ‘grammatical’ rules, are few in number; this unique social grammar so happens to be quite straightforward and fairly easy to use. Clinical application of CT within the schematic format actually makes some aspects of marital-family assessment diagnostic! And the end-results can be gratifyingly elegant and aesthetic.

It is worth noting that for centuries science was preoccupied with the very distant (the stars) and the very small (the atom). But science overlooked the very immediate—human relationships. Until concepts of information and communication came along, sensibility (warmth, feeling and empathy) and system (rationality and pure reason) in marital-family work could never prevail. Using applied CT, both system and sensibility are possible, side by side. But clinical communication is still in its infancy, unsteady on its feet, needing nurturance. It can get this, and grow, only by regular, active use in daily work. Right now, at this historical point in time, the forte of CT is in marital-family assessment. But it is applicable, too, in treatment; for, the welter of schools and methods that can bog therapy down in a Babylon of sheer confusion are readily translated into the new common language of ‘pragmatic’ communication.

Another goal of this book is to apply science to marriage and the family with caring and sensitivity. A caring sensibility for people has long been the special province of many spiritual advisors. Wise priests and ministers quietly practiced it while good doctors extoled it. Certainly, religion and science do not mesh at all well at the metaphysical level. For skeptical science discovers or digs out hard facts and constructs approximate theory, whereas all religions believe in a revealed and absolute truth. And in this respect, never the twain shall truly meet. But this much I believe: We can try, with benefit to all, to work together congenially at a practical, helping level. A quotation from David Grinspoon’s recent book about astrophysics, Lonely Planets, says it well:

Natural philosophy once mingled our religious and spiritual quests with what we now think of as the scientific quest. Our common wonder and desire creates a place where science and spirituality can meet, become reacquainted, and perhaps practice working together.

So I recruited my own wise minister and friend, the Reverend Fred Austen. He has provided a series of brief philosophical and spiritual commentaries that demonstrate and prove the point of my conviction.


This book has three parts as shown in the S-shaped dependency diagram. Starting from bottom left, we move through the basics (Part 1) around to the ‘ladder’ of diagnostic assessment (Part 2, black) and on to wider horizons (Part 3). The various connections between topics (communication in the case above) can be plotted conveniently as hinted by the dotted lines.

After a brief orientation, PART 1 of the book begins to tease out the ABCs of marriage and family. One could make an arbitrary selection of the seemingly most important ingredients, say, love, values, and spirituality, or, sex, power, money and fun—and then write a learned essay on each. This is a common approach with some merit. But, however valid and true such choices may be, I prefer to go to the core of it. Fundamental principles are teased out at three different system levels in different contexts: 1) an inner focus on just one person’s mind—calm or tormented [Chapter 3], 2) the effects of angry or loving transactions escalating up between two people [C-2], and 3) the machinations found in ubiquitous human triangles that involve three people, or, in networks, more [Cs 5 & 6].

Thus, we see that emotions are generated between people, not merely inside the head of just one person in isolation. In that context we observe a very delicate balancing of power; how anger in a seemingly civilized conversation can subtly and suddenly spiral out of control into rage and erupt in violence; we recognize that anger is as likely as love to emerge in close relationships. The core spectrum of all basic human feelings is examined in detail [C-4]: fear and anger, happiness and sadness, disgust and lust. These generic feelings are extrapolated into their complex counterparts, including loyalty and patriotism, hate and jealousy, etc. But the reification of feeling, giving it a life of its own, is assiduously avoided; hurtful emotion must always be dealt with in the living context of relationship. To this end, the first-discovered dysfunctional ‘split field’ triangle, which induces much of the world’s anxiety, is very carefully dissected. Flipping back to first principles, we look deeply into the minds of mothers who murder their children. We truly understand why individual psychology cannot be ignored in any marriage or family—ever. Children, the family’s essence, are examined in historical context [C-7]. The basics of applied human communication are introduced in several chapters and woven through many. But, the other two branches of Communication Theory—Semantics and Syntactics—while less clinically relevant than Pragmatics, are not overlooked. CT, including Information Theory, is pulled together as a whole in C-5. We conclude this first part of the book by starting a search for the chimera of normality [C-8].

