I often hear people say that their Number One issue is romantic relationships. But I am struck by how little people know about what may be the strongest factor in their choice of mate and their tendencies towards attraction—their own family members.
For most people, the notion of anything romantic between parents and children, or between siblings, is a cross-cultural taboo and tantamount to criminal activity. But thinkers from Sophocles to Freud have also understood that the love between parents and children is one fraught with complex emotions, from the Oedipal and Electra complexes and beyond. Yet it is a common-sense notion that your parent is your first love: There are “daddy’s girls” and “mama’s boys” and more complex, less understood parental dynamics as well. Sibling interactions are also influential, but usually not as strongly as parental ones.
These early dynamics often set the tone for an individual's adult relationships: If the relationship had been positive, people may seek out partners who reflect those positive characteristics, such as interpersonal warmth, humor, kindness, or particular intellectual interests.
Things become problematic, though, when strife and dysfunction or emotional distancing and neglect marked the relationship. People may later gravitate toward partners who recreate those dynamics in various ways. It may seem counterintuitive for someone to seek out a negative dynamic, but strong underlying emotional impulses often do motivate people in that direction. Sometimes a “repetition neurosis” occurs, in which people try to undo a past dynamic by recreating it but hoping for a different outcome. It usually fails: Someone may seek out an emotionally cold and remote spouse similar to a parent and think they can eventually change the partner's ways or get a response out of them they never received from the parent. But the spouse doesn’t change, and you repeat the parent-child emotional dynamic.
Other times, aspects of a dysfunctional relationship, such as emotional neglect or abuse, provide a perverse source of familiarity and “comfort.” It can be what the person is used to, or how they define “love” in their life, since they did not experience healthier alternatives growing up. Someone may seek out a temperamental partner who argues all the time because they grew up in an argumentative family and feel that is a form of familiar emotional connection and attention. But if the arguing is constantly toxic and negative, the connection is unhealthy.
Also highly influential is observing how one's parents interacted with each other, since it is natural for children to emulate or copy those behaviors in how they later try to resolve conflict or address emotions with their own partners. People will often copy those behavioral patterns with their own partners, such as avoiding conflict at all costs or engaging in frequent arguing.
People may also go to the other extreme in order to avoid dynamics they feared while growing up: They may pick someone who is the total opposite of a parent about whom they have anxieties—for example, choosing a mousy, pushover spouse when their parent was loud and domineering. But these avoidance behaviors may also lead to unhealthy dynamics, since there are underlying emotional conflicts and needs that the person is not addressing or confronting. The person may in turn become what they fear, or recreate negative interchanges in another related variation.
When people become enmeshed in toxic relationship dynamics, they often haven’t stepped back and observed how their childhood patterns recreate themselves in their present relationships. Therapy can be extremely useful in highlighting such patterns and helping individuals feel more enlightened and empowered in coping with or breaking out of abusive or neglectful relationships.
Everyone deserves a chance at a loving, positive relationship—the past doesn’t have to become the present.