Modern dating is fraught with challenges in this fast-paced, technology-fueled world, but no matter how chaotic our schedules are or what obstacles life throws in our path, we all drop everything in the name of love. Because as John Lennon said, "love is all you need." But how you give and receive it is greatly influenced and shaped by one or two very important people in your life: your parents. In fact, Rebecca Bergen, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Bergen Counseling Center in Chicago, told MyDomaine that our first experience with this emotion is with our parents, and those early years set the bar for how we see, give, and receive love, and what we want out of relationships later in our lives.
"I do believe that how emotionally available our parents were influenced the type of attachment we formed with them," she says. "Attachment theory suggests that we create an internal working model of our parents that we later internalize as our own sense of self. This attachment style also affects how we experience ourselves, and in turn how we are in relationships." Ahead, Bergen explains how our childhood experiences provide a model for our adult relationships, what we can do to break a negative cycle, and how we can raise the next generation.
MYDOMAINE: How do our childhood experiences provide the models for our adult relationships?
REBECCA BERGEN: I am going to focus on how our romantic relationships are influenced by our childhood experiences. Our parents' relationship is our first and most influential example of how to interact and communicate in a romantic relationship. The way in which love was shown between parents is influential on the child. Children will model and emulate the ways their parents show love to one another. Also, how love was expressed to the child is also significant. For example, love may be expressed with playfulness, hugs, words of admiration, affection reserved for birthdays and special occasions, or not at all. We will oftentimes see similar patterns in the way love was expressed between one's parents and how they show love to a partner as an adult.
The ways in which anger and conflict were managed in our family of origin also play a large factor in how we communicate with adult romantic partners. Whether or not a person tends to express their emotions more openly or tends to hold emotions in, especially negative emotions, oftentimes parallels how their parents communicated with each other and with the child. For example, conflict may be dealt with in the family by talking openly and assertively or by not talking about it and perhaps expressing the negative emotion in passive aggressive ways. Alternatively, conflict may be expressed in direct yet verbally aggressive ways (e.g., yelling or name-calling). Styles of communication are often formed by observation and direct experience of our primary role models in childhood. John Gottman, Ph.D., has found that poor conflict management is the number one predictor of divorce in couples.
MD: Is there one parent who impacts this experience more than the other? For example, I read that the relationship you have with your opposite-sex parent predicts the kind of relationships you'll have with boyfriends or girlfriends in adulthood. Can you explain/elaborate on this idea?
RB: I believe they affect us in different ways. Same-sex parents serve as a model for our own behavior and opposite sex parents are projected into potential partners. This also works in reverse, in the sense that we may search for the opposite of a father who was stoic and uninvolved. Another example, a person may be hyper vigilant to criticism and argue frequently with partners because their same-sex parent had difficulty advocating for themselves and became a "doormat" in the relationship. We tend to want to emulate our parent's relationship when it is perceived as healthy and positive.
MD: Do you have any advice on how we can raise our children to enhance their future relationships?
RB: Honestly, there are entire sections of bookstores dedicated to this topic, so the answer to this question is going to be lacking in many ways. Children learn by observation, instruction, and experience. So we need to—
1. Be a model for who you want them to be in the way you express love, anger, hurt, joy, etc., both toward them but also toward your partner.
2. Teach them how to express their feelings starting early. Encourage children to "use their words" rather than their behaviors only to express how they are feeling. Provide children's books that teach about expressing feelings and setting boundaries in relationships. These can be simple when they are very young, and get more complex as they age. One that we have for our sons is The Way I Feel Sometimes by Bernice Schenk. Also teach them to set boundaries in their relationships early on as well. Help them to both show empathy for others but also know when and how to let someone know they have hurt their feelings and request that they not do the hurtful behavior again.
3. Show them unconditional love with boundaries for behavior. This is so key! Love your children unconditionally and express love to them in multiple ways. Help them to understand that there are acceptable and unacceptable behaviors and that certain behaviors have positive or negative consequences, but whatever behaviors they exhibit they are still loved and there is always an opportunity for growth in the mistakes they make. Teach them about learning from their mistakes and growing.
I am a big fan of Gottman's work, not only with helping romantic relationships thrive but also in how to raise children to enhance their future relationships. I suggest every parent read his book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.
MD: How can we alter, change, or improve our current relationships now to break a bad habit we were raised with and our parents modeled to us?
RB: Change starts with self-awareness! Start to identify where patterns of communication, thoughts, and feelings originate. Reflect on your childhood and try to remember the patterns you had in interacting with your parents. How was love expressed? How was conflict dealt with? How were negative emotions expressed or not expressed? Therapy is a great tool for this process. Problematic reactions and behaviors can oftentimes be traced to unhealthy parental interactions. External messages from our families about communication, self-worth, and a host of other issues become internalized and assimilated into our own thoughts.
A question I ask many of my clients is Whose voice is that? Your adult voice of what you think and believe, or does it come from somewhere or someone else? If one's parents are still living, we can also start to notice how we interact with our parents now, and then see how those patterns may be playing out in our romantic relationships. After we become aware of our patterns, learning about other ways of interacting is key, and then applying those new ways is imperative. This part is difficult! It may help to work with a therapist either in couples therapy or individual therapy. I recommend all my clients read Gottman's book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and/or The Relationship Cure is good for examining multiple types of relationships.
MD: I read that children who grow up with functional bonding will have a secure attachment style as adults. Can you explain or elaborate on what this means and how we as parents can encourage or foster this?
RB: Groundbreaking research in the 1960s and 1970s by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth assisted in our understanding of attachment theory. Since their work, many psychological researchers have examined the different ways secure and various forms of insecure attachments with our parents affect our attachment styles as adults. If parents showed love, responded to our needs, and validated our feelings, then we were more likely to develop a secure attachment style. We then seek out and desire that same attachment style as an adult.
If we had an insecure attachment develop with our parents, then we may have a fragmented sense of self, which may lead to low self-esteem, anxiety in relationships, doubt that we can trust others, and sometimes being more apt to seek out relationships that mimic this same attachment—not because it feels good but because it is familiar to us. A book recommendation for helping clients understand more about how attachment style can influence our romantic relationships is Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson. She is the author of Emotion Focused Couples Therapy and draws from attachment research to help couples strengthen their bonds. There is a lot out there about attachment theory that you can research.
MD: What advice do you have for those of us who keep mirroring the "family culture" we were raised with which continues to negatively impact our love life?
RB: 1. Read books by John Gottman. Learn about the different patterns that lead to positive relationship outcomes and those that lead to negative relationship outcomes. Particularly start to learn about healthy ways to manage conflict and better ways to emotionally connect with your partner.
2. Journal and increase your self-awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in your relationship. Compare what you are noticing with the ways your parents interacted with you and interacted with each other. Also if you notice that something was missing in your relationship with your parents, reflect on whether or not you are seeking to find it in your current relationship.
3. Work on trying out new ways of being in your current relationship. Gottman outlines specific behaviors you can work on in your relationships such as asking more in-depth questions about your partner, turning toward your partner when he or she makes attempts to connect with you, and expressing yourself assertively when you are hurt by your partner. See Gottman for more of his suggestions.
4. If you continue to find it difficult to break these patterns, therapy may be necessary. A trained therapist can help you to identify these patterns and explore the roadblocks to implementing new patterns.
Do you agree that your relationship with your parents impacts your love life now?
For more information or to seek further counsel, visit Bergen Counseling Center. To speak with someone, please call Lifeline: 888-641-8722.