Many marital counselors and family therapists too often fly blind by the seat of their pants from one unfocussed session to another. PART 2 [Cs 9-23] makes this quite unnecessary. Published here for the first time is a schematic guide for marital-family assessment. It virtually ‘cracks the family code.’ Used in everyday work, it enables anyone, from novice on up to full-fledged therapist, to examine any marriage and family—from any culture worldwide—and do so as effectively as a medical doctor does a routine physical exam. Out of such accurate assessment flows flexible, rational and reliable treatment. We can rightly assert that treatment given without proper assessment is surely gross incompetence, tantamount to malpractice.

By the same token, diagnosis without treatment is neglect. PART 3 begins to remedy that common error. We move on to wider horizens. We take a look at family ecology [C-24]. Almost unheard of in marital-family work, we learn how accurate observation leads to correct prediction and the possibility of prevention [C-25]. In C-27 the various empirical brands of active therapy are given honorable mention or encapsulated in readable form. To name just two: Eric Berne’s Transactional (and structural) Analysis (TA) and William Glasser’s Reality Therapy. Each is integrated neatly into the universal communications approach; the possibility of unification of all methods used in relationship therapy emerges. The romance and chemistry of love is examined [C-26]. The attitudes and talents required of anyone entering the field of marital-family therapy are detailed and justified [C-28]. Knowledge and skills expected at each progressive stage of professional development, from beginner to experienced and all-round competent therapist, are step-by-step traced out. Then a portrait of the master therapist is drawn as an ideal for which to aim. Odds and ends are next pulled together [C-29]. Research into the social-family complexity surounding hyperactive children is displayed in C-30. It is addressed to all, not just the master. The final chapter—on marriage, family and faith—makes direct reference to a survey of ‘what people really want to know.’ It takes the form of a dialog between a minister and a doctor. It more than merely places spirituality in the overall scheme of things; it recognizes spirituality as an essential counterpart to science in dealing with unhappy marriages and families.

At the end of each chapter is Rev Fred’s philosophical commentary and/or a scientific critique. The book is also liberally sprinkled with over 100 original diagrams that make difficult concepts digestible. These carefully designed visual aids more than justify the old saw, “a picture is worth a thousands words,” for they form bridges between words in a wordy subject and opaque scientific formulations and formulae; they are self-contained models—metaphors—of social reality. In keeping with the usual standard format, succinct, yet interesting, case examples clarify all clinical applications. References to source material are extensive (most are classics in their own fields) and almost every page or two has its explanatory, if sometimes convoluted or digressive, footnote.1

The Appendix includes various self-tests of marriage. A modified version of the Harvard method of conflict resolution (which helped end the Cold War) is included. (You’ll find that stopping conflict in a badly conflicted marriage is often harder than doing the same at the international level! Marital-family workers must be skilled diplomats.) The testing tools are in a ready format for photocopying and clinical use. There are also detailed summaries of such things as brain and mind and the mathematics of scientific information-communication. Finally, all critical basic concepts introduced throughout the book are pulled together in a compact compendium.


There are only a few definitions in the book; the ‘meaning is in the message’ most of the time. But the very words marriage, family, counseling and therapy demand some upfront clarification.

Even though the form of individual families may change over time (through development as well as historically) and can vary widely with culture, family hardly needs definition. The family’s main underlying purpose is a universal constant: to create, nurture, rear and socialize children in an economically stable and warmly emotional way. If, in the process, the adults get some extra nurturance and learn something too, so much the better.

