We remember sitting with a young couple who were locked in combat. She was prone to reactive outbursts and he was mystified as to what he was doing to trigger it. As we probed her on her family of origin the penny dropped; she was repeating a relationship pattern that she had established with her mother.
With this new insight, the couple was able to identify her conflict preconditions which equipped her husband to avoid triggering her and enabled her to work on resolving them. They were able to make choices about how they wanted to craft their relationship and break the intergenerational pattern of dysfunctional relating.
Our formative relationship experiences in childhood are powerfully influential in the expectations, values and relationship habits we bring to our marriage. We all come to marriage with mental images of what is expected of each other as husband and wife, of ourselves and of our responsibilities as parents.
While dating and friendships also impact our formation, the most powerful influence is our family of origin, because it was our earliest influence. Our experience of healthy or unhealthy attachment in our yearly years sets the foundation from which all subsequent experiences are interpreted.
In a field known as ‘attachment theory’, the formation of secure attachment between the child and his parents from the earliest years equips that child with the emotional capacity to manage the need for intimate belonging with healthy independence as an adult. The role of the family, especially the parents, is thus highly significant to the child’s future.
The attitudes and behaviours we learnt in our childhood family are often subconscious, but they none-the-less have a powerful impact on our marriage many years later. This is one of the reasons why a review of family of origin is considered a basic component of any marriage preparation course: it helps couples recognise their conscious and subconscious assumptions so that they can make intentional choices about how they want to live their marriage.
But it’s not just valuable for engaged couples – we have personally found that examining our formation to be a fruitful exercise at many stages of our marriage.
We liken it to discovering an attic in our home that is full of treasures and mementoes from our past. It’s a repository of information about our ancestors that sheds light onto the personalities and interactions we encountered in our childhood.
As we journey through different stages of our life, dormant formation experiences emerge without us realising it. Somehow, we ‘knew’ how to parent without formal instruction. For better, or perhaps worse, our ‘knowing’ was an accumulation of our subconscious formation experiences of being parented and of observing our parents.
No doubt, as we approach grandparenthood later this year, there will be another flurry of formation discoveries through which we will need to sift. We anticipate visiting that metaphorical attic again as we work out how to be the grandparents we want to be, as opposed to simply emulating the patterns of our own parents and grandparents.
Knowing we can wander into that dusty old attic gives us a method for consciously understanding and processing our formation at any stage of life.
It’s important to remember however, that a formation review is not about judging or condemning our parents or their relationship. It’s about understanding who we are and how our formation continues to play out over the course of our marriage.
As children or teenagers, with inadequate knowledge of the details of our parent’s life, we could only interpret what we observed or experienced and incorporate that into our own belief system. Our perspective was our reality, our truth, but not necessarily the objective reality of what was actually happening around us.
To give an illustration; one day our eight-year-old son at the time declared that “daddies don’t cry!”. He was speaking with the authority of his experience: he had never witnessed his father cry. That was his reality, his formation, irrespective of what the real situation was.
So when diving into a formation review, keep in mind that what actually forms us is our perspective of events, which is always limited and rarely an accurate understanding of the full truth of the situation.
This is a fundamentally important mindset to take to the process.
Part of what makes a review of our formation effective is giving ourselves the permission to freely examine every assumption we have made about our parent’s marriage and relationships. We can do this confidently when we ground it in the understanding that we are evaluating and critiquing our interpretations rather than judging our parents or other family members.
Our marriage, and yours, is unique. This combination has never existed before and what worked for our parents won’t necessarily work for us. We need to consciously and intentionally find our own way to be the husband and wife God calls us to be for each other. This is even more true for those of us who experienced family breakdown or were raised outside of a healthy marriage.
In recognising that many of our values and beliefs of what is ‘right and normal’ in marriage arises from our past formation experiences, we take the first step towards a more intentional marriage, a marriage that can be responsive to the vision that God has for us.
And so a review of our formation is really an exercise in freedom; freedom to live and love the way we choose, wilfully and without the undue influence of subconscious behaviours.
It brings those subconscious compulsions and beliefs to the surface where we can evaluate them and freely change them if required.
It empowers us to rewrite the pictures in our mind of how marriage is supposed to be, to ones which are consciously and intentionally chosen.
History may repeat, but with greater awareness of our formation, it doesn’t have to.