When we think of the term “relationship,” perhaps naturally we tend to first think of romantic ones: boyfriend/ girlfriend, wife/husband, significant other/ life partner, etc. What we don’t always consider (and that’s my job I suppose) is how those relationships function in the context of all other relationships: you and your partner haven’t been living on a island, with no one else around, for your entire lives, correct? (If you’re Brooke Shields and that one blond guy, disregard this.)
The problems you may be experiencing in your relationships aren’t simple; they may just as easily be influenced by the many other (non-romantic) relationships in your life as they are by your partner. For this first article, I thought I’d focus on a relationship that most definitely impacts nearly every romantic relationship in the world– the relationship of one’s parents. Not just the one you have with them, but the one they have or had with each other.
My father died recently (my mother four years before that), and, in compiling material to write a memoir (presumptuous, I know), I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how two people find each other, fall in love, get along (or don’t) all the while creating a family– while in this case being my parents, my mom and dad: two people I, for a significant portion of my life, have looked on as Higher Beings. It’s only in the last ten years or so that I’ve been able to clearly see them as People. Individuals. A man and a woman with hopes and fears and dreams and anger.
Just Like Me, essentially.
Supposedly seeing your parents as equals is a big part of maturity (which makes me feel better about my gray hairs, I guess). As a therapist and a fiction writer, I spend a large part of my intellectual time considering the point of view of others, ideally going so far as to try and think like them.
You’ve seen this cliche in books and TV crime procedurals– “We have to think like the killer,” etc. Although in this present instance (forensic psychology excluded) the “killers” in question are mommy and daddy.
There’s a line from the recent film, “The Tree of Life” that goes: “Mother… father… always you wrestle inside me.” Understanding this relationship (of the two people who raised you, if not gave you 100% of your genetic material) will give you an amazing level of insight into the relationships you presently have, or have had.
Although this is potentially a novel-length discussion, let’s begin it with this: think back over your life growing up. Summon the memories of your childhood and adolescence. Nothing specific, just let the facts, impressions, and so on waft up around you, like “memory smoke.”
Now pretend you’re making a documentary on your parent’s lives. Envision them growing up, that pivotal scene where they first meet, how they interact at first when they don’t really know each other, the problems they have, if any, how they get married, etc.
Now compare this early relationship with your childhood. How are they similar? Did you see any of their problems in the beginning that were still around as you grew up? (You’re imagining of course, but you might be surprised by how much information you unconsciously absorbed about your parents, even as a very young child.) Did you see any problems that got “fixed” by the time you were born or were an older child or adolescent?
Did you imagine any newer problems as you aged? How did raising you affect them? Did they divorce? Did they separate? If they did or didn’t, why might that have been?
(And don’t say it was because of you; couples that divorce ostensibly over children almost always had problems before that– the child only made those problems more obvious.)
Now that you’ve got an emerging picture of the people who raised you:
Do you notice any similarities to the relationship you’re in now, or ones you’ve been in in the past?
I bet you do.
Next, we’ll continue this line of thinking, and examine how your parents may’ve taught you more than you realize about your love life.