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 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.
When it comes to discussing the conflict about household chores, both Alex and Andy have different expectations about how conflict should be addressed. In Alex’s family, conflict was discussed only for a minute or two and then everyone separated, only to return after a period with smiles on their faces, acting as if nothing had really happened. For Andy, conflict meant getting everything off your chest and verbally duking it out until things were resolved.
These unspoken rules around conflict clash and make both Alex and Andy feel unloved when an issue arises in their relationship. Alex thinks, “If he loved me, he wouldn’t get so heated and would be quieter. Love is not yelling at me.” Meanwhile, Andy thinks, “If he truly loved me, he’d face the problem head on with me instead of shutting down and avoiding me. He would actually show that what hurts me matters to him. Love is all about being open about how you feel, even if you have to scream about it.”
As you can see, what may appear like a problem between Alex and Andy has much deeper roots than just in their immediate relationship.
My Personal Work
Exploring my emotional inheritance and understanding the spoken and unspoken rules of my family has been a laborious journey that has paid dividends in my own relationship.
For example, I grew up in a home where cleanliness was important and where dirtiness was expected to be noticed and taken care of without someone saying something. My mother took the role of the manager of the house and would lose her cool when things did not get done. As a result, the rest of the family often jumped to fix the problem in order to alleviate her anger.
Despite this way of handling the household chores, things never really changed. My mom would get angry, I would feel anxiety and do my part to fix things, and then we’d all go back to how we operated before. And like clockwork, this pattern continued throughout my childhood and into my current relationship.
When I first moved in with my partner, we put rules in place and assigned roles as to who would do what. I would do the cooking on certain days and my partner would do the dishes. As the weeks turned into months, guess who got super angry and passive aggressive with their partner around not doing the dishes? Me.
I became critical and even contemptuous at times. After about the seventh time, I had an ah-ha moment and realized that I was doing the very thing my mother did to me. And what didn’t work for her also was not working for me.
This realization freed me from this inherited habit and enabled me to think of new ways I could work with my partner to solve this problem. While the dishes still don’t get done on the timeline I would prefer, my partner does eventually do the things she says she will without me nagging her. While our differences in cleanliness were legitimately birthed from our family of origin, the way we treated each other when we didn’t understand our family inheritance was not healthy.
Now we have a newfound respect for each other’s way of doing things and are working on developing our own family rules and habits that are direct and clear so both of us are on the same page going forward.
Growing Out of Your Family by Growing Up
One of the easiest things to do is to blame our partners for their character flaws. As Jenny Brown, the author of Growing Yourself Up: How to Bring Your Best to All of Life’s Relationships, states, “When we’re finding fault with others we stop working on ourselves. Our growing gets stuck in the blame rut.”
When you find yourself blaming your partner, you’ve just discovered an opportunity for personal growth. Reflect on the last problem you had with your partner in which you felt they wronged you.
Now reflect and think of ways this problem was handled in your family. If it was handled in the way you want it handled, and that happens to be a way that your partner is not following, then you are still stuck in your family’s web and haven’t grown up to become your own adult.