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Intergenerational Transmission of Irrelationship

An in-depth look at the how we can change for the better past ways of relating

Rachata Sinthopachakul/Shutterstock
Source: Rachata Sinthopachakul/Shutterstock

Believe, believe, believe, believe
Nobody knows
Believe, believe, believe, believe
Nobody knows for sure
My Morning Jacket, “Believe (Nobody Knows)”

"It wasn't until my father was well into his seventies," Thomas reflected, "that we were able to have anything like a real relationship."

"I'd been in therapy for years trying to make sense out of my ongoing self-sabotage. I did it again and again through my twenties and thirties. It didn’t make sense and everybody knew it, including me. Until then, I believed someone had the answers: my father, his father—more recently, a therapist perhaps. I got an MBA from a great school and plenty of great opportunities even after I’d established a reputation for being something of a screw-up. But it kept happening: I just couldn’t get myself together.

"My therapist and I had gone over different aspects of my history again and again. Finally, my father and I had some long talks after his heart attack when he was seventy-five. That was when I started noticing that some parts of his story sounded an awful lot like mine. And his family history even more so. Looking back now, it seems strange how long I’d overlooked how similar our stories were.”

Irrelationship can manifest powerfully in unlooked-for places. As a matter of course we expect psychological defenses to kick in when we’re having serious problems in important relationships. But, it often doesn’t register when defenses pop up destructively in our everyday lives. Somehow, the day-to-day emotional discomforts, or even disasters, that are part of “normal life” don’t stand out for us as signals related to long-standing unresolved issues. Researchers have demonstrated that to a significant extent, that our patterns of relating to and understanding and interpreting one another are passed along from generation to generation (Sette et al., 2015), and there is growing evidence that anxiety, to a significant extent, is also learned by children from parents (Eley et al., 2015). If we realize that much of how we relate to and experience one another is learned, we may also begin to see that we can unlearn approaches which no longer work, and learn anew preferable ways of getting along... which will help us work together in developing greater satisfaction with one another.

"Time and time again, my therapist and I went over what I thought was the biggest issue of my life: how controlling and demanding my father was. It took a long time for me to realize that the way he acted wasn’t just some inborn personality trait: something had happened to him to cause it. As it turned out, it was a leftover from his own upbringing. It took some time, but realizing that about him brought me up against a pretty unattractive truth about myself: the more I tried to escape from my father, the more I became him.

“When I was a kid and a young adult, I was constantly trying to find ways to please him. Now here’s what’s weird: in therapy, I’ve come to realize that my pleasing him was my way of trying to help him! I was trying to make him believe that, as hard as he was on me—on all of us, actually—I was always trying to make him believe that he was a good father—somebody I was proud of. To do that, I turned myself into a little captive audience applauding everything he did.

"Then I finally began to get it: my professional self-sabotage was a passive-aggressive way for me to get back at him. I could just undo everything he did to make me a ‘success.’ But it’s even deeper: it finally dawned on me that he had done the same exact thing to his parents! His whole life, especially his failed businesses, were his way of getting back at his parents for forcing him to be what they wanted him to be. I never would have believed this when I first went into therapy, but my anger at my father was—is—a replay of his anger against his father!”

Thomas' father grew up on a farm in the Midwest in the 1940's. He had grown up wanting to join the air force to become a pilot, but his mother and father had other idea. Though poor, they saved and sacrificed so that at least one of their three sons could be the first in the family to go to college. As religious people, their heart’s desire was for him to come back and teach at the parochial school, and eventually become the school’s principal—a job with immense prestige in their community.

At first, Thomas' father—the son chosen to fulfill this dream—wasn’t having it. At eighteen he left home and joined the air force. That, however, was short-lived: early in his time in the military, personal traits began to surface that contributed to a long pattern of professional failures—particularly his defiance of authority. The air force invited him not to re-enlist. Caught up short by the disappointment of his childhood dreams, he returned home, acquiescing to his father’s plans for his future. He got a degree in education and took a job teaching in the community school. But that was no more successful than his time in the military. His less-than-stellar military record, his defiant streak, and his dislike of teaching (which he did little to conceal) followed him down an unsuccessful path of teaching jobs leading to financial distress and a sense of personal failure.

