Imagine you and your partner are at your first appointment for couples counseling with me. I am asking you a series of questions, questions to get to know each of you better as well as to learn a bit about the history of your relationship. Then I ask this question: “What was your parents’ relationship like?”
You might smile at this question, and launch into a narrative of how your parents are still together after many years of marriage, how they never fought much, how your mother was gentle and accommodating and your father quiet and reserved. At some point during our work together, you might realize that you, too, are gentle and accommodating, overly so, or perhaps reserved in a way which cuts off effective communication.
Others of you might become sad as you relate a stressful childhood witnessing bickering parents, doors slammed in rage, days of silence and cut-off communication. Maybe you said to yourself, I will never be in a marriage like this. Yet somehow, your way of interacting with your partner emulates the pattern of your parents.
Whether we like it or not, our parents are our relationship model.
It can be hard to change a pattern set in childhood. We see how our parents address and resolve conflict. Even if we want something different, it can be hard to reset patterns that are almost encoded in our DNA with their familiarity. We somehow often replicate the type of environment that we grew up in, even if it’s something we don’t want. And we do it because it’s familiar to us. The familiarity of the pattern beckons despite our best intentions.
Perhaps we make the decision, subconsciously or otherwise, to avoid conflict to keep the peace, after experiencing our parents’ volatile conflict style. We avoid conflict to keep the peace, and then we wonder why we feel so disconnected from our partner.
Maybe the way your partner responds to you when in conflict triggers a host of thoughts and feelings that have nothing to do with your partner, but instead with your parents. Perhaps your mother withdrew emotionally from you during conflict or your father’s anger was all encompassing, so that when your partner withdraws or escalates in anger you feel that familiar horrible childhood feeling of being unloved. This makes your response to your partner more extreme and deep, leading to an exaggerated disconnection which is out of context to your partner’s action.
These things we learned at our parents’ knee – how they interacted with each other, how they argued, how they parented, how they were as people – have a huge influence on us and how we are in the world as adults and in relationships. That is a given. But it is not the last word. It is possible to set, with intentionality, a positive and connecting way of being in relationship. Our family of origin constraints can be shifted, despite their familiarity.
How so? you may wonder. I’m beginning to recognize a pattern that I don’t like in my relationship; how do I shift it?
Recognizing a negative pattern is the first important step. You don’t have to know where the pattern came from, but just recognize that it is in play. Discuss it with your partner, and agree to try some different things. Try to shift the pattern by remembering arguments that have “gone well” and what you did then. Try to shift the pattern by speaking up if normally you’re quiet during conflict, or by taking a break before you erupt in anger. Try to figure out what’s going on with your partner during an argument – and talk about it with them. Go to the self help section of a bookstore – there are many awesome books on couples support – and find an author whose approach you like. (Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson is excellent.) Seek the help of a couples counselor – a third person is often needed whose focus is your relationship. Again, find one whose approach you like. Many offer a free in-person or phone consult.
Who was your relationship model? What did you learn at your mother’s knee, your father’s knee? What did you learn about relationships and about conflict?