Marriage nowadays, sadly or happily, does not always carry with it both religious and legal sanction. In our view, two people of the opposite sex living under the same roof who share sex and expenses are married. That’s the best way of love, unhidden. There is solid evidence supporting the contention that marriage should remain a proprietary heterosexual word. That being so, what about gays and lesbians? In case you cannot wait for the rationale, take a quick peek at Chapter 15. All the same, most homosexual relationships can be well-counseled too.

Some distinction between types of treatment is needed. Psychotherapy attempts to induce change in just one person’s mind through insight over time. Action follows. Counseling is less passive, much more active; directives can be dispensed and information imparted; thus, counselors cannot honestly get by without expert knowledge. (Some psychotherapists do.) A few wise practitioners who have moved well beyond ordinary competence are referred to as master therapists. Otherwise there is really little difference between a counselor and a therapist. Each has a hard and interesting job. I tend to use the terms interchangeably, but prefer the conventional marital counselor for marital work. Thus, it is psychotherapy with individuals, family therapy with families, and counseling with couples.


Obviously science is fundamental to Cracking the Family Code. But what kind of science and from what sources does it come? Answer: From the perspectives of general medical practice, child and general psychiatry, teaching and research, I have taken an orientation akin to cultural anthropology—immersion and observation rather than a long parade of raw data and statistics. (By running a general medical practice alongside and flavored by child and general psychiatry I was always able to keep in touch with happy, ‘normal’ marriages and families) Together we view the different levels of assessment and therapy from the angle of General Systems Theory (GST). Pragmatic communication, as noted earlier, is the theoretical matrix at the interpersonal level. Acknowledging that art and peotry are its best forms of expression, emotional behavior is explained in terms of anatomy, physiology and chemistry as well as justified by evolution and communication. Cognition (thinking) is perceived as ‘conjoint style of problem recognition and solving.’ But very, very important: dilemmas and disputes, the most usual types of human difficulty, cannot be solved! They can only be decided or resolved. The decision process can always give rise to antinomies, so philosophy and logic come in. Because the positive aspects of love and marriage have constantly adapted to social changes over the last several millennia, a historical thread also runs through the facts and ideas explored. I believe in the healing power of humor and laughter and the enlightening value of wise aphorisms and perceptive literature. Selected words of great thinkers of the past highlight the fact that much was known long ago. Their views are often funny and always humbling.

In sum: my scientific analysis does not always deal with measurable masses of data, but focuses in on ephemeral events, sub-systems spinning around during very brief moments of time, while synthesis involves the discerning of subtle patterns that repeat over longer stretches of time. Patterns along the long linear arrow of time tend to be circular and self-reinforcing. In a strong sense they are self organizing and subject to the laws of entropy. The combination of this analysis and synthesis reveals discrete scientific models that can be diagrammatically, and sometimes mathematically, represented. These models imbue many areas of relationship study with predictability (and even the possibility of prevention), but we stop there before any theorizing flights of fancy.2


Who is this book for? Who can profit by it? While it has some pretty complicated ideas, the book is in everyday straightforward language; any interested or distressed couple can handle it. But will simply reading a book help when we are swept up in personal troubles? As Alfred, Lord Tennyson said in Locksley-Hall, ”Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers.”

So try it and see.

Physicians too, especially family doctors, are invited to use the book as a ready diagnostic reference. As recently as May 2005, I listened to a noted American professor of family medicine describe his department’s philosophy. As he coyly put it, the family is now apparently called the ‘support unit’ and all that need be known, along with ‘20 common diagnoses’, is “who is the complainer, who is passive, and who is the activator.” While cute and tidy, that is not enough! Whereas most doctors usually deal with patients one at a time, symptom after symptom, disease by disease, almost every higher-level marital-family factor described in this book affects overall individual health in some way. But, most doctors, except through very personal and sometimes distorted experience, have little formal family knowledge let alone rigorous training in hands-on Rx. As a matter of fact, it is entirely possible that a hurtful childhood may adversely color any doctor’s attitude. The remedy is not necessarily personal analysis or a detailed training in family Rx. It is simply developing a new and upgraded ‘attitude.’ Ironically, the very title of ‘family doctor’ implies some unbiased expertise and a genuine family orientation.

