Did You Marry Your Mother or Your Father?

Earlier this year my husband Bob and I just celebrated our 30 year anniversary. Amazing to me, because as a kid, I saw a lot of unhappy relationships in my family, so I never expected to get married.

Early on, I dated men who were emotionally distant, like my dad. I knew not all men were that way, but the loving, caring, considerate guys who respected women just never seemed to show up. The more I studied psychology, the more I realized this wasn’t just a coincidence.

My favorite professor, Dr. Herbert Strean, from Rutgers University Graduate School of Social Work, drilled into us that:

A client’s chronic complaint is an unconscious wish for that very thing.

I wondered, “How could that apply to me? Did that mean my chronic complaint ‘there aren’t any nice guys out there’, was my unconscious wish? Did this mean somehow I was attracted to or choosing emotionally distant men unconsciously? Why would I do that?”

We often choose mates that are similar to our parents

Dr. Strean explained we often choose mates similar to our parents. After all, they are our first and most significant male and female models of love and being loved. That dynamic becomes hardwired into us emotionally. Even when a current relationship is not healthy, it is familiar, and therefore comfortable.

Unconsciously recreating old relationship patterns is a way of bringing our parent, and all that baggage, back into our lives. Why? Because we haven’t worked out the original hurt, so we project it onto our partner. We unconsciously think we can work it out with a significant other.

Individual therapy is the best way to prevent this. Working through old baggage allows us to see our patterns consciously, and recognize what we are repeating.

I feel fortunate I had the opportunity to work through my baggage in therapy before I met Bob. If I hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have picked him. He was, after all, a man who could be emotionally closed. Shutting down was Bob’s way of dealing with upsetting situations.

He had a mother who smothered him and his ex-girl-friend, Melissa was also very controlling. Bob hates it when people try to tell him what to do. And I do tend to be a bit bossy sometimes.

From the beginning, Bob and I were attracted to each other like magnets. But in the early years of our relationship, we argued all the time. Things that I did always seemed to get under his skin.

When I began going to therapy, our relationship transformed. As I worked with the therapist to understand my trust issues with men, I stopped getting triggered every time Bob became distant.

The therapist helped me to realize that Bob’s distance was a defense mechanism that he used unconsciously as a way to feel safe and protect himself from people trying to control him.

Once I understood that, I saw Bob as the lovable and gentle man I knew. Having that new awareness and insight into how Bob thinks has brought so much joy and happiness to our lives.

Have you been feeling distant from your partner? If so, here are three things you can do to make sure that their behavior is not triggering unresolved family issues from your past.

  1. Become aware of both you and your partner’s family history and relationship experiences. — When your partner does something to annoy you, pay attention and acknowledge how this makes you feel. These are your triggers.
  2. Communicate openly with your partner — Have a frank discussion and share how you both feel about the upsetting behavior and how it reminds you of someone in your past. By talking with each other and committing to being honest and respecting each other’s thoughts, you will feel more assured knowing your partner’s behavior is not a personal attack against you. It is merely evidence of the fact that you both are acting out old roles from your past. If you want to have a better relationship with your partner, you have to be able to see that they are not the ghosts of your past.

3. Be more present — Pay attention to any situation that triggers uncomfortable and upsetting memories from the past. When you notice something about your partner’s behavior that reminds you of something a parent did or a past relationship, pause for a moment and ask yourself the following:

“How much of this comes from my past history and how much of this is directly related to my partner?”

Here’s a personal example of mine to help you understand how to sort this out. As I’ve shared, my family history is filled with unfaithful and emotionally detached men. Bob knows this well.

Now whenever any situation crops up that would trigger painful memories of our past, I ask myself the questions that I shared above.

Let’s say I notice Bob glancing at another woman. A part of me used to always get jealous and worried because I saw Bob as my cheating father. Now that I have a more objective view of my past, I know that Bob is not anything like my father. I can realize that my jealousy and fear is due to my past. Since I know that Bob is a loving and trustworthy man, my mind is usually quickly put to any doubts to rest. On the rare occasion when I feel the need to go a step further, I’ll have a conversation with Bob. I want his input to help me sort things out.

I make it clear to him that what I need from him at that moment is to remain calm and answer my questions without getting defensive or shutting down. That helps me to recognize that he is not the dad of my past and I am able to see him for the wonderful man he is.

If your relationship has been haunted by ghosts of the past, you can do the same thing with your partner to get firmly grounded in the present. By supporting each other to see upsetting situations more objectively, the two of you can help to carry each other’s baggage. And isn’t that what we all want?

Tired of feeling haunted by the ghosts of yours or your partner’s past? Are you looking for some extra support? We’ve got your back. Click the image below to join our Relationships Work Facebook Group.

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