The environment of your family shapes you and how you will love your partner in a future relationship. The nature of your childhood and how your family treated you can have a huge impact on your adult relationships, even when you might not realize it. Understanding that your family shapes you and how you love your partner can help both of you work towards building a solid relationship.
When two people commit to a relationship with one another, we tend to view it as so:
But the way they interact with each other is a result of who they’ve become because of their family, previous close relationships, and life experiences. So in reality, every relationship actually looks like this:
Both Alex and Andy’s expectations about how they should behave or feel about themselves or their significant other were born out of their family experiences.
As the authors of A General Theory of Love state, “Who we are and who we become depends, in part, on whom we love.”
Alex and Andy’s relationship is more than just two people committing to each other; it’s two family systems and life experiences colliding.
Alex and Andy’s attitudes and beliefs about how to save or spend money; how much time they should spend together or apart; or how tidy or chaotic their household should be is a byproduct of the way their family of origin operated and of the life experiences they went through.
“Glancing into each partner’s family history is crucial. Early family connection shape our expectations for the future.” – Dr. Julie Gottman, 10 Principles for Doing Effective Couples Therapy
The Roots of Your Family Tree
Ronald Richardson, a Bowen therapist, proposes that one’s “personality develop[s] in relation and response to other personalities in [one’s] family. And all of their personalities developed and changed in response.”
When looking at Alex’s side of the family tree, one of Alex’s parents (the one with the question mark) was adopted and never knew his parents. Alex’s other parent lost her parents at the age of 16 in a freak car accident.
How do you think these events in Alex’s parents’ lives influenced how Alex behaved in future relationships?
In Alex’s family, the fear of loss led to Alex’s parents monitoring Alex’s every move and needing to know where he is at all times. Thus, even though Alex wasn’t responsible for the death of his mother’s parents or that his dad was adopted, his inherited family trauma-impacted how he was treated growing up. This helicopter parenting often led to Alex sacrificing his individuality for the closeness his parents required.
When a difficult problem comes up in his relationship with Andy, it’s not unusual for Alex to agree with what Andy wants, and then later resent Andy because he doesn’t feel like his needs are met, even though he never spoke up about them.
The problem is that Alex is unaware of how his family history impacts his current relationship. Wolynn, the author of It Didn’t Start with you: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, states that “[w]hen entangled [in your family’s web], you unconsciously carry the feelings, symptoms, behaviors, or hardships of an earlier member of your family system as if these were your own.”
On Andy’s side of the family tree, he was the oldest brother of three with the middle brother being born five years after Andy. As a result, Andy got to be an only child for five years with his parents’ undivided attention and focus.
Being the oldest also meant he was the first one to blaze the trail of success and so he was often signed up for many different sports teams and pushed by his parents to excel.
“The emphasis on high achievement tends to make the oldest children more tense, more serious, more reserved, and less playful than others.” – Richardson, Family Ties That Bind
Andy’s intensity can make him fairly rigid in how he engages Alex around household chores. A symbol of success in Andy’s family was how well the house looked, so Andy often demands Alex to pick things up rather than giving Alex the space to get things done when he has a little more time.
Despite asking for Andy to back off, Alex struggles to actually follow through on household chores since he never really had to do household chores as a child—his parents were fine living in a mess for a few days before cleaning up—further complicating the problem between Andy and Alex.