Make it a reality!

Several other professionals come in around the edges: Teachers long have dealt with parents. School nurses deal with little kids and often counsel teens. Public health nurses in the course of their regular rounds have long advised new mothers. Police, lawyers and judges play special roles in family violence, abuse and divorce. This book can be a useful addition to each of their bookshelves.

The book, however, is primarily intended for all those front line people actually doing bona fide marital counseling and family therapy—learners included. They hail from three diverse fields: medicine, divinity, and social work. Traditionally, child psychiatrists in consulting and private practice and agency workers have done the bulk of the work. While clerics involved in pastoral counseling tend to stick with the traditional individual approach, some actually see couples together and most express strong interest in the whole family. (But some use counseling as a vehicle to preach and pray—a bad practice, in conflict with clinical good sense! I firmly say: Preach not at all in marital-family work; and then, if you believe it might help, you can pray together before and after, but not during any particular session.) New front line entrants could well include the modern, widely versed and versatile, nurse practitioner. In my considered opinion, as skills are more important than titles, the field of direct intervention, i.e., both diagnosis and treatment, with couples and families is pretty wide open to anyone with the talent and the inclination.

A brief but necessary diversion: Science serendipitously discovers, or tries to dig out and affirm or disprove, tangible, earthly facts (the who, what, when, where, and how of things) and approximates truths (or theories), the source-cause or ‘the why’ of ultimate creation or local motivation being perhaps forever unknowable; whereas religious adherents believe in and pray to their own specially revealed, ethereal and eternal truth, the absolute source being a supernatural being (God, Allah, etc.). When honestly consistent, religion precludes earthly diagnosis! Less dramatic but equally problematic are the idiosyncratic methods used by nurses, teachers, social workers, lawyers and others interested in marriage and the family. How can such diversely situated workers communicate with each other? CT of course is the answer. And it is about time: For much of the Twentieth Century those actually doing marital-family work tapped into approaches fundamentally alien to their own field. For example, psychoanalytic theory, in the guise of dynamics, was very commonly relied upon. But it focuses exclusively on just one person’s mind—the deep unconscious ‘memories’ of long-distant, past traumas. Such is anathema to the need for here-and-now interactional observations and interventions that are so essential to effective marital counseling and family therapy. Equally useless was psychological behaviorism and learning theory which became hung up with rat experiments and wound up at a complete dead end. Modern cognitive theory, while a great improvement, has two strikes against it: it is singularly intrapsychic and virtually devoid of emotional parameters. Only Transactional Analysis and Reality Therapy proved practically applicable. But both are semi-scholastic—and that is a nice way of saying unscientific. Almost 50 years ago the Palo Alto group, whose members included Jurgen Ruesch, Gregory Bateson, Jay Haley, Don Jackson, Virginia Satir, Paul Watzlawick and others, while focusing on relationships, began making use of scientific Communication Theory. Their euhemerist was the computational wizard and pioneer Norbert Weiner. I, too, in perfect Canadian isolation, began the exploration of mathematical Information Theory (developed by Claude Shannon of the Bell labs) as it might be applied to family therapy. But we were all far ahead of the times and clinical interest sort of faded out. It is now timely that improved CT-IT enjoys a very long overdue renaissance. That is exactly what Cracking the Family Code will do for those who read it.



