Why Do We Behave Just Like Our Parents?
Intergenerational scripts limit your relationships. You can change them.
Posted Feb 10, 2020
Family life is essentially a rehearsal for the next generation. Each generation is another piece in a long chain of life we inherit and pass on to our children.
The way families transmit their traditions and behaviors is through family scripts. These scripts describe the acceptable ways to behave, speak, and even think. It is essentially the shared expectation of how life should be.
Scripts can be as specific as the preferred way to wash the dishes and as big as how we fight or how we express intimacy.
Generally, there are three types of scripts: replicative, corrective, and improvised.
The replicative script is one you repeat from your family of origin, consciously or unconsciously. For example, the way you clean your house, dinner time etiquette, policy around TV watching and so forth. These are usually behavioral scripts that you experienced as preferable or positive as a child. Other times, people replicate behaviors or attitudes they originally disliked, often as an unconscious way to be “loyal” to their parents: by replicating their family-of-origin script, they are essentially communicating to their parents that their behavior is so desirable that their children should replicate it, too. For example, many people find themselves saying things to their children that they hated to hear as children.
Corrective scripts occur when a person consciously chooses to do things very differently, or even opposite from the scripts they experienced growing up.
Others act out corrective scripts by “running away” geographically, religiously, or economically from where they grew up.
People try to “run away” from their inherited scripts in many ways. They may move to the other side of the world. They may change their names. They may convert or become more religious. They may cut off ties with their family of origin.
Improvised scripts are born out of necessity (new reality or new technology) or out of curiosity. They are not a replication or a correction of the past. They are new and often spontaneous. In these scripts, each partner must withstand anxiety and uncertainty as they initiate a new script for their family life.
How do scripts solidify in relationships?
When a couple sets their relationship, they unconsciously negotiate each partner’s replicative and corrective scripts and play out a combination of those scripts. Since this negotiation is not conscious, the couple may experience conflicts between their inherited scripts.
The truth is that no matter how much you think you are “not like your parents” or you will do things differently, scripts don't go away. Most of your relationship behaviors are inherited. The best way to change your behavior is to own the scripts you inherited and improvise on them.
How can you soften and improvise scripts?
- Take a piece of paper and create a chart with three columns:
a. First, write down all the replicative scripts that you are currently aware of. What am I doing, consciously or not, that is a replication of things I saw growing up?
b. Then write a list of corrective scripts. What am I doing, consciously or not, that is opposite of what my family did when I was growing up? It can be simple scripts like “how do we clean the house?” to complex psychological scripts like “how do we express love in our family?”
c. Write the improvised scripts you do that don’t relate to your family of origin.
2. Once all three columns are filled, circle the scripts you like and the ones you find are limiting you.
3. Share this article and the chart with your partner.
4. Choose one replicative or corrective script that you feel is limiting you or your relationship or that you feel is a constant source of tension that you would like to try to change.
5. Talk to your partner about how you could improvise a different behavior. What will help you navigate the anxiety and uncertainty of going “off script?"
6. Hold on to yourself as these improvised scripts are being implemented. Expect ruptures and repairs.
7. Remember that scripts are just scripts. You don’t have to do what is written. You can always stop and re-examine your scripts to see what is working and what isn't in your relationship in 2020.
a. If it’s not helping your relationship, then choose a different script. It is, of course, easier said than done.
Since scripts are unavoidable. Sometimes the best you can do is improvise on your replicative and corrective scripts so you can pass on a more adaptive and flexible script to the next generation.
Can the apple fall far from the tree? Perhaps, but only if the apple is conscious of the tree it came from.
Byng-Hall, J. (1998). Rewriting family scripts: Improvisation and systems change. Guilford Press.