"Yes, Mother!" Joe said sarcastically when Sally, his wife, asked him to pick up his dirty clothes from their bedroom floor.

"You’re just like my dad, interested only in your game on TV!" Paula muttered to Ron when he ignored her third call to dinner.

Did Joe and Paula purposely select a spouse who was like one of their parents? Probably not, but some shared traits likely had a subconscious appeal. That shouldn’t be a surprise. An opposite-sex parent is usually our first and most significant model of a spouse, teaching us behaviours and attitudes that follow us into adulthood. Mom taught Joe to leave his dirty clothes wherever he took them off until directed to pick them up. Dad trained Paula to get dinner on the table, then wait for halftime.

Your parents and their oft-rehearsed behaviours can invade your marriage in many ways. Getting free from those mostly subconscious patterns may be the healthiest way you can grow in oneness.

Spotting similarities

One useful approach is writing a timeline. Both you and your spouse can make a chronological history of memorable events – positive and negative – in your marriage. As you share your timelines, identify what each event meant to you and how you felt.

You probably won’t recall the same events but will begin to see some patterns. The events will highlight knee-jerk responses each of you had. As you examine the patterns, try to determine where you learned those responses. You might see your mom, dad and even grandparents lurking in the shadows.

Changing the pattern

Once you’ve identified harmful parental patterns in your marriage, it’s important to reprogram old beliefs and behaviours. This is more easily said than done, however, because those attitudes and automatic responses were acquired over many years. They have the comfort of familiarity. To overcome those familiar patterns, a couple must be intentional about relating to one another in new ways.

John and Cindy realized that they were replaying the old family tapes of stuffing feelings and avoiding conflict. Cindy felt abandoned and unloved. John felt disrespected and impotent when faced with Cindy’s anger. But for both of them, conflict seemed dangerous. So the anger was bottled up until their next disagreement. This resolved nothing.

Once they clearly saw how they were repeating the patterns their parents had modelled, they readily agreed to find a better way. They began to talk about their individual perceptions of events and their desire for resolution. They discovered that their relationship was strong enough to survive disagreements and that the fear of conflict had been unnecessary.

Unexpected likeness

Sam and his wife, Lynn, were going through some old photo albums with dinner guests. Their friend, Janet, said, "Where did you take that picture of Lynn? It looks really old-fashioned."

"Which picture?" Sam asked.

When Janet pointed to a faded shot of a young woman in capri pants, Sam and Lynn both did a double take. It did look like Lynn. Her dark hair and eyes, the shape of her face and fullness of her lips, her smile. But the woman who looked like Sam’s wife was holding Sam when he was 10-months-old. They had never realized how much Lynn looked like Sam’s mother!

Sam had felt an instant attraction to Lynn when he met her, but neither of them had recognized the striking similarity because Sam’s mom had died during his childhood.

Moving toward intimacy

It isn’t rare that we marry someone who has qualