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How Our Parents' Marriages Shape Us

The bond between our parents is as important as their individual behaviors.

Key points

  • As children, people learn about how adult relationships work from the interactions of their parents — how they argue and resolve disagreements.
  • Children raised in fractious, volatile marriages or quiet, hostile households may have difficulties in managing emotions or may ignore problems.
  • Parents and their marriage can impart important lessons about the role of emotions and their management. Attuned parents are emotion coaches.
fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

As children, we believe that everything that goes on at our house goes on elsewhere. It’s only when we begin to explore the larger world outside of the apartment or house our family inhabits that we begin to challenge that belief. This is especially true if the family we’ve grown up in is genuinely dysfunctional.

While adult children of divorced parents are likely to focus on how the split affected them, those whose parents stayed together may not. Even though we begin the process of healing from childhood by recognizing the behaviors exhibited by our parents that shaped us negatively, we often neglect to look at how we were affected by the bond between them. In fact, our parents’ marriage is as big an influence on us—if an unseen one—as their individual behaviors.

Your parents’ marriage: Variations on a theme

Growing up, my parents’ marriage was a mystery to me. While it was eminently clear to me, even as a very small child, that my father adored my mother, the way she alternated between showering him with affection and berating him for failing to provide her with the luxuries she craved bewildered me. My father’s death when I was 15 cut the story short but even though there’s no question that I never saw my parents work through a problem constructively, my father’s loyalty to my mother—and his having her back—absolutely trumped his love for me.

Some children grow up feeling ignored and unloved by both parents, not because their parents’ relationship is fractious but because it’s essentially a closed society. In these cases, the two parents are two planets circling each other, complete as a dyad, and while they may have children or a child, they basically don’t have any emotional need for them; for example, the children of former President Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy basically described their roles as being onlookers or an audience for a play that only had room for two actors.

Research shows that children raised in the context of extremely fractious and volatile marriages—full of sound and fury—have heightened difficulties managing emotions, and additionally, studies reveal that emotional distress caused by parental conflict impairs higher-order cognitive processing. One study by Alice Schermerhorn showed that children from these kinds of families had trouble recognizing neutral interactions when shown photographs of two people talking, although they were adept at recognizing happy or angry interactions.

One possible explanation offered for why they had trouble recognizing neutrality is that a child uses her interpretation of her parents’ conflicts as a kind of radar to protect herself. If daughters grow up being especially vigilant for signs of trouble, they may misread neutrality as anger; to be sure, that’s a problem for anxious-preoccupied adults. Of course, children interpret arguments as threatening to the stability of the family, and children who grow up around threats—of one parent leaving or talk of divorce—are more likely to be fearful and anxious than those who don’t. As one reader put it, “I spent my childhood panicked that my father would make good on his promise to leave us. Mind you, he always put it in the same way—that he was leaving us. When he did leave when I was 13 and my sister was 10, we were both convinced he’d left because we were both too bad to deal with. My mother, to her lasting shame, did nothing to correct that impression, nor did my father.”

Yet a marriage that is distinguished by quiet hostility—no screaming or yelling but nonetheless a total lack of communication and respect between the parents—inflicts another kind of damage. In these households, problems and difficulties are swept under the rug and discussion of what anyone is feeling is pretty much off the table. The parents’ relationship is often the basis for the emotional life of the family, and looking at that emotional life is highly illuminating. I find the work of John Gottman, renowned as a marital therapist, and colleagues extremely compelling and useful as we consider not just the behaviors our mothers and fathers modeled but also the emotional tenor of the household as it’s reflected in the marriage.

Parents as emotional coaches

What Gottman and his colleagues proposed was that, while some parents become emotion coaches, other parents dismiss emotions. Emotion coaches were parents with self-awareness who paid attention to the role of emotions in their lives, especially negative emotions, who could talk about their emotions in a differentiated manner, who were aware of their children’s emotions, and who assisted their children in managing emotions such as anger and sadness. This is a parenting philosophy, in the researchers’ point of view; in today’s terms, we might simply say that these parents are high in emotional intelligence and understand that emotional intelligence is a learned skill set that can be supported and enhanced. The researchers identified the emotion-coaching philosophy as having five components:

  1. parents’ awareness of low-intensity emotions in themselves and their children;
  2. seeing the child’s negative emotions as an opportunity for teaching or intimacy;
  3. validating their child’s emotions;
  4. assisting their child in verbally labeling their emotions; and
  5. problem-solving with the child, setting behavioral limits, and strategizing ways to deal with the situation that led to the negative emotion.

Interestingly, the researchers did not connect emotion coaching to parental warmth and noted that concerned and positive parents can be oblivious to the world of emotions.

But what they surmised about parents who embraced a dismissive meta-emotion philosophy is key to the discussion of how your parents’ marriage affected you, especially in a household characterized by dead silence when it came to feelings. These parents felt that the child’s anger or sadness was harmful to the child, that their job was to change these emotions, that the child needed to realize these feelings were unimportant and temporary, and that the child could and should ride out these feelings. (In my writing, this is what I call “marginalizing” a child’s experiences and the emotions evoked by them.)

Other observations about what the researchers called this emotion-dismissing philosophy will ring bells for many who grew up in these households. They noted that sadness was often perceived as a burden on the parents, a problem they had to fix, and that by dismissing sadness as unimportant, the child would become happy. Additionally, some put time limits on how long sadness could be displayed and became impatient or irritated when the child didn’t change her emotional demeanor.

What these parents didn’t do is explain or describe their child’s emotional experience, help the child with either her emotions or how to solve or address the problem that evoked these emotions, or see the emotion as beneficial in any way or providing any opportunity, either for intimate connection or teaching. Further, the researchers noted that many dismissing families actually punished their children or put them in a timeout for expressing anger.

Understanding the model you grew up with

As you consider how your father and mother thought about emotions and modeled managing them, you should also think about how their attitude affected you. Did they seem to share a philosophy about emotions or did they both act in consistent ways? Did one or both of them use shaming or a threat of punishment to encourage you to contain or hide your feelings? Many unloved daughters learn to hide their emotions because they are mocked or derided for showing them; others, like myself, learn that there’s no use in talking about what they feel because no one will listen anyway. All of these parental behaviors contribute mightily to the deficits the unloved daughter has in managing emotions as an adult.

This post is adapted from my book, The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood.

Copyright 2019, 2021 by Peg Streep

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Schermerhorn, Alice. " Associations of child emotion recognition with interparental conflict and shy child temperament traits." 2018, Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,, vol. 36 ,pp. 1343-1366.

Gottman, John, Lynn Katz, and Carole Hooven, . "Parental Meta-Emotion Philosophy and the Emotional Life of Families: Theoretical Models and Preliminary Data," 1996, Journal of Family Psychology ,vol. 10. pp. 243-268

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