When Our Parents Relationship Affects Us
Most of us have encountered family difficulties in our lives. Sometimes those difficulties stem from behavior we observe in our parents: parents with unhealthy relationship dynamics, absentee parents, difficult divorces. Simply put: Not all parents are able to set a healthy relationship example. I often hear about these challenges from my clients.
My client Janna's* parents had a tumultuous and unstable relationship. They argued, made up, argued again, made up, and so forth. This created a volatile environment in Janna's home.
"My father was an alcoholic and he was abusive, which caused a lot of fear and instability. It was like they were constantly going round and round in that honeymoon phase. They would fight, my father would say he would change, they would get all lovey-dovey, and then he would abuse again. It was a horrendous cycle, and I was constantly in fear."
"On top of that, I would watch movies where people would be in toxic relationships, or I'd hear songs about abusive love, and those would perpetuate this idea that real love was what I saw from my parents and in the media."
Growing up in an abusive environment also caused feelings of shame and self-blame in Janna. These are typical emotions for children who have grown up in abusive households. They've grown up feeling like they are somehow responsible for the abuse their parent or parents inflicted.
"It's almost like I'm used to fear being there. I'm used to blame and shame being there because I always felt that I was doing something wrong and that I was responsible. I've realized throughout this journey that fear has been strangely comfortable, and for the first time, I'm really realizing that I don't have to carry this fear around me all the time."
Not only was Janna used to feeling fear, blame, and shame, but she also became accustomed to the constant ups and downs of her parents' relationship. She believed this to be an example of what love truly was. And thus, Janna learned a toxic version of love—she learned that love was a rollercoaster, a recipe for dissatisfaction and suffering.
Janna's understanding of love derived from media she'd seen and examples she had grown accustomed to living with. If you grew up in a chaotic family environment, you may experience confusion or fear when you find a relationship that is free of such chaos. To you, a healthy relationship might feel foreign, strange, and uncomfortable—it is the opposite of what you are used to, and you may feel as though something is "wrong." "Why can't I feel comfortable? Why is there constant fear? Why can't I just learn to trust and be okay with this relationship?" The same thoughts occur in people who've been in unhealthy romantic relationships in the past.
What does this mean? First and foremost, it means we have to take a good, honest look at ourselves and the relationships that we grew up observing. Did our parents have a healthy relationship? Was your sibling in an unhealthy relationship as you grew up? Were you raised in an environment where you were responsible for taking care of your family? Were you abandoned as a child, and do you fear abandonment in relationships as an adult? Were you a child of an alcoholic?
For most of us, starting to ask ourselves these questions is a journey in discovering ourselves, and in discovering what love truly is.
The beauty in all this is the revelation that you are not your parents. We all hold subconscious and unconscious fears that our relationships may one day emulate those of our parents. In our hearts we fear becoming our parents' suffering. But: You are not your parents. And the fact that you are going through this self-discovery is a blessing as you work to build your own, healthy, satisfying, and entirely unique relationship.
Second: If you've grown up in an unhealthy or toxic household environment, then it is important to understand your own trauma—your wounds and your pain—before projecting onto your romantic relationships. You have the right to choose actions different from those of your parents' choices. You are not your mother; you are not your father. You are separate from them.
Third: Understanding what love truly is. That love isn't built on constant feelings of fulfillment, passion, deep lust, and excitement. A healthy relationship is not toxic. We must understand that these false expectations that have been impressed upon us since childhood. We've grown up with lies from the media, creating a false sense of expectation, and we've grown up shocked to find none of it was real. We must start to really, truly, deeply question what we've been led to believe.
Our partners can't fulfill us; there is no "The One." We are responsible for our own happiness. Love isn't based on feeling alone—it is also a choice. And sometimes, my friend, love and relationships are really, really fucking hard. Why? Because they bring out our wounds, pain, and trauma that we've carried since childhood and teenage years. We are baring these struggles in our relationships in order to heal, and we must be compassionate to ourselves in the process. This is a journey of unraveling your own trauma and your own pain as it rises up to heal.
Would you be kind toward another individual, child, or your own child who was going through their traumas and pains?
You are no different from this individual, so stop making those excuses.
Ultimately, we are responsible for our own happiness, excitement, passion, and peace. And although that can feel scary, you are ahead of so many people in recognizing this before years of divorce, betrayal, and suffering. Many individuals reach their fifth divorce before they start to actually question what love is. And if you're young—great, you're even more ahead of the game! Perhaps, this is all a blessing in disguise.
*Client's name has been changed for privacy.