Funny feeling the man you’ve started dating will get along a bit too well with your father? Married a woman and halfway through a fight it hits you that she is acting just like your mother?
One of the things that can often come up in therapy and couples counselling is the realisation that we have married or are dating someone who is just like one of our parents. It can feel a shock to the system and leave us dealing with a sense of embarrassment and shame.
But it shouldn’t. It’s inevitable that in one way or another we all choose partners like our mother or father. Our parents (or guardians if that is the case) were, after all, the role models we had for learning how to survive in the world. The family unit is where we learn our value system, how to relate to others, and our definition of what love is. If our parents had strong values and a long happy relationship, it’s more likely we’ll seek that from partners. The trouble comes, of course, when we are dating someone like our parents because there was a difficulty or trauma in our childhood with one of our parents that we have carried into adulthood.
What is it we might unconsciously seek in partners that replicates our parents?
1) We might seek similar physical traits.
If Dad had a round smiling face, that might be what we seek in a man. If our mother was pleasantly plump, we might be attracted to curvaceous women. This isn’t often a problem. It’s mostly down to the science of attraction or ‘sexual imprinting’, and it’s not even limited to humans- a study done at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge found that sheep raised with goat mothers preferred goats at adulthood and goats raised with sheep mothers preferred sheep at adulthood.
2) We might choose similar personality markers.
If one of our parents had a great sense of humour, we might be attracted to partners with one. Of course it can be a negative trait too- if we grew up with an angry controlling parent, then this can be a character trait we choose in partners despite ourselves. And this can definitely be a problem, leading into the next point-
2) We often unconsciously choose a partner who replicates the ROLE we had with our mother or father.
The cliché that heterosexual men date women like their mothers, and heterosexual women choose men who are like their fathers, might hold true with physical traits and basic personality traits. But when it comes to the deeper patterns from our parents we are replicating within our romantic relationships- the ones that left unchecked can have us attracted to relationships that do us more harm than good- it has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with roles.
It’s the strongest role we played with a parent, the one that had the biggest effect on our sense of self, that we tend to repeat with our romantic partners. For example, if a little girl grew up with a mother who was always sad and the girl’s main role in the family was to be the joker always cheering Mother up, then that is the role she might seek to play with a partner. She will seek someone who is moody and make it her job to cheer him up, even if it leaves her depleted and feeling trapped. If a little boy had a father who constantly picked on him and blamed him for everything, he might choose a spouse who also makes him the scapegoat.
3) We seek the pain (or pleasure) we felt as a child.
If we constantly felt shamed, judged, or rejected by a parent, there’s a good chance we’ll seek a partner that shames, judges, or rejects us. Of course if we always felt unconditionally loved by a parent, that would be what we would look for in our partner.
But WHY would we choose a partner who replicates pain?
Why would we date a partner who was angry like our father? Controlling like our mother? Why would we marry someone who puts us in the same unhappy role that our parent did- the caretaker, the punching bag, the needy one? How can that make any sense?
Unfortunately, humans are creatures of habit. We tend to seek out what we are used to, our ‘comfort zone’, even if it’s something that makes us deeply unhappy. Most of the time this is not even a conscious choice, we just unconsciously gravitate to what we know. That is why therapy is so important- it gives us an outside perspective that can gently help us see ourselves in a new way. After all, we can’t change patterns in our lives if we can’t even see them.
We are also drawn to feel love, and we sometimes mistake the painful pattern for love. As a child we naturally want to love and be loved by our parents. If one of them has done something like shame or reject us we can take that shame or rejection on board as a form of love- we don’t know any better or have anything to compare it to. And we then can grow into adults who seek partners we think love us but actually shame and reject us.
We might be trying to heal ourselves. It is a theory that as humans we have an inbuilt drive to heal. That we keep repeating things until we get it right. There are of course many better ways to heal ourselves then put ourselves on an endless cycle of pain, therapy being one of them.
How can you tell if your relationship is just a childhood pattern on repeat?
Look back at where you felt rejected as a child.Did one of your parents abandon you? Was one of them never around, or unavailable due to an addiction to alcohol, drugs, affairs or overwork? Have you carried that rejection into adult relationships?
Look at what your parents did that made you feel shamed. Did your mother nag? Was your father constantly telling you you were annoying? Then look at your relationships. Are you replicating these patterns?
Try to identify your role(s) in your family unit. Were you the family clown? Why did you feel you needed to be funny? Were you the logical one, always making peace? Can you find those patterns in your present relationship?
(Of course you can also look at the good things from your childhood and match them to your relationships.)
So how does one stop a difficult “parent pattern”?
Forget about blame.
There is no point in turning to either your present partner or your parent and picking fights or wanting them to offer up answers. Although it can temporarily feel good to pass responsibility to someone else, the truth is that we are the only ones who can change things in our lives and blaming others just causes more upset to deal with. We can’t control the actions of others, but we can choose our own actions, and choose ones that move us toward wholeness and happiness instead of more drama and pain.
For those of us who have had hard childhoods it can be very easy to paint everything as horrible and get caught up in being a victim. The truth is that every childhood had some good moments, and taking time to recognise the positive things that happened and the strengths we gained from our parental relationship can be freeing. It can also help to remember that our parents were once children themselves, suffering their own set of issues with a mother and father.
A lot of patterning we replicate from childhood with our partners involves shame and rejection and these two things are not easy to deal with by ourselves. It’s in fact common to tell ourselves we have ‘figured it all out’ and ‘are fine now’ just so we can replicate the unhealthy pattern with another partner- shame and rejection can in their own way be quite addictive. Remember that a good therapist has the added benefit of giving you the experience of a trustworthy relationship that you might never have found with a parent.
But is it really worth making the comparison between your partner and your parents?
Unresolved issues with our parents can leave us unable to see if our parents have changed and grown over the years like we have. Dealing with our childhood patterns can sometimes allow us to finally have an adult relationship with our parents. It can also stop us from passing the same unhappy issue we had with our parent on to our child. Things like shame, rejection, and abuse run through generations, and you can choose to end the cycle.
And ultimately, dealing with any unresolved drama with your parents leaves you free to see partners for who they are, instead of what pain they trigger within you. This allows you to be available for a mature and fulfilling relationship at last.
Are you married to a ‘parent replica’ or dating one? Have an experience or advice you’d like to share? Join the conversation below, we love your comments!