How Parents Affect Your Future Relationships

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It's our personal belief that very few people (no matter to which generation they belong) would say that dating is an easy feat. However, dating in the digital age feels especially challenging: Dating apps make it that much harder to hold anyone's attention (because everyone's talking to a slew of other romantic interests) and that much easier to ghost someone. That said, once we find our match, we'll happily agree with John Lennon's point: "All you need is love."

But how you give and receive it is greatly influenced and shaped by one or two critical people in your life: your parents. In fact, Rebecca Bergen, Ph.D., told us that our first experience with this emotion is with our parents, and those early years set the bar for how we see, give, and receive love and what we want out of relationships later in our lives.

Meet the Expert

Rebecca Bergen, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Bergen Counseling Center in Chicago.

"I do believe that how emotionally available our parents were influenced the type of attachment we formed with them," she explains. "Attachment theory suggests that we create an internal working model of our parents that we later internalize as our own sense of self. This attachment style also affects how we experience ourselves, and, in turn, how we are in relationships."

Ahead, Bergen explains how our childhood experiences with our parents provide a model for our adult relationships, what we can do to break a negative cycle, and how we can raise the next generation.

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They Teach You How to Show Affection

"I am going to focus on how our romantic relationships are influenced by our childhood experiences," says Bergen. "Our parents' relationship is our first and most influential example of how to interact and communicate in a romantic relationship. How love was shown between parents is influential on the child." That makes sense because, when you think about it, your parents are your only example of pretty much everything. When you're really young, you probably just accept the way that they do things to be right—even if it's not.

For instance, if your parents were not very affectionate and hardly ever hugged or kissed you, you may have an aversion to affection as an adult. "Children will model and emulate the ways their parents show love to one another. Plus, how love was expressed to the child is also significant," says Bergen.

On a slightly different note, Bergen suggests that the ways in which anger and conflict were managed in your family of origin also play a large factor in how we communicate with adult romantic partners. "Whether or not a person tends to express their emotions more openly or tends to skew toward passive aggression, frequently parallels how their parents communicated with each other and with the child," she adds.

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You Model Your Behavior Off Theirs

"Same-sex parents serve as models for our behavior, and opposite-sex parents are projected into potential partners. This also works in reverse, in the sense that we may search for the opposite of a father who was stoic and uninvolved," Bergen notes.

There is no difference in this dynamic between same-sex couples or cross-sex couples, emphasizing that it's more tied to whichever parent the individual identifies with most rather than their sexual orientation. A female could be more influenced by her father's behavior and mirror his actions in her own relationship instead of her mother's if she identified more with her father, regardless of her own sexual orientation.

Another example is a person may be hypervigilant to criticism and frequently argue with partners because their same-sex parent had difficulty advocating for themselves and became a "doormat" in the relationship. We tend to want to emulate our parent's relationship when it is perceived as healthy and positive.

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Their Words Become the Voice in Your Head

Most psychologists would agree that any personal change starts with self-awareness. Bergen advises, "Start to identify where patterns of communication, thoughts, and feelings originate. Reflect on your childhood and try to remember the patterns you had in interacting with your parents."

Questions she suggests asking yourself include: Whose voice is that? Your adult voice of what you think and believe, or does it come from somewhere or someone else? "If your parents are still living, you can also start to notice how you interact with your parents now, and then see how those patterns may be playing out in your romantic relationships," she notes.

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They Influence Your Attachment Style

"Groundbreaking research during the 1960s and 1970s by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth assisted in our understanding of attachment theory," says Bergen. "Since their work, many psychological researchers have examined the different ways secure, and various forms of insecure attachments with our parents affect our attachment styles as adults." For instance, if parents showed love, responded to our needs, and validated our feelings, we were more likely to develop a secure attachment style. We then seek out and desire that same attachment style as an adult.

On the flip side, if we had an insecure attachment develop with our parents, we may have a fragmented sense of self. This may lead to low self-esteem, anxiety in relationships, doubt that we can trust others, and sometimes being more apt to seek out relationships that mimic this same attachment—not because it feels good but because it is familiar to us.

How to Break the Cycle

To create new patterns as an adult, Bergen offers four pieces of advice: reading, journaling, looking at your current relationship from a different perspective, and giving therapy a try.

"Read books by psychological researcher and clinician John Gottman to learn about the different patterns that lead to positive relationship outcomes and those that lead to negative relationship outcomes." One key thing to remember is to learn about healthy ways to manage conflict and better ways to connect with your partner emotionally. No one likes fighting, but you may dread it less if you can argue more constructively.

Regarding journaling, Bergen advises, "Journal and increase your self-awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in your relationship. Compare what you are noticing with the ways your parents interacted with you and interacted with each other." If you notice that something was missing in your relationship with your parents, reflect on whether or not you are seeking to find it in your current relationship.

Third, "Work on trying out new ways of being in your current relationship. Gottman outlines specific behaviors you can work on in your relationships, such as asking more in-depth questions, turning toward your partner when they make attempts to connect with you, and expressing yourself assertively when you feel hurt," Bergen says. After all, trying new things is never a bad idea—especially if you've been together for a while.

Last but not least, "If you continue to find it difficult to break these patterns, therapy may be necessary," she adds. A trained therapist can help you identify these patterns and explore the roadblocks to implementing new, positive ones.

Article Sources
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  1. Keizer R, Helmerhorst KOW, van Rijn-van Gelderen L. Perceived Quality of the Mother-Adolescent and Father-Adolescent Attachment Relationship and Adolescents' Self-EsteemJ Youth Adolesc. 2019;48(6):1203-1217. doi:10.1007/s10964-019-01007-0

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