Uh… My Partner Reminds Me of My Parent—What Should I Make of That?
Maybe your significant other throws out phrases you’ve heard your mom say or tends to get quickly fired up in arguments like your dad. Regardless of the specifics, it can feel freaky to realize that you’re in a relationship with someone who shares certain key qualities with your parents. But, there's not necessarily reason to panic about the prospect of having essentially picked a version of your parents for a life partner; after all, it's true that you would hardly be the only person to have done so. “This is very common,” says psychologist Karin Anderson Abrell, PhD, creator and host of the Love & Life podcast.
That's not to say it’s wouldn't feel like a weird realization to have, though. And, if your relationship with your parent in question is less-than-ideal, it’s understandable to be freaked out by such a revelation and wonder what it all might mean. Here’s the deal.
Why do people end up in relationships with partners like their parents?
A lot of this comes down to comfort level, says clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life. Being with someone who shares qualities with one of your parents can feel safe on some level. Even if you wouldn't call your parents your best friends, familiarity can breed a sense of comfort, which can allow this dynamic to function as a “defense mechanism to guard you against hurt and loss," he adds.
That said, you could also be subconsciously trying to “fix” an issue you have with your parent by being with someone reminiscent of them in some way. “There’s a psychological phenomenon called recapitulation of family of origin that explains this,” Dr. Abrell says. “We look to ‘repair’ in adulthood what we experienced in our childhood that went awry.”
For example, if your father wasn’t around when you were a kid, you may find yourself subconsciously looking for a partner who reminds you of him but who is unavailable emotionally. “As an adult—where you have more control than you did as a child—you may try to find a person to love you where your father didn’t,” Dr. Abrell says. “You are very likely to try to repair that childhood trauma or wound.”
Is it bad to be with someone who is reminiscent of your parent?
It depends. If you have a healthy relationship with your parents, then it can be beneficial to date someone like them, says licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Should I Stay or Should I Go? “You may be drawn to the healthy qualities, which could include consistency, respect, kindness, affability."
“You may be drawn to the healthy qualities of a parent, which could include consistency, respect, kindness, affability." —Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist
But if your relationship with your parents isn’t so great, Dr. Abrill says things can get tricky. “Sometimes people can get caught up in being with a ‘fixer-upper,’” she says. “Maybe you observed your parents being broken and want to try to 'fix’ those qualities in someone else. But once you get them ‘fixed,’ the dynamic shifts dramatically, and there’s not much to keep you together.”
If your relationship with your parents is strained and you end up with a partner who reminds you of them, you also run the risk of your romantic relationship being unhealthy in a similar way, Dr. Durvasula says. “People tend to choose a partner like the parent they are less resolved about,” she says. That can include a parent that was consistently invalidating, that you felt like you had to jump through hoops to please, or that was very controlling, she says. “None of these are healthy patterns, so there is a risk that a person will then, without thinking, fall into a relationship with someone with these patterns again because it is familiar.”
What it could mean for your relationship if your partner reminds you of a parent
If you suddenly realize you’re in a relationship with someone like your dad, and you get along great with your father, it could simply translate into family dinners being more comfortable and seamless in the future.
But if you’re not sure how you feel about this revelation (likely because you're not sure how you feel about your father), Dr. Mayer recommends considering how the similarities may impact your life going forward. “Think toward the future,” he says. “Will those similar qualities make you happy? Add to your life? We get very caught up in the emotions of a relationship and many times forget to evaluate the benefits of a relationship.”
Dr. Abrill also suggests considering why you’re in a relationship—to ensure it's a union you feel good about period. “It’s important to be aware of your self-sufficiency and that you’re entering into a partnership from a place of desire versus feeling like you need someone to help you repair a wound,” she says.
If, after checking in with yourself, you realize that you’re sticking out a relationship that is rife with unhealthy components (or rife with red flags that may emerge), Dr. Durvasula recommends talking to a therapist. “Therapy can be a very important tool to unpack that and perhaps have a professional help you connect those dots,” she says.
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