Last week, Francine was a guest on Vision Radio for marriage week. One of the callers shared how his and his wife’s early ‘family of origin’ formation had caused them a lot of conflict. Their differences in expectations and values had caused them a great deal of grief.
All married couples will experience both positive and negative effects from their family of origin formation, even those of us from wonderful homes. Our attitudes and beliefs from our formation are assimilated as our own in two principle ways.
The first is Adopted Formation. This includes the attitudes or expectations that we more or less accepted as ‘right and normal’ and which are likely to ‘show up’ in us when we find ourselves in similar situations.
Much of this formation was unconsciously learned just by being exposed through normal family interactions. The pattern of family life and the model of marriage that our parents presented to us was absorbed just like an accent or mannerism.
In our own case, our families of origin had two distinct ways of celebrating Christmas. In Francine’s family, the tradition was to attend the vigil Mass and get an early night in order to rise bright and fresh for present opening on Christmas morning. Byron’s family attended midnight Mass and opened presents immediately afterwards. The very late night was followed by a very long sleep in.
When our first Christmas came around, we each brought our expectations of how Christmas should be celebrated. Foolishly, we just went on autopilot and attempted to do it all – Vigil Mass with Francine’s family, followed by midnight Mass and present opening with Byron’s family, followed by a few short hours of sleep before present opening at Francine’s home, back to Byron’s for lunch, then to Francine’s for dessert before exhaustion overtook us and we went not-so-merrily home!
The following year, we moved to New York and thoroughly enjoyed Christmas Day with just the two of us! It enabled us to step back from the assumptions we had adopted about how to celebrate Christmas so that we could consciously create our own tradition.
The second way in which our formation is assimilated is what we call Rejected Formation. These are the attitudes or behaviours that we did not like and rejected. We purposely chose behaviours opposite to those of our parents so as not to be like them, sometimes even swinging to the opposite extreme.
A good example of this from our formation was the difficulty we had in our first year of marriage relating to ironing. Francine’s mother was an outstanding house-keeper and everything ran to a routine. Washing was done each morning, line-dried, ironed and returned to cupboards by 5pm.
Francine consciously rejected the idea of being tied to such a routine but subconsciously adopted the role that laundry was the wife’s responsibility. We still remember the mountains of washing piled on the spare bed waiting to be ironed. Every time Byron, who had been doing his own laundry for years, offered to do it, Francine objected believing that for Byron to do the ironing would be evidence of her inadequacy as a wife.
While Francine thought she had been proactively rejecting the routine of ironing from her family, she hadn’t rejected the symbolic value of ironing as an indication of her value as a wife. The internal conflict made her highly defensive and prevented open and considered conversation; with the situation hitting periodic crisis points when there were literally no clothes left in the cupboards.
Needless to say, we eventually resolved it and the laundry process in our household today resembles neither of our families of origin.
The point is, whether our formation is consciously or subconsciously adopted or rejected, in most cases, our behaviours and beliefs are not freely chosen. We either absorbed them without thought as in Adopted formation or rejected them in a kind of knee-jerk reaction as in Rejected Formation.
In Genesis, we read “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh”. (Gn 2:24)While there are layers of meaning in this line, we think it provides an important lens on this topic.
In order to ‘cling’, sometimes translated as ‘cleave’ or ‘is joined’, we must first ‘leave’ our family of origin. Leaving father and mother doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from our parents, but it does mean that we need to make our spouse and our relationship of intimacy, the centre of our affections, the focus of our purpose, the priority on our agenda.
It also means, that whatever of our past, or our formation, that doesn’t contribute to our vocation of unity, should be left behind.
Building a mature and healthy marriage requires us to approach our formation experiences, including those from our family of origin, with intentionality. We need to be open to questioning why we behave in certain ways, for what purpose we have specific values and to what benefit we believe particular things.
It’s not about whether our formation was good or bad, it’s not a commentary on the quality of our family, it’s simply that our marriages have never existed in history and so there is no ‘play book’ for them; we have to consciously create our own.
One of the most valuable practices we can adopt in regard to our marriage, is one of curiosity; a kind of open-mindedness that allows us the freedom to wonder. I wonder why I react so strongly when my spouse doesn’t do (fill in the blank) ‘properly’? I wonder where I learnt what ‘properly’ meant? I wonder what ‘properly’ looked like in my spouse’s family?
By engaging in the process of curiosity, it allows us to step out of an acting mode, into an observing one. Our inquiry allows us to bring to the surface of our consciousness the many facets of influence so that we can evaluate them.
We then have genuine choices to adopt or reject without the compulsivity that usually dictates our behaviours. We can freely choose to adopt a behaviour or attitude because we value it independently of our families. Or we can freely choose to reject it, in full or in part, in favour of an alternative behaviour or attitude.
The point is: strong marriages are built when we freely choose what is in the best interests of our marriage. Consciously adopt some aspect of your formation or reject it for the sake of each other. It’s up to you – just make sure it’s a free choice.