Did You Marry Your Parent?

It doesn’t happen literally; that would be illegal in most states, I think. But, it can happen in spirit – and more often than many people think: actually being in a relationship with someone who has certain physical or personality traits similar to one of their parents. The qualities usually favor one parent over the other, not a combination of both.

  • A woman might seek out a partner whose looks or behavior are reminiscent of her father, while a man may look for a partner with characteristics that resemble his mother.
  • One can also “marry” their same sex parent regardless of their sexual orientation. Often, the quality of the dominant parent will stand out in what you are looking for in a partner.

This phenomenon might seem logical if one comes from a healthy family upbringing, where a loving, close relationship existed with one’s parents. Mirroring our early experiences in this way actually does make some sense. The most basic explanation is that we are attracted to, and want to be with, people who are familiar and comfortable to us. The common sentiment, “I feel like I’ve known you for years/all my life,” early on in a relationship is a good reflection of this aforementioned familiarity and comfort.

Interestingly, even when someone has a dysfunctional or even traumatic relationship with one or both parents, seeking a partner with a consistent dysfunctional dynamic occurs as well, and perhaps even more often. When we have a difficult relationship with a parent, we are pulled, usually unconsciously, into this painful dynamic again in order to try to correct or master the situation.

Being exposed and pulled back into dysfunctional relationships can become cyclical — it can occur repeatedly. For example, someone with an alcoholic parent will end up with a partner who has some type of addiction. Stereotypically, girls with an absent or emotionally distant father often marry a partner who doesn’t prioritize them, and children raised with emotional or physical abuse will marry an abusive partner. The less obvious explanation for reenacting our past is that it’s a psychological compulsion whose purpose is to work through, gain power over, or heal the previous wound.

An important point to remember is that regardless of our family background, the less conscious we are of its influence on our partner selection, the greater the potential for the relationship to be unhealthy.

Here are some general guidelines to promote a healthier relationship, and to help reflect on how our parental relationships may have influenced our choice of partner:

  • Don’t foolishly commit to a relationship before real-life situations are experienced in resolving conflict. Is there healthy conflict?
  • Discuss important life issues early in the relationship, rather than after the fact. Do you both want kids? Handle finances the same? Are you ignoring red flags?
  • Try to get to know each other’s family and friends as well as possible. Look at the dynamics in the relationships. Is there pain or dysfunction that you can identify? How is conflict handled? If one is aware of unhealthy relationships with parents, then it becomes more critical to be aware of unhealthy traits, and it’s very important to be on the lookout for them.

For couples who are already married, it is helpful to examine some of the sensitivities each partner brings to the relationship. If one area or issue is a frequent sensitive spot, consider: Does our difficulty here have to do with my upbringing/relationship to my parents? Closer introspection might reveal “Oh, this topic/my reaction reminds me of when my mother/father did this…” Some couples can navigate a sensitive issue and it’s not too big a deal; for others, the impact can be significant.

While “marrying a parent” is not always problematic, take a look at problem areas in your relationship and evaluate whether the cause could possibly be tied to memorable qualities you recognize in your parents.

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