While getting to know new clients, I take a family tree within the first three sessions. I do this without fail because family history is one of the most accurate ways to understand the dynamics of a relationship.
All of us are imprinted by the ways in which our families engage with the world. Each family has a unique culture that exists nowhere else. Because of this, unspoken family rules often interrupt the couple’s functioning.
The drive to stay in “homeostasis” – the word we use for keeping things the same, is so strong that even if we swear up and down that we will not repeat the mistakes of our parents we are bound to do it anyway.
Our desire to keep things the same shows up in the choice of partners, in personal conflict style, in the way we manage anxiety, and in our philosophy of family.
You might say “I will never be my mother” but everyone else sees that you are exactly like your mother.
Relationships are affected by the partners’ upbringing
One of the most important questions I ask couples is “How is your relationship impacted by your partner’s upbringing?” When I ask this question it becomes clear that the communication issues are not because of any intrinsic flaw within the partner, but they come from opposite family dynamics and expectations that they would be the same in their marriage.
Sometimes, the issues are a result of a traumatic or neglectful upbringing. For instance, a partner that had an alcoholic parent might not be sure how to put appropriate boundaries in place with their partner. You might also see difficulty expressing emotions, a struggle to find comfort within the sexual relationship, or explosive anger.’
At other times, our conflicts can be created out of even the happiest of upbringings.
I met with a couple, Sarah and Andrew*, experiencing a common problem – Sarah’s complaint was that she wanted more from her husband emotionally. She felt that when they argued and he got quiet it meant he did not care. She believed that his silence and avoidance was dismissive, thoughtless, passionless.
He felt that when they argued she hit below the belt and that it was not fair. He believed that fighting it out brought nothing but more conflict. He believed she should pick her battles.
After exploring their perceptions of conflict, I found that none of them were doing anything “below the belt” or inherently “unfair”. What they were doing is expecting their partner to manage conflict in the way that felt natural for each of them.
I asked Andrew to tell me how he believes his family lives within their relationship. Andrew responded that he was not sure.
He believed that they did not have much impact and that he and Sarah were nothing like his parents.
When I asked how Andrew believed that Sarah’s upbringing and family life lives within their relationship he answered quickly with in-depth analysis.
I’ve found this to be true most of the time, we have a heightened awareness of why our partner behaves they do and a hyperawareness of why we do what we do.
Andrew answered that Sarah grew up in a loud Italian family with four sisters. The sisters and mother were “highly emotional”. They said “I love you”, they laughed together, they cried together, and when they fought the claws came out.
But then, 20 minutes later they would be watching TV on the couch together, laughing, smiling, and cuddling. He described Sarah’s dad as being quiet but available. When the girls had “meltdowns” the dad would calmly talk to them and reassure them. His analysis was that Sarah never learned to control her emotions and that because of that she learned to lash out at him.
Like Andrew, Sarah was much better able to describe how Andrew’s family impacts their relationship. “They never talk to each other. It’s really sad”, she said. “They avoid issues and it is so obvious but everyone is too afraid to talk. It actually makes me mad when I see how much they ignore problems in the family. When Andrew was really struggling a few years ago no one would bring it up. It just seems to me like there is not a lot of love there”.
Her analysis was that Andrew never learned to love. That the quiet ways of his family were created out of emotional neglect.
The couple just had different ways of expressing emotions
You might notice that their assessments of each other’s families were critical.
When thinking of the ways their partner’s families have impacted their relationships, they had both decided that the other person’s family was the problem in creating the closeness they both desired.
However, my analysis was that both of their families loved each other deeply.
They just loved each other differently.
Sarah’s family taught Sarah that emotions should not be harnessed. Her family believed in sharing positive and negative emotions. Even anger was a chance for connection in her family. Nothing truly bad came from yelling at each other, in fact sometimes it felt good after a good scream.
In Andrew’s family, love was shown by creating a calm and quiet environment. Respect was shown by allowing privacy. By letting the children come to the parents if they needed something or wanted to share but never prying. Protection was given by not entering into conflict.
So which way is right?
This is a challenging question to answer. Andrew and Sarah’s families both did it right. They raised healthy, happy, and well adjusted children. However, neither style will be right within their newly created family.
Building awareness about each partner’s behaviors
They will have to build awareness about the behaviors they inherited from their families and consciously decide what stays and what goes. They will need to deepen their understanding of their partner and have a willingness to compromise on their philosophy of family.
Childhood wounds affecting your relationship
Another impact of family upbringing is expecting your partner to give you that which you did not have. We all have enduring wounds from childhood and we spend boundless energy attempting to heal them.
We are often unaware of these attempts, but they are there nonetheless. When we have an enduring wound of never being understood, we desperately seek validation.
When we were wounded with parents who were verbally abusive, we seek gentleness. When our families were loud we want quiet. When we are abandoned, we want security. And then we hold our partners to an unreachable standard of doing these things for us. We criticize when they can’t. We feel unloved and disappointed.
The hope that you will find a soulmate that can heal your past is a common hope and because of that, it is also a common disappointment.
Healing yourself of these wounds is the only way forward.
The purpose of your partner in this is to hold your hand while you do it. To say “I see what has hurt you and I am here. I want to listen. I want to support you”.
*Story is told as a generalization and is not based off any particular couple that I have seen.