It’s no secret that your parents’ relationship can influence your adult relationships in lots of ways.
Our parents usually offer our first and main model for what it means to be in a romantic relationship (or, more broadly, a close relationship of any kind) with someone.
Whether we recognise it happening or not, we often take our early cues from watching them. The ways in which they relate to each other begin to form a roadmap for how we might do the same.
How we imitate our parents
One of the most common ways this pattern plays out is with mimicking: you may find your relationships have a lot of similarities to your parents’ relationship.
This can cover a really broad spectrum of behaviours. At a basic level, it might include the style they used to talk to each other: whether they were very affectionate and light hearted, or if they were more direct and factual.
It might also include the ways in which they attempted to resolve conflict, or didn’t, — whether they were calm, constructive and collaborative when it came to disagreements, or if they engaged in less helpful habits, like shouting at each other or freezing each other out for hours.
This influence can extend to the little things too, for example, the kinds of gifts they would get for each other, or how much they complimented each other in public, if they were tactile, or how collaborative they were when it came to practical tasks like organising chores or making plans.
One area in which this can be particularly relevant is how they were with you as parents. As we only know our parents from the point at which they became parents themselves, it’s not uncommon we find ourselves most directly copying their behaviours when we reach this life stage ourselves. It’s a familiar experience to many: talking to your child or your partner in a certain way, and realising you’re taking the same tone, or even using the same words, as your mum and your dad.
It can often be hard to distinguish between which habits are useful and which are less so — as our parents are our primary source of information for a long time, these behaviours can simply seem to be the way that things are ‘done’.
Trying to do the opposite
As we get older we might become a bit more self-conscious — we might recognise that we’re copying our parents, and begin to wonder whether it is a good idea to do this.
In some cases, people try to do the exact opposite of what their parents did. This tends to be the case when elements of their upbringing were unhappy because of how their parents acted — because, for instance, there was always so much shouting or passive aggressive behaviour in the house, or there was so little openly expressed affection, or, at the more extreme end of things, there was infidelity.
People who grew up with these experiences may try to act in entirely new ways: trying, for example, to be expressive in ways that their parents were not, or calm and kind in a way they felt they rarely witnessed.
This can be an effective way of trying to correct what we might see as the deficiencies in the model our parent created — allowing us to break out from the cycles that seemed to create so much dissatisfaction and hardship. Indeed, learning to differentiate the positive and the negative influences of our upbringing and decide which of those we want to go forward with can be an important part of growing up.
Of course, it can come with complications too. Someone who feels they need to do everything in the opposite way to how their parents did it may find themselves overcompensating, and forcing the issue too hard. This can create a new kind of imbalance, as the replacement behaviours then become too extreme or imprecise to properly do what they’re supposed to do.
So can we avoid becoming our parents?
The question of whether we can truly escape the shadow of our parents’ relationship is a complicated one. It might be that the solution lies somewhere between the two approaches described above — learning to accept that, in some ways, our upbringing is always going to have some degree of influence on us, even if that influence isn’t helpful. However, you also need to be willing to try to correct or compensate for this influence when you feel it’s stopping you from living your life properly.
The process of exploring this and finding a way of being that works often takes a long time, and sometimes requires a little professional help along the way. Counsellors are trained to help people explore their feelings and where these feelings are coming from. By talking to a counsellor over a period of weeks, months or years, many people can begin to recognise the source of certain behaviours, and begin to think about whether these behaviours need modifying.
And, of course, this process isn’t something that has to take place outside of the relationship itself. It’s something that can occur as a collaboration with your partner too. Regularly talking through your feelings and actions with your partner can help you recognise where things might be tricky. It can be helpful to recognise, for instant, when you’re unthinkingly shutting down during disagreements, or becoming distant when things are hard elsewhere in your life — noticing this gives you the chance to work together to find ways to mitigate any issues.
This might mean mainly talking about what’s going on inside — how a certain disagreement made you feel, for example, or how your partner’s tone has made you angry — but it might also include quite specific practical issues. You might, for instance, try to be quite open about how much ‘me’ time you need during the week, specify who does what chores and when, or explicitly state your boundaries when it comes to sharing friends or friendship groups. These little habits — which again, can be formed quite directly from our parents — can have as much sway on the harmony of your partnership as anything else.
And, again, while this can process take a while and will require you to both be willing to work on things together, you may find your relationship becomes stronger over time because of it.