You got your green eyes from your dad and your ear for your music from your mom. Your tendency to shut down emotionally during an argument with your significant other? That can probably be traced back to your parents, too.
Whether they’ve been happily married for decades or split before you hit kindergarten, your parent’s relationship has (consciously or not) shaped the way you relate to your own romantic partners. It also can serve as an important resource to actively tap into as an adult navigating your love life, particularly when the behaviors you learned from your parents clash with what your partner learned from his or her’s.
“It’s tricky because you’ve got two sets of blueprints that come into a [relationship],” says Ashley Seeger, a Colorado-based licensed clinical social worker and couples counselor. “So, that’s a lot of the premarital work that I do with couples, trying to figure out, what is that third picture going to be?”
Keep reading to learn how to use your parents’ relationship (be it good or bad) to build your own healthy partnership.
Your parents’ fights become your framework
Examining how your parents dealt with a lot of different things—finances, grief, housework—is important, Seeger says, but taking a good look at how they handled anger may be the most eye-opening. Rewind through your mental childhood videos and ask questions like: How did you know when your mom was angry? What would your dad do when he was angry? Did one person erupt? Did one person leave the house? Then you can take that information and use it as a guide for what bad habits you might be prone to repeating and what good habits you can apply to your own relationships.
Even more important than how your parents dealt with anger, Seeger says, is how they reconciled afterward. “How did they come back together?” she suggests asking. “Did they talk through it? Did they show you how they talked through it?” The answers could shed a lot of light on your own default behavior.
Adults who grew up never seeing their parents butt heads often don’t have the same roadmap for how to resolve a disagreement in their own relationships that others might.
On the other hand, a lot of parents keep conflict behind closed doors in an effort to shield their kids from heated spats, Seeger says. It’s a healthy approach in theory, but adults who grew up never seeing their parents butt heads often don’t have the same roadmap for how to resolve a disagreement in their own relationships that others might. “For a lot of couples, when conflict does come up, if they’ve never seen conflict in their parents’ marriage, they think, ‘Well that’s it, the marriage is over, the relationship is over, this will never work because we’re fighting,'” Seeger says. “And the other person’s going, ‘My parents fought all the time, this is fine. This is how you deal with things.'”
Research seems to back this up, with at least one study from 2009 suggesting that while hostile interactions between parents can have negative effects on how those kids deal with conflict, constructive conflict resolution in front of kids has been associated with a decrease in aggressive behavior and with kids feeling more stable and learning how to work things out.
If you didn’t see your parents disagree, Seeger recommends being honest with your partner and working together to figure out the best way to deal with contentious issues.
How divorce can affect your expectations
Divorce rates do tend to be higher among children of divorced parents, but coming from parents whose relationship unraveled doesn’t mean your relationships are doomed to do the same. Seeger suggests adult children whose parents are no longer together be extra mindful of how that trauma might reveal itself in their own relationships. “That needs to be brought into the conversation with your partner,” Seeger says. “Your parents’ marriage didn’t work out, that may be in the back of your brain.”
This may reveal itself in obvious parallels—for example, if your dad left when you were 3, Seeger says, you may distance yourself from your own partner when your kids are around that age without being fully aware that you’re doing it. Or, it could manifest as an underlying belief that your partner will inevitably leave you or that you have an “out” if things get tough. Being in tune with those potential trouble spots and talking through them before they hit can help you avoid making any rash decisions.
How to reframe your memories to build your own future
Kids see the world differently than adults, and looking back at your parents’ relationship now, with your own life experiences to bring things into focus, can help you put its influence in context. You may have grown up convinced that your mom left your family because she had an affair, when what actually led to her departure was more complicated.
If your parents are still alive and in the picture, and if you feel comfortable talking to them about these kinds of issues, Seeger says you might want to ask them to clarify any details on different stages of their relationship you may have missed as a kid—it could shift your perceptions of your own relationships. Focusing your conversation on different stages could be key, she says, as your memories of a relatively happy union, for example, might overlook earlier periods when they dealt with tension similar to what you may be facing yourself.
Having an example to follow can help make your relationship stronger, it’s true, but your parents need not be your only source of inspo. And picking and choosing elements of what you’d like to see in your relationships—from books or movies, for example—can help you paint a clearer picture of what’s important to you. (You’ll want to be realistic, of course, so trying to emulate a Disney love story may not be your best bet.)
But while the relationships you’ve observed can absolutely help you craft an idea of what you need and want in love, looking inward and practicing self-love can also help you figure out what you want—and need.
Sometimes, though, relationships weren’t meant to be: Here are 6 signs that it’s time to pull the plug. And if you’re dating, here are the new rules to know and live by when playing the field.
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