While still in college, he had met and married the woman who became Thomas’ mother. Over the years, as his professional disappointments grew, so did his hopes that their two children would redeem his failure to fulfill his father’s expectations.

Thomas went on: "When my therapy finally began to penetrate all of this, It was surreal to look at my father's life and start to see that, in a way, my ‘career path’—if you can call it that—was a ‘repeat’ of his. His financial troubles turned into into an obsession with money that drove him to scrape and save so I could go to business school. Only I never wanted to go to business school: I wanted to be a doctor. But needing to please my father won out. I dropped med school and got the damned MBA. And I guess you could say it worked like a charm: I’m about as good a banker as he was a teacher.”

The crossover between Thomas’ failures and those of his father is no coincidence: Both men were trapped by their fathers’ desire for their sons to succeed where they had failed. But the need both to defy and to comply trapped both Thomas and his father in lives of disappointment and mounting failure.

Did Thomas and his father sentence themselves to life-long failure for their initial defiance of parental authority? Each man initially made career choices that directly crossed their fathers’ plans. Afterwards, they assuaged their guilt by sabotaging their own choices and attempting to save the family’s social standing through belated compliance with their fathers’ desires. In both cases, surrender included a second tier of gratification for each man and for their fathers: by acquiescing, they allowed their fathers to feel justified, i.e., to believe that they’d been right all along in what they wanted for their sons.

"Both my father and I had been labeled, the ‘gifted ones,’ which, unfortunately for everybody, made us responsible for saving our families. Our fathers showered their resources on us—resources they couldn’t afford to squander—and sent us out to succeed. By succeeding, we were supposed to undo the damage our fathers caused. We were expected to heal wounds going back at least to my grandfather.

"When we caved to our fathers’ plans, we tried to make up for our defiance by jumping through every hoop they held up for us. If we succeeded, they could feel that they had succeeded. But I know now that, down deep, all of us knew nothing I did or my father did could change the damage that had been done to our family.”

Pleasing their fathers by being captive audience to their demands was the song-and-dance routine that both Thomas and his father played out. Trapped In irrelationship, each consciously sought to make his father feel better by succeeding in professions their fathers chose for them, thus protecting the previous generation from the impact of its own history of failures: Thomas protected his father by becoming a banker; and Thomas’ father protected his father, a depression-era farmer, by going into teaching,

In each case, irrelationship underlay the real failure: that of the parents to provide a model for their sons that allowed them to use their own interests and desires as the engine for success. What did they learn? They learned a developmentally-acquired form of self-neglect. External pressures force us to take a closer look at what is going on, and we find irrelationship when caregiving has been hijacked for ulterior motives.

Sadly, but with obvious relief, Thomas summed it up: "The failed banker who wanted to be a doctor repeated the story of the failed teacher who wanted to be a pilot, who repeated his father’s failure. Finally—my father and I can relate to each other!” Thomas took a stand, and it is paying off. Perhaps he will break the chain and pass along a kinder, more connected way of caregiving in his relationships with others now given what he is learning by approaching intimacy with his father.


Eley, T. C., McAdams, T. A., Fruhling, V., Rijsdijk, T., Lichtenstein, P., Narusyte, J., Reiss, D., Spotts, E. L., Ganiban, J. M., & Neiderhiser, J. (2015). The intergenerational transmission of anxiety: A children-of-twins study. American Journal of Psychiatry, April 23, 2015, appi.ajp.2015.14070818. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.2015.14070818.

Sette, G., Coppola, G. & Cassibba, R. (2015). The transmission of attachment across generations: The state of art and new theoretical perspectives.
Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. 56(3), 315-26.

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Source: The Irrelationship Group, LLC; all rights reserved

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