Your parents are the most powerful people in your life. They are the first to teach you what a man, a woman, a husband, a wife, a mother, and a father is. This early knowledge shapes your understanding and expectations of these ideas as an adult. It impacts the partners you choose and how you define relationships.
These influences are rarely identified as having any power in how your relationships turn out. They are treated like background noise; a constant, unquestioned and normal way of approaching the world. In our society it is not uncommon for families to be on their second or third generation of divorce. What you have learned in your family while growing up may well hold the key to your marital success.
Experts agree that children are resilient and can recover from divorce. However, it is my experience, both personal and professional, that they are not unscathed. When the family breaks apart it leaves a lasting impression and changes who children are. Depending on how troubled the marriage was, a child can develop the belief that marriage is a hurtful state and wants no part of it. Even if there wasn’t a lot of fighting and turmoil, there often is still a sense of protecting oneself from being hurt like that again.
Many children of divorce wonder if this will be their fate as well. This can play out in one of two ways: either they never allow anyone inside the protective wall around their feelings. Since divorce is both acceptable and inevitable, the commitment and emotional openness necessary for a lasting marriage never happen. The alternative is to stay in relationships which are not healthy and supportive. They believe going through the pain again is too much.
Your experience with your parents’ marriage influences you in other ways as well. The roles they each performed become the templates for your own relationships. As I’ve talked about before, my best friend believed her job was to take care of the home because that is what her mother did. The fact that she was not a very good cook and her husband was an exceptional one led them to an examination of what their relationship needed to look like.
Even today, when both partners work outside the home, I frequently come across couples whose underlying belief system requires the man to have the higher salary. When this belief is not acknowledged, it sets the stage for unnecessary tension and misunderstanding. When asked about it the women’s response is frequently that it’s just the way they thought it would be. No examination has been made of what works best for their relationship.
When couples fall in love and plan to marry it is unusual for them to give any thought to what their parents’ marriages were like. This is unfortunate because a closer examination would allow them to make conscious choices about what they would like to have as part of their marriage and what they want to leave out.
In addition, having this discussion would enable them to identify areas where they may disagree, such as roles, household tasks, finances, intimacy, etc. One of the most common and most dangerous approaches to marriage is not to worry about these differences due to the belief that you can change your spouse after you marry. Ingrained and unexamined concepts of marriage in the mix is a recipe for disaster and disappointment.
The best course of action is to discover what your and your partner’s understandings and expectations of marriage are by asking the following questions:
- What kind of relationship did your parents have?
- How did they handle conflict?
- What did they fight about?
- Did you ever see them fight?
- Did you see them make up?
- How did they divide the household chores?
- How did they handle money?
- Did they keep score?
- How did they communicate?
These questions are a good way to get a better grasp of the way your partner thinks and what their underlying assumptions about marriage are. The more you know, the easier it will be to establish your “happily ever after” relationship.