For better or worse, most couples follow the marriage example set by their parents. Over and over again, I’ve seen relationships sabotaged or crumble because one or both partners follow the less than perfect model set by their parents when it comes to marriage. However, with self-awareness and intention, it’s possible to get out from under the shadow of our parents’ mistakes.
Marriages can be impacted by outdated memories of our parents’ examples of what it means to be a spouse. For instance, I was raised in a divorced family and learned early on that when people have difficulty resolving conflicts it can lead to the demise of a relationship. I saw both of my mother’s marriages fail and she gave up on love after her second divorce. On the other hand, my father had a happy second marriage but my memories of it are unreliable because I didn’t live with them continuously throughout my childhood.
It’s no wonder that I feel ambivalent about marriage – longing to attain success but lacking the skills to navigate the inevitable ups and downs of married life. Like many adult children of divorce, I desire wedded bliss but since I didn’t have a healthy template for committed relationships, I’m skeptical but forever on the lookout for ways to restore my faith in love.
Most experts believe that the first step in getting out from the shadow of your past is to gain awareness. Authors Gay Hendricks, Ph.D. and Kathlyn Hendricks, Ph.D. write, “A close relationship is a powerful light force, and like any strong light it casts a large shadow. When you stand in the light of a close relationship, you must learn to deal with the shadow.”
Tips to help you live in the present and make healthier choices in relationships:
- Gain awareness of your past and adopt a more realistic perspective of it. Talk to your parents about their marriage and reflect on your childhood.
- Examine the extent that your childhood experiences affect your present experience and expectations about your partner’s behavior.
- Acknowledge the damage that was done and shift to an impersonal perspective – focus on understanding and healing rather than blame. Seeing your parents with new eyes can facilitate healing.
- Take ownership of the ways you contribute to unhealthy dynamics with your partner and stop blaming him/her for your unhappiness. You might have unrealistic expectations of how a relationship should be – leading to disappointment.
- Find ways to repair damage such as becoming more aware of your belief system and negative thoughts by writing your thoughts and feelings in a journal. Therapy can be helpful when dealing with past issues impacting your marriage.
- Write positive intentions such as: I desire a loving, respectful relationship with my spouse. Set up a few specific goals to address these intentions such as making affirming comments to your partner three times a day and showing them affection. Keep in mind that your intention is your vision and your goal helps you attain it.
Perhaps it’s because intimate relationships bring the possibility of love and closeness that we are confronted with wounds from our past. For instance, Ellen’s fears of being rejected due to her father leaving her family when she was young make it hard for her to trust her husband, Joshua. She expects to lose and has become accustomed to losing.
Ellen is a successful professional who has been married to Joshua for four years. At 33 years old, she is aware that she sabotages relationships that might be good for her. Ellen’s tendency is jump to the conclusion that their marriage is over when they go through a tough patch. So she avoids conflicts and issues ultimatums when they disagree – leaving Joshua perplexed because he was raised in an intact family and values marriage.
With great intensity in her voice Ellen says, “It’s almost as if I’m addicted to pain. It’s like I’m so familiar with heartache, I don’t feel comfortable with waiting things out and seeing if they’ll get better.” She reflects: “I just have this tremendous urge to hurt Josh before he has a chance to hurt me, so I withdraw or issue ultimatums.”
According to Dr. Joshua Coleman, author of The Marriage Makeover humans are unique in how much error they pass along to their offspring. He writes: “This is problematic, since children lack the intellectual or emotional base of experience to know whether their parents’ messages are correct. Thus, a woman who was constantly told by her mother that men can’t be trusted complied with this belief by constantly choosing men who couldn’t be trusted or by provoking men to behave in an untrustworthy fashion.”
For instance, when Ellen threatens to end their marriage, Joshua retreats because he doesn’t have the insight or skills to help her break this pattern. Further, Joshua grew up with a critical mother, so he tends to experience anxiety when Ellen is dissatisfied – which causes him to shut down. Since neither one of them were exposed to successful models for marriage, they both have a tendency to avoid conflict and either distance from each other or revert to a pessimistic mindset – believing that arguments signify their marriage is in serious trouble.
Many people fear being vulnerable with their partners, believing they will get hurt and will lose out on love. Fear of relationship failure is something Ellen knows well. Many times, even in the most blissful of moments, there is a lingering thought in the back of her head that her marriage will not work, and that it will come crashing down on her. Ellen explains, “I’m afraid to follow the pattern of my parents. I’m also scared to open myself up to someone, probably because of fear of being rejected and vulnerable.”
Currently, Joshua hasn’t given Ellen any reason to doubt his intentions – at least nothing she can pinpoint. However, she sometimes has difficulty trusting him. She says, “Joshua is trustworthy and loyal; but when things get difficult, I always feel like bailing out.” In fact, couples who walk on eggshells and avoid conflict are at risk for superficial relationships that lack intimacy.
When we avoid memories from our parents’ marriage, it can cause us to project inaccurate feelings and intentions on to our partner. For example, if your mother suffered from depression when you were growing up and your father was gone a lot, you may have become a “parentified” child who took on too much responsibility. As an adult, you could be overbearing or controlling with your partner if you’re not aware of this pattern.
You don’t have to let your parents’ marriage or divorce dictate the decisions you make today. With self-awareness and patience, you can begin to visualize the kind of life you need to thrive. Like all challenges in life, greater awareness and willingness to work on an issue can spark change.
Let’s close on this: “Self-awareness is one of the rarest of human commodities. I don’t mean self-consciousness where you’re limiting and evaluating yourself. I mean being aware of your own patterns.” – Tony Robbins
Do you know how to make your next marriage stronger?
- Overcoming The Legacy Of Divorce
- 8 Things Great Single Parents Do Differently
- How To Divorce-Proof Your Marriage
- The Real Reason Second And Third Marriages Fail