Last modified on May 18th, 2020
By Rhona RaskinIf you believed that the only relationship you would ever experience would look like a Xerox copy of your parents’, would you ever leave your apartment? Feel the pulse of free will? Probably not. So what are the odds that you can deviate from the familiar path of those two important people? Grab your martini pitcher, because the truth is this: You are programmed to seek familiarity. Take a gulp.There is hope. For starters, it isn’t just your parents’ marriage you are looking to duplicate. it is a familiar role that YOU played, along with all those assorted experiences you observed.In theory we can do whatever we want. You COULD wake up one morning and date a man who is the antithesis of Dad. Or at least your understanding of him. There is nothing stopping you, except for that little entrenched space inside that quietly plots to repeat history.Family therapy research supports the theory that it is difficult to switch from the emotional togetherness of a family to the independent adulthood. Family therapy pioneer Murray Bowen coined the term “Undifferentiated Family Ego Mass.” He contends that we are all cogs in the family entity. As in any business, there are job assignments and a mission statement. Families have such edicts as Work Is Important and We Must Not Vote For Those Guys. Healthier families have more scope for differences within the group. Stuck families require loyalty in terms of agreement: “We don’t do that,” as opposed to “I don’t agree with you.” Getting unstuck is an enormous task.If you grew up in a family that values debate and airing of opinions, you are likely to choose a partner who is enthusiastically verbal, because you probably find laconic people annoying. Verbal, however, can be positive or negative. If your partner is a thinker, the relationship will be stimulating; if a controller, it will be exhausting.Samantha stepped out of her experience and found a quiet, private man. She spent five years trying to teach him the art of conversation. She was theoldest in her family of origin and had the additional pressure of the teacher syndrome. “I couldn’t get a readout on a Seinfeld episode without digging.” She mistook his poetic silences for deep thought. He was just not interested in sharing. They are toast.If you grew up seeing affection and respect between your parents – and anger followed by resolution – you are likely to expect fuzzy and warm in a romance. If your parents treated each other with disrespect and anger, you might repeat history by unearthing a man who makes you feel as worthless as your mom felt in your dad’s presence or vice versa. You might unconsciously feel magnetic fields around a guy who seems strong and independent, but really is controlling and self-centered.We can avoid repeating history by studying it. If we have a handle on the intricacies of the emotional blueprint and an adult’s understanding of the events, then we have the tools to look at other choices. If booze was a problem in your childhood, it is not good enough to say, “I only date men who don’t drink.” You may find yourself drifting into a relationship with a dismissive or absent spouse.Terry’s mom had a love of daily drinking. Her father was kind but fairly ineffectual parent. She is now married to a man who bounces from job to job but is great with their kids. She is the economic base and worries that she has so little time away from her position as CEO for day-to-day parenting. Neither of them drinks, but Terry has found a way to re-run her history with a twist. She is lonely, but loyal.Had Terry’s family attended AS or Al-Anon, she might have come face-to-face with the powerful issues of trying to save and rescue others. Underdogs operate in the booze-free world too. Terry thought that by avoiding the drinking she could save herself. In truth, booze was only part of the question. She is slightly less stuck than her father and has similar emotional distance from her children because she wasn’t filled up as a child.We all like to fit where we feel comfortable, but comfortable can spell disaster. Just because you were the family peacemaker as a child doesn’t mean you’ll be happy with a lover who needs a referee. If you feel worthless, dull or just like nothing special in the presence of your partner, ask yourself if this echoes your time growing up. If you had a great peer relationship with your siblings, then this may be the relationship to duplicate. Remember, you have options. Although your original family was imperfect, you have many choices for company as an adult.
Here are some guidelines:
Whether your folks had the ultimate marriage or disbanded while you were a child, you have the possibility to choose your own relationships if you see clearly what is in front of you. It might take a few mismatches or it might take a whole lifetime of stumbles. The difference is in what is in your toolbox. Fill yours up.
- Know your family history. Draw a family tree and study the patterns. Interview your extended family. Families often have generations of problems, such as alcoholism or early teen-age pregnancy. Understand that there is often pressure you don’t see or don’t know about that propels you in certain directions. You are one branch of a big tree.
- Keep a log of the people you date. Write down their attributes – pluses and minuses. Do any of them remind you of family members? Are these satisfying associations?
- If you have a string of disappointments, consider professional input. You can’t change your childhood, but you can get a better understanding of the events. You may re-interpret important highlights. Perhaps your Dad’s absence after the divorce was due to his belief that your Mom’s new husband could offer a better life.
- Know what you are looking for. You may say you want a well-adjusted partner, but find yourself chasing sexy cement heads.
- Be literate in the art of relationships. Read books, investigate workshops. Know what makes you and others tick.
- Incorporate a dose of realism. Great relationships and marriages require work and aren’t always fun or satisfying. Make a deal with yourself to stay and at least attempt to work out problems. Don’t run away too fast or you won’t learn anything.
- Have a healthy, intelligent support system of friends and family you can bounce ideas around with. Accept feedback.
Rhona Raskin is a family therapist and clinical counselor in Vancouver, B.C., and the host of Canada’s top call-in radio show, “Rhona At Night.” her latest book is Ask Me Anything. Check out her web site here.