This book has been years in the making. I could never truly hope to finish it as many ideas are still new departures, barely explored. But it is a starter. Reiterating recurrent themes: All too often marital-family therapists sadly complicate matters for themselves (and their patients) by flying by the seat of their pants from one unfocussed session to the next. Obscurity is added to intensity and complexity. This need not be so. To counter the trend, the ideal of assessment, a surgically precise unification of brain, heart and hand, is the major emphasis of this book. I believe and repeat that true professionals should be able to assess couples and family groups as rationally and effectively as doctors diagnose physical ailments in patients. Pragmatic Communication Theory combined with the rigorous clinical approach central to this book can make this goal possible at last. As an aside, I think that professionals must never allow themselves to be too much ‘kept’ by any agency or outside organization else their work inevitably will become prostituted; their assessments and diagnoses eventually will come to fit others’ narrow parochial wishes and come out distorted and sometimes outright false. I also contend that treatment without diagnosis is incompetence, while diagnosis without treatment is neglect. Both errors, whether of sheer ignorance or oversight, are not at all uncommon. (Litigation lawyers are beginning to think so too; so careless workers beware.) The remedy, which this book provides, is an original method of accurate diagnostic assessment and succinct documentation. Furthermore, ‘objectivity’ is to assessment as caring is to treatment. Ultimately, learning to accurately assess while caring makes for professional survival on the front line. Why? It is honest-scientific-subjectivity which is greater than cold and detached objectivity. It is good—and right. Acurate diagnosis leads to real results and brings back thankful patients; that is what long clinical experience teaches us. But ‘faith and spirituality’ shows that always caring makes true success possible. William Blake in a far different idiem said much the same:

Thought chang’d the infinite to a serpent, that which


To a devouring flame; and man fled from its face and hid

In forests of night: then all the eternal forests were


Into earths rolling in circles of space, that like an ocean


And overwhelmed all except this finite wall of flesh.

Then was the serpent temple formed, image of the infinite

Shut up in finite revolutions; and man became an Angel,

Heaven a mighty circle turning, God a tyrant crown’d.


Cracking the Family Code was subjected to the detailed, disciplined and tough scrutiny of three budding young scientists—my children, Christina, Sean and Patrick Hogg. Sean, who earned degrees in computer science and psychology simultaneously, regularly posed thought-provoking questions for me to ponder. At 17, Pat, who possesses a hard-nosed natural talent for chemistry, suggested the book’s title. Chrissy worked evenings with me doing child and family therapy while she did her degree in geography and geology. Before that she took nursing. Most recently she did postgraduate studies in GIS. Thus, she has a full range of youthful experience highly relevant to what I most sought: honest and pointed evaluations of my work. Tough scientific critiques by her and Patrick are at the end of most chapters—right there with Reverend Fred Austen’s spiritual commentaries. And then, my son Billy, who does not have a formal science background, but is a very quick study and has a keen practical sensibility, spent many long and informal hours with me looking at and discussing things from the layman’s standpoint. Since childhood, my sister, Mrs. Maeve Omstead-Johnston, has inspired me with her steady output of beautiful poetry. It is much about family, poignant with insight and outsight. Excerpts, reproduced in this book, add a special dimension that only poetry can. (Our ‘family of origin’ was one of the happy kind that should never be pinned down and diagnosed, but launches its children with a core of hope and determination that lasts a lifetime.) Last, and definitely not least, my wife, Sophie, over the many years of our long marriage, has given me much to think about and act upon. She often helped me out at the office and still in a pinch always comes through. Thanks to all of you!

William Hogg (2008)

1 I like footnotes. Case in point: In books like this, that address a wide audience of varying levels of sophistication, they enable the main text to remain fairly (relatively) simple and clear, while hopefully ensuring an overall breadth and depth of understanding. And they let that understanding keep up with reading, which endnotes often fail to do. But, as you can see, all notes may tend to be wordy—which is fun for this author.

2 In the late 1960’s, as others stepped up research into biochemical and genetic factors underpinning psychological problems, I turned my attention to discovering/deciphering corresponding social-family mechanisms. The idea was to translate the language of ‘mind’ into the reality of observable social relationships. A number of papers, mainly on noxious triangles, have been published over the years. Cracking the Family Code is the end result of my efforts.