Are Ghosts Haunting Your Marriage?

A surprising source of relationship conflicts

Posted Oct 28, 2016

     When a couple comes to therapy for marital issues, there are often more than the three of us sitting in my office. The invisible presences of the couple’s first families, sometimes called “families of origin,” inevitably hover about the session. When the couple's first families had differing attitudes toward money, balance of household responsibilities, social roles, parenting, housecleaning, food, and a host of other issues, the couple may experience unexpected conflict.

     Of course, the more awareness a couple has about the differing attitudes of their first families, the more they can talk openly and honestly about these kinds of issues. With conscious effort and honest discussion, the family ghosts can lose their invisibility (and their power to create conflict) and may be laid to rest.

     How do family of origin issues affect a couple’s present relationship and potentially create conflict between them? Take a simple example: visits by family members. This issue emerged in the therapy of a newly married young couple Ann and Greg. Greg grew up in a large family and his family had a laid-back casual attitude toward visits by family members, whereas Ann was an only child. In Greg's family, it was assumed that the welcome mat would always be out for family members to stay at each others house under normal circumstances. If Greg’s brother happened to be in town on business, Greg expected he’d be welcome to stay at their house for a night or two.

     Ann, however, felt differently. Now that she worked full time she didn’t have much time for housecleaning and their home wasn’t always in tip top shape. She didn’t feel comfortable with having her brother-in-law stay with them when the house was a mess. She was concerned that word might get back to her mother-in-law that she wasn’t a good homemaker. Greg said it wouldn’t matter to his brother or to his mother if their house was messy. He doubted his brother would even notice.

     But to Ann, whose parents were more formal and judgmental than Greg’s, it mattered a lot. Greg felt hurt that the welcome mat wasn’t out at all times to his brother. Ann felt hurt that Greg didn’t understand her need for privacy and her concern about his family’s opinion of her. Talking through their feelings openly and understanding how they were influenced by the attitudes of their own families helped them have empathy for each others point of view. They were then able to work out a compromise about family visits.

     Ann and Greg, who had been married for six years, were still exceptionally tied to their first families. Money played a big part in these ties. Ann’s parents had given them the down payment for their house. They also gave them expensive gifts. Greg’s parents had supported him through business school so that he wouldn’t have to take loans.

      Prolonged financial dependence on one’s parents often makes separating from them and becoming an independent adult more difficult. And some parents feel that financial support of their grown kids gives them some measure of control over them.

     The sooner young adults are on their own financially and create healthier, less dependent selves, the less conflict they will have from family of origin issues. This does not mean that to be psychologically healthy young adults have to limit their contact with their parents. It does mean that they need to develop new adult-to-adult relationships with them.

     Forming a new relationship with one’s parents is, however, a two-way street. It means that parents have to accept a new relationship with their grown children. They have to accept their grown children as adults and as having their own nuclear families when they marry. For parents to feel grief during this process is normal, especially in close families. Young adults often feel grief as well as they move out of their first families and start families of their own.

    Family of origin ghosts bring a wide variety of issues into a marriage, especially when a couple marries at a young age. It takes conscious effort to exorcise them even after they are made visible.

Copyright © Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.

Marilyn Wedge is a family therapist with 27 years of experience helping children and families. She is the author of A Disease called Childhood: Why ADHD became an American Epidemic as well as the popular Psychology Today post "Why French Kids don't have ADHD"  which has more than 16 million views.

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