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Why Your Partner May Be Like Your Parent

Is your childhood wrecking your romantic life?

Ana Blazic Pavlovic/Shutterstock
Source: Ana Blazic Pavlovic/Shutterstock

Perhaps nothing is as disheartening as the discovery—after years of trying to escape from your dysfunctional childhood—that you have actually managed to recreate it.

One woman, the daughter of a hypercritical and demanding mother, recently talked with me about her recently ended, two-decades-long marriage:

"I still have issues with feeling capable and doing things right. Unfortunately, I married my mother and was never able to feel competent in my husband’s eyes, either. I also never really felt loved by him, in the same way I didn’t feel loved by my mother.”

A man emailed me recently with similar concerns:

“On the surface, my wife and my mother have nothing in common. My wife is petite and blonde, well-educated, polished, and sophisticated; my brunette and big-boned mother is none of those things. But they both criticize me constantly. Nothing I ever did was good enough for my mother because my older brother was perfect. My wife rules the roost with a dissatisfied look on her face which is depressing and familiar.”

How can you end up marrying your mother (or father) if, on a conscious level, you’ve been on the run from her? The answer has everything to do with attachment theory and unconscious mental models.

A body of psychological research suggests that our earliest relationships, especially with our mother, not only can influence how we are able to connect to others as adults—in romantic and other contexts—but also create internalized scripts or working models of how relationships work.

Briefly, securely attached children, with loving and consistently attuned mothers, may grow up to be adults who see themselves positively, are comfortable seeking out close relationships and depending on others, and don’t worry about being alone or being rejected. Insecurely attached children of inconsistently attentive and attuned mothers may develop anxious or ambivalent attachments, while those who have neglectful or hostile mothers may be avoidantly attached.

According to the work of Kim Bartholomew, anxiously attached people will be “preoccupied” in relationships; they have a negative view of themselves and look to others to validate them. They are needy and demanding in relationships, and they move from one romance to another. Avoidant attachment yields two different separate behaviors—“fearful” and “dismissing.” Fearful avoidants have a negative self-image, but are also passive and dependent; they actually want intimacy but they are also desperately afraid of being hurt and distrust others. Fearful avoidants are the hardest category of insecure people to partner with because they send out mixed signals. The dismissing avoidant has a more positive self-image but would also agree with the following statement: I am comfortable without close emotional relationships. It is very important to me to feel independent and self-sufficient and I prefer not to depend on others and have others depend on me.

As human beings, we are drawn, on an unconscious level, toward the familiar. For a securely attached individual whose primary connections have taught her that people are loving, dependable, and trustworthy, this is just dandy. But for those of us who are insecurely attached, the familiar can be dangerous territory.

A study by Glenn Geher suggests that we do tend to choose a romantic partner who is similar to our opposite-sex parent. In his research, he not only asked participants to self-report on how their romantic partners were like their opposite-sex parents across various categories—he actually interviewed the parents as well. The shared characteristics he discovered between his subjects' partners and their opposite-sex parents were robust. Needless to say, when romantic partners were like parents in good ways, relationship satisfaction was relatively high; when the similarities were related to negative characteristics, however, relationship satisfaction was relatively low.

When we meet someone new, it’s not just our unconscious models that are in the room or at the bar; there are conscious assessments, too. So the question remains: How do we end up marrying Mom if she’s been critical, unavailable or unloving? That’s exactly what Claudia Chloe Brumbaugh and R. Chris Fraley asked: How do insecurely attached people attract mates? After all, we all want a securely attached partner—one who’s emotionally available, loving, supportive, dependable—not an insecure or clingy one, or someone who’s detached and uncommunicative. How do we get roped in?

The researchers suggested that what happens is a combination of misreading by one partner and a fair amount of strategizing and even dissembling by the insecure partner. They point out that anxiously attached people may seem fascinating at first—their preoccupation may easily be confused with self-disclosure and openness, which facilitates a sense of connection. Similarly, an avoidant person may come across as independent and strong. In a series of experiments, the team discovered that avoidants—despite the fact that they don’t want emotional connection—actually made lots of eye contact and used touch more than securely attached people to seem more appealing in a dating situation. Avoidants appear to use humor in dating situations to create a sense of sharing and detract from their essential aloofness.

Our working models of relationships may not only shape how we act but also how we remember acting—they actually skew our recall, Jeffry A. Simpson and his colleagues discovered, which could make it even harder to get along when the working models of two romantic partners are different. After measuring the attachment orientation of each individual, Simpson's team had each member of the couple identify a significant conflict in the relationship and, choosing one from each list, had the couple engage in a conflict-resolution discussion which was then videotaped. Right after the discussion, each person rated how supportive or emotionally distant he or she had been. They were then asked the same question one week later. What the researchers found was that the more distress there was in the conflict discussion, the more activated the individual’s working model seemed to become: For example, avoidant people, if they were relatively distressed during the discussion, rated themselves as being less supportive when they remembered the discussion than they had said they were initially. What people respond to in relationships, the researchers surmised, is "memories of the interaction filtered through their working models.”

This research explains why it is that if we have, indeed, partnered with someone whose internalized scripts are very different from our own, the discord is likely to be endless, with little resolution in sight without some kind of intervention.

It is especially true if, in fact, you married your mother.

Copyright© Peg Streep 2014



Bartholomew, Kim and Leonard M. Horowitz. “Attachment Styles Among Young Adults: A Test of a Four-Category Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1991), vol.101 (2): 226-244.

Geher, Glenn. “Perceived and Actual Characteristics of Parents and Partners: A Test of a Freudian Model of Mate Selection,” Current Psychology (Fall, 2000), vol. 19, no.3, 194-214.

Brumbaugh, Claudia Chloe and R. Chris Fraley, “Adult Attachment and Dating Strategies: How Do Insecure People Attract Mates?” Personal Relationships (2010), 17, 599-614.

Simpson, Jeffry A., W. Steven Rholes, and Heike A. Winterheld, “Attachment Working Models Twist Memories of Relation Events: Psychological Science (2012), vol. 4, no.2, 252-259.

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