The young couple sitting opposite us had been married only a few years. They were experiencing some health challenges, but this is not what brought them to us; they were locked in a perpetual low-grade argument that never seemed to end. They were so ‘wired’, almost every word, glance, gesture or action by one would trigger the other, and the cycle of dysfunctional interaction would continue. It was stealing their joy and causing them great frustration.
The first years of marriage are always challenging as couples work out how to manage their many differences. Lurking the background is an often-unnoticed intruder; differential expectations and influences from their family of origin.
These influences have nothing to do with parents who are over-involved or interfering which is obviously unhelpful for any new couple struggling to establish their own identity.
Rather these influences are much more pervasive and is evident in every marriage through historical experiences dating back to early childhood of each spouse. These things make them who they are and deeply impact both their conscious and subconscious expectations about what it means to be a husband or wife.
Much of this early formation and the resulting influences are positive, however we scarcely notice these because they don’t cause problems. For the influences that do cause grief, some marriages will learn to tolerate it, some will collapse under its weight, and some will successfully process it so that the negative impact is mitigated.
Our family of origin formation impacts numerous aspects of our lives from personality, values, academic and intellectual pursuits as well as our relationships. In terms of our marriages, two areas of particular importance are the model of marriage to which we were exposed and the direct experience in relationship we had with each parent.
Model of Marriage
The Models of Marriage formation occurred simply by what we observed happening between married couples in our lives.
The way our mother and father interacted together in our family home, whether it was healthy or dysfunctional, formed us in important areas such as male and female roles, patterns of expressing romance and affection, resolving differences, money values and sexual behaviours, to name a few.
While we were exposed to many different ‘marital’ relationships in our childhood, including those of extended family and friends, the most significant influence is usually our parents. This is true even if we were raised in a single parent family, or our parents never married. The way they interacted with other, or the way they interacted with other romantic partners, was observed by our young minds and subconscious assumptions were made.
For the couple now sitting in our lounge room, the wife’s parents had an avoidant argument style and she rarely witnessed them arguing in her childhood. She had concluded that ‘noisy’ arguments were a sign of impending breakup and to be avoided at all costs.
Her husband on the other hand came from family with more vocal disagreements, and he was inclined to engage vigorously in discussion when something upset him. He had learned to assert himself and to expect his needs to be accommodated.
Every time he raised his voice or got agitated, it triggered panic and insecurity in her. She reacted with extreme compliance to pacify him, even though she disagreed with his perspective.
Subsequently, she would complain and criticise him to her parents and revoke her position because she had never been fully committed to it in the first place. This triggered the husband who felt undermined and shamed and that his in-laws were interfering by sympathising with their daughter.
The dynamic had eroded their trust making it impossible for them to deal constructively with the challenge of their likely permanent infertility.
For this couple to progress, they needed to evaluate their reactions so that they could more clearly recognise their formation influences and make conscious decisions about how they would manage their marriage going forward.
They also needed to commit to establishing healthy boundaries with the parents and the wife needed to find an alternative source of support that could coach her towards unity in the marriage rather than confirming a dysfunctional inclination.
Experience in Relationship
The second key pattern of our formation came by way of direct experience. In other words, this is the formation we received through the direct relationships we ourselves had with others.
The most significant of these in terms of our sexuality, is our relationship with our parent of the other sex. So for wives it is the relationship with her father and for husbands it is the relationship with his mother.
Our parent of the other sex is the most significant man or woman in our childhood and the way that we interacted primed us for our relationship with our future spouse. This was the relationship in which we essentially ‘practiced’ for relationships with the other sex and so it is very influential in terms of forming our expectations and behaviours in our marriages.
It has long been recognised by psychologists that we tend to be attracted to a person for our future spouse who relates to us in a similar way to our parent of the other sex. So for example, if a man’s mother was inclined to indulge him with unwarranted praise, he will subconsciously be attracted to a woman who replicates this relationship pattern.
Other relationships in our history also played a part in forming us. For example, our parent of the same sex had an obvious impact in the subtle or overt messages they gave us about being a husband or wife.
And then there are siblings, grandparents, friends, teachers, coaches, and previous romantic partners – they all play a role in our formation experience and an examination of these relationships can shed a great deal of light on present behaviours that may be negatively impacting our marriage.
For example, one of our colleagues experienced an attempted sexual assault at age ten by a local teenager. While she fended off the attack by immediate kicking and screaming, it none-the-less left a deep impact on her character going on to adopt a boyish defiance, resisting feminine interests and committing herself to martial arts. Even though in her adult years she was able to name this influence, she opted to maintain this pattern as she suffered crippling anxiety when she felt physically vulnerable.
The point is, there is a great deal to learn from patterns replicated from our childhood experiences. These replicating patterns provide us with a surface marker that indicates something important happening beneath the surface. When you find a marker, take some time to dig around to expose the formation factor.
Once you have a window onto your formation like this, you can begin the process of deconstructing its impact so that you can make a free choice about its ongoing influence in your marriage and in your life.