As a teen, I remember hearing someone say that one of the best ways to predict what a relationship with a romantic partner will look like long term is to look at his or her parents’ relationship.
Over the years, I’ve found that there are plenty of exceptions to this “rule.” It’s definitely not a science.
And I certainly take issue with the idea that our intimate relationships are destined to look exactly like our parents’. As a relationship therapist, I can say, without hesitation, that this idea is dead wrong. In my line of work, I have the privilege of seeing people change their ways of approaching and being in relationships almost every day.
But these caveats aside, I also can’t deny the basic premise that our parents do play a pivotal role in shaping our adult relationships.
How do our parents influence our relationships?
Many people see “modeling” as the primary way our parents shape our romantic relationships. That is, as adults, we simply replicate the relationship patterns our parents modeled for us when we were younger.
Certainly, our relationships are influenced in significant ways by what we saw in our parents’ relationship (or relationships) when we were younger.
But I’m convinced the bigger influence on our adult relationships is not necessarily what we saw, but what we experienced in our relationships with our parents.
How did your parents respond to your emotions?
Did they make you feel safe?
How did they communicate with you?
How was conflict dealt with in your family?
Were your parents emotionally predictable?
Did they validate your concerns, your wants, your needs?
Exploring questions like these can really help you get at the “why” behind the unique struggles or hang ups you experience in your adult relationships, particularly in your romantic relationships.
Let’s turn now to look at the “what.”
Here are 5 common ways your parents affect your adult relationships.
How you “attach” to romantic partners
Our relationships with our parents shape the way we behave in our relationships with partners. A growing body of research in the field of attachment theory supports the idea that each of us exhibits one of three different attachment styles: secure, anxious or avoidant.
If you grew up with emotionally mature, accepting caregivers, you’re likely to have a secure attachment style. In your romantic relationships, you probably feel comfortable with closeness. And more than likely, it’s relatively easy for you to trust the romantic bond you form with partners.
Alternatively, if your parents were emotionally unavailable, harshly critical, or unpredictable, you’re likely to feel insecure in intimate relationships. This may mean having an anxious attachment style, in which case your partners may experience you as “clingy” or you may spend a lot of time worrying about whether your partner loves you back. It can also mean having an avoidant attachment style (see below).
Curious about your attachment style? Check out this attachment style quiz.
Your comfort level with closeness
Those of us who don’t receive consistent warmth and love from one or both of our parents often develop an avoidant attachment style. We’re likely to shrink away from getting close with romantic partners. And being vulnerable can create significant fear and discomfort.
Many of the folks we see in counseling who have avoidant attachment styles have a history of intense relationships that end up being short-lived. And for married individuals, there’s often a felt sense of distance in the relationship, because when one partner pursues, the other retreats.
In most cases, an avoidant attachment style shows up less in the area of physical intimacy—though it can certainly show up there, too! More often, the lack of affection you experienced as a child translates into difficulties with sharing your true self with your partner. Feelings that took root when you were younger, such as low self-worth, self-consciousness and shame, limit your ability to be fully open and deepen your emotional connection with your partner.
How you communicate with your partner
As children, we don’t know the difference between effective and ineffective communication. The only type of communication we know is the communication we experience at home. And even as we grow older and can easily identify different communication styles, changing the communication patterns we developed as children is no easy task.
Sometimes we communicate with our partners in much the same way our parents communicated with us. Odds are that if your parents communicated with you in a clear and direct way, you communicate in much the same way with romantic partners.
Other times, however, we develop defenses to our parents’ ways of communicating that follow us into our adult relationships. When a partner expresses sadness or other difficult emotions, for example, we may disengage or conceal our own emotions in much the same way we learned to do as children.
If effective communication is lacking in your relationship, you may want to check our blog post on the six communication traps to avoid in romantic relationships.
Your ability to set and maintain boundaries
There’s a lot of talk these days about setting healthy boundaries, and rightly so. Many of us never learn how to set boundaries while growing up. And worse yet, when our boundaries are routinely crossed and ignored by caregivers or other adults, we can easily grow to believe we don’t have a right to set limits in our relationships.
Of course, there are different types of boundaries. Some relate to physical space. Some have to do with privacy. Some involve behaviors and actions. And still others have to do with physical touch.
When your parents respect your personal space and take the time to inquire about your personal preferences, boundary setting becomes a whole lot easier in your adult relationships. On the other hand, if your parents made a habit of snooping around your room, reading personal notes or text messages, or simply not respecting your wishes around touch and other preferences, setting boundaries with partners is likely to be an area of struggle for you.
The partner you choose
It’s strange to think that our parents couple possibly play a role in determining the romantic partners we choose. After all, it’s our choice, not theirs. Right?
Well, yes. Unless you’re in an arranged relationship, your parents probably did not “choose” your partner. But then again, because our parents do play such a significant role in shaping the way we relate to our romantic partners, there’s a real sense in which our parents do influence who we choose as “our person.”
In other words, attraction goes well beyond physical appearance. Our attachment styles, learned ways of communicating, level of comfort with setting boundaries and emotional closeness all play an equally important role in determining our compatibility with would-be romantic partners. Of course, these are generally far less conscious considerations than physical attraction in our choosing of a partner. But conscious or not, they do serve to narrow—often drastically—those we regard as suitable partners.
Your parents affect your relationships. So what?
The fact that our parents affect our relationships is not in and of itself a bad thing. In fact, when you grow up in a loving family with emotionally mature parents, you can expect to enjoy deep, satisfying connection in your intimate relationships. And when issues do arise, you’ll likely be well equipped to deal with them in healthy, effective ways.
But just because your relationship with one or both of your parents was less than optimal doesn’t mean you’re destined for unfulfilling romantic relationships. It simply means it may take some work on your part, or together with your partner, to build the relationship you most desire.
If you’re looking to enhance your capacity for deeper, more meaningful connection, we can help. Contact Modern Era Counseling today to learn more about how we can help you start connecting with confidence.