It doesn’t take a psychologist to know that our parents have a tremendous impact on the kind of people we turn into, including how we behave in relationships.
Unfortunately, in this area there are surprisingly few hard-and-fast formulas. Just as adult siblings may describe their childhoods growing up in the exact same household in completely different ways, the lessons that children take away from their parents’ marriage are often unpredictable. The key, then, is not to look for black-and-white answers but for awareness of what you learned in childhood about relationships, and how it has negatively or positively played out in your own.
For instance, consider how divorce impacts children as they grow up. We do know that the divorce rate among children of divorced parents is much higher than for people whose parents don’t divorce—perhaps as much as twice as high. In some cases, these offspring take the marriage commitment less seriously, so they’re more likely to call it quits rather than taking the hard steps of working through problems.
Conversely, some children take an opposite view. Determined to avoid repeating the pattern, they attempt to stay married at all costs. But that commitment needs to come from a place of strength rather than weakness. For instance, if someone felt abandoned as a child—or felt that one of their parents was abandoned by the other in the divorce, they may adopt a “please-my-partner-no-matter-what” strategy. That’s not good for any relationship. I’m not talking about staying in an abusive relationship—that’s another topic altogether—but avoiding conflict at all costs, even when it means you don’t stand up for your own needs for fear of “failing” at marriage or driving your spouse away (because that’s what you perceived happening with your own mom or dad).
The way your parents dealt with problems can also become a generational pattern. A child who grew up in a home where parents fought all the time may fail to learn constructive communication skills with their own partner. Fighting—including shouting, intimidation and name calling—may seem perfectly normal to them. After all, children lack the perspective to know what’s normal or not, and it can be hard to unlearn the examples we absorbed during our formative years.
When the child grows up, how does that affect their own relationships? They may be so conditioned to fight “ugly” that they can barely comprehend why their partner breaks down in tears or puts up walls.
Yet here again, the offspring of warring parents (or other warring family members) may come away with a different message altogether. Theirs is more of a “been there/done” that mentality—they have zero tolerance for conflict. On the one hand, if that means choosing calmer, more respectful tones when working through conflict, that’s a positive repudiation of their parents’ style of arguing. On the other hand, perceiving every note of discord as a frightening outburst doesn’t help much, either.
Couples counseling can be extremely helpful in providing a safe forum for partners to understand where their gut reactions are coming from, why their communication styles seem worlds apart, and how to find ways of dealing with conflict that feel comfortable for both.
It’s all about insight. As with all aspects of life, understanding why we do the things we do can help us grow and improve in our relationship skills…and if we have children of our own, try our best to model the best behaviors that we can, knowing that it will could have a positive impact for generations to come.
If you want to increase your insight (and not have a marriage like your parents’ marriage), please give us a call today at 949-393-8662, or schedule an appointment via our online calendar. We at the OC Relationship Center are here to help you.