As a therapist who works with individuals, couples, and families, there is always a common theme that is discussed no matter what modality of session occurs: Family.
For some people, the discussion of family can elicit a response of anxiety, fear, and a common thought of, “Well, where do I begin?” For others, they smile as they recollect their childhood memories, family vacations, and having great parents and role models around that helped them grow into the people they are today. So why is it that the discussion of family can cause confusion in terms of how it impacts our relationships?
Let’s start from the beginning. Since the beginning of time, humans have been known to thrive on social connection between each other. In the early days, humans bound together in “tribes” and each person had a role they played. As children grew up, they watched members of their tribe interact with one another and began to internalize interactions and human behavior unconsciously. Fast forward to now and the same concept still applies. As children, we watch our caregiver(s) interact with those around us in one way or another. The expression “children are like sponges” is quite literally what is happening. By ingesting these behaviors, children unconsciously can take on patterns represented before them.
Let’s take communication for example. I ask all of my couples specifically, “What was your parent’s and or influential role models’ communication like towards one another and towards you?” Some people can answer this right away, these quick responses are typically due to having some sort of emotional impact, which in turn, registers in the brain as a specific memory. I often hear, “My Mom and Dad yelled a lot,” “My Mom was quiet and my Dad only yelled when he was mad,” or, “My parents were pretty good at talking to one another in front of us, but I have no idea what happened behind closed doors”. These are not the only responses I receive, but just a few of the most common I hear on a regular basis. Therefore, if we take the information that was mentioned previously about unconscious internalizing, this would result in how we sometimes take on the same patterns as our parents. What this means is that we can exhibit similar patterns in our own relationships. The only way to change this is to learn new techniques and strategies to counteract these internal responses. This is a very challenging process for many and it requires a lot of will power to break a cycle. However, every couple I work with agrees putting in the effort is worth it for a lifetime of knowledge and continued connection with their partner.
Now, let’s talk about one of the other main factors from our families we can take on: Conflict styles. One of the most common things I see in my work is that couples report that they either rarely noticed any conflict, or noticed conflict all the time. This is a telling observation. Those who typically did not see their parents argue or resolve conflict more than likely have difficulty in their relationships as adults because they may stonewall their partner or avoid conflict altogether. This makes sense considering they were never shown how to properly manage conflict from their parents or influential adults. Yelling to have the last word is not necessarily the best way to resolve a conflict. Expressing to your partner that you need some time to think and process the situation and coming back to it later after specifying a time will help more than people realize. This allows for different communicators and conflict styles to compromise and meet in the middle. While this is not the end all be all resolution for every single couple, there is research to suggest that this is rather successful for most couples willing to put in the work to achieve compromise in their relationships.
Long story short: Your family may be influencing your relationship patterns in unexpected ways. I want to make it clear that your family is not to blame for concerns you may have in your relationship, but rather unidentified explanations that can be addressed with couples therapy. It is never too late to work on your relationship no matter what stage of life you are in!