Your love life grew out of a lot of choices. You may have chosen a specific partner, perhaps marriage. Perhaps you have chosen to be single or decided to live in an open relationship. Whatever applies to you, you would certainly not contradict if someone told you: It was your decision. You met her quite freely.
Well, you have to be strong now. Because you weren’t quite as free and independent as you might think when making your love decisions. At least that’s what Tyler Jamison, an American psychologist and relationship expert from the University of New Hampshire, thinks.
Jamison says: There are people who greatly influence how we behave in love. These people are our parents. “We cannot become 100 percent independent of parental patterns,” explains the psychologist. “The people who raise us have a powerful influence on how we understand relationships and what role models we use when it comes to love.”
Two noticeable behavior patterns
Together with her colleague Hung Yuan Lo, the researcher has examined exactly how mothers and fathers affect the relationship behavior of their adult children. To do this, the two psychologists interviewed 35 men and women between the ages of 24 and 40. They wanted to know from them the family circumstances in which they had grown up – with married, separated or single parents, for example – how they remembered their childhood and adolescence, and what kind of love relationships they had entered into as young adults.
When they later analyzed their interviews, the researchers discovered two essential patterns in the relationship behavior of their interlocutors. Pattern one: Many respondents took their parents as role models, whether positive or negative. They either tried to behave similarly to mother or father in their relationships; or they wanted to avoid having relationships like their parents did. Pattern two: Some of the interviewees were looking almost desperately in their adult relationships for things that their parents had not given them or given them too little – security, love or confirmation, for example.
The desperate attempt to turn the childhood situation around
An example of pattern number two is Don, 39. He was spoken to by Tyler Jamison and Hung Yuan Lo for their study. Don had missed crucial things in his childhood: freedom, personal responsibility and control over his life. His mother was a “dominant, aggressive, constantly exaggerating woman,” he said. “I always felt that I had no control over my life. My mother controlled everything that happened and what I did. “
As an adult, Don no longer wanted to be the one being controlled. He wanted to control himself. Don reversed the situation he knew from childhood. Throughout his twenties and thirties, he sought out partners he could dominate. He only realized that he did that today, shortly before his 40th birthday. “There were times in my life when I was completely confused (…)”, he told the psychologists. “Then I developed relationships with people who submitted to me. This gave me the feeling of being behind the wheel myself again. “
Today is the first time Don is in an equal relationship. He says he has slowly said goodbye to the idea that he has to balance the experiences with his dominant mother in his relationships with women. Ironically, this has given him control and freedom – because he no longer tries desperately to be the stronger in his partnership.
How you break out of the parent trap
The study by Jamison and Lo says nothing about how exactly Don managed to abandon his long-established behavior pattern. But the psychologists know exactly what helps if you want to make yourself more independent of your childhood experiences in love.
A tip from Hung Yuan Lo: cultivate relationships with your friends. “In order to learn healthy behavior, people need different perspectives in their life,” says the psychologist. Friends can open these perspectives for you, give you advice and draw your attention to it if you repeatedly act according to old, harmful patterns in your love relationships. And: If you get a lot of love and support from your friends, you are no longer so dependent on a partner giving you these things. That also makes you more independent, says psychologist Lo.
Why we sometimes hold onto unhappy relationships
But it sometimes takes time to develop this independence. An example that illustrates this is 27-year-old Jessica, another Lo and Jamison interviewee. She told the researchers about her first boyfriend from school. Jessica developed a very strong bond with him and his family as a teenager. A reason she gives for this: “My own mother was never there.”
Her boyfriend’s parents in particular gave her the security that she lacked, says Jessica. “He had a great family. This is really important to me because I didn’t grow up in the best family myself. ”After breaking up with her first partner, Jessica entered into a total of two other long-term relationships with men as a young adult – in which she said she was dissatisfied but felt safe.
When she was in her mid-twenties, Jessica finally began to ask herself for the first time: What do I want from a relationship – besides the feeling of security that I wasn’t given as a child? Since then, the study says, she has only been looking for men who really suit her and who can meet all of her needs.
Self-awareness is the most important step
In the case of Jessica, too, the study authors do not write anything about what exactly caused the 27-year-old to rethink. One thing is certain: she must have recognized where her great longing for security comes from – and how this longing has repeatedly driven her into relationships with men who made her unhappy. Jessica showed me in her learning process how you can free yourself from such patterns, namely through self-awareness.
“The better someone is able to uncover problematic patterns from their own family – the better they pave the way for themselves to a healthy, happy and stable love relationship,” explains psychologist Tyler Jamison. You don’t have to face your past alone, says her colleague Hung Yuan Lo: “Seeking professional help is definitely a good way to prevent yourself from falling into toxic behavior.” So it can help if you work together work through with a therapist what shaped you as a child and what harms you today.
Focus on yourself
If you wanted to summarize the advice of the psychologists in one sentence, it would probably read: Focus on yourself. Find out what you want from a relationship; what you may only do to avoid becoming like your parents; and when you may just be looking for something in a relationship that mother and father denied you in your childhood. If you have clarified these questions for yourself, it increases your chances of a fulfilled and above all self-determined love life.
In order to be able to worry about all of this undisturbed, it can be beneficial to stay single for a while and even stop dating. Some of the study participants reported that such a break helped them see a lot more clearly.
And by the way: Orienting yourself to your parents and their behavior in relationships – in whatever way – does not mean always something bad. “Our results show that parents convey both positive and negative messages about romantic relationships,” says psychologist Tyler Jamison. “The important thing is that young adults think carefully about what their own relationships should be – and make their decisions accordingly.” No one, she says, is doomed to repeat patterns that they have learned in their families.