What a Relationship With a Parent Reveals About a Partner

A person's parental relationship may help explain how they view their partner.

Posted Apr 17, 2019

The idealization of a parent may be a warning sign. A person’s positive relationship with a parent is a green flag. However, having “too” good of a relationship with a parent may signify idealization. When a person views a parent as “all good” and believes the parent “can do no wrong,” he or she may be defending against early experiences of deep disappointment and shame. Rigid unconscious defense mechanisms may have been resurrected to protect against early and intolerable situations.

Splitting is an unconscious defense mechanism that provokes an individual to perceive people in a distorted manner as either “all good” or “all bad.”  When a person views someone as perfect and places them on a pedestal, they are utilizing the defense mechanism idealization. Alternatively, when an individual perceives someone as “all bad”’ he or she is using the defense mechanism devaluation. Although everyone uses idealization and devaluation to an extent, the inflexibility of these defense mechanisms may be illuminated by an individual’s adult relationship with a parent.    

The quality of the early relationship between an individual and his or her parent is often referred to as attachment style. In adulthood, the internalized attachment style is frequently referred to as a working model of attachment. A healthy working model of attachment is one in which the person views a parent in a non-distorted and realistic manner. Of course, when a parent is violent, emotionally abusive, physically abusive, or neglectful, the parent is accurately viewed as harmful.

Outside of abuse, if a person perceives their parent in a cohesive manner, they have accepted the parent’s flaws in a way that allows them to integrate the parent’s positive and negative qualities. The individual does not need to rigidly idealize or devalue. This ability may indicate that he or she is also able to see himself or herself and others in a more integrated, healthy, and realistic way.

Unfortunately, a person who perceives people in a polarized fashion may quickly oscillate between regarding people as God-like and then villainous in as quickly as a minute. The vacillation has more to do with the person protecting his or her threatened ego than it does the other person actually being superhuman or subhuman.

For example, say one person in the relationship idealizes their partner because he or she is a successful doctor, but when there is a disagreement, the person flips and degrades the partner, saying, “You aren’t a real doctor, or you’d make more money.”

The fluctuation in perceiving their partner as either superhuman or subhuman is rooted in the person’s defense of their ego, not in a realistic view of their partner. The rigidity of the person’s defense mechanisms distort reality to make it palpable for him or her. These misperceptions are pervasive and are often referred to as cognitive distortions. Unfortunately, the need to defensively alter reality in order to suit a fragile sense-of-self may stem from early trauma, possibly attachment trauma.   

Most likely it is exhausting to be habitually be viewed as superhuman or subhuman. When a person is treated as if they are superhuman, he or she sometimes feels constant tension about displeasing their partner. Worse yet is being treated as a subhuman; dismissed, ignored, rebuffed, scoffed at, and degraded. Probably the most painful however, is the actual fall from grace.

The experience of being loved as a human, with acceptable weaknesses and strengths, is a healthy and secure love. Being connected to another as an equal is comforting and empowering. Thus, if a partner does not view a parent in a realistic manner with both flaws and gifts, it may indicate he or she has failed to work through intense childhood disappointment. The rigid defensive structure he or she has unconsciously resurrected may negatively impact a current relationship. On the other hand, a partner who is realistic about their parent’s inadequacies and capabilities and loves the parent despite mistakes is probably able to do the same for his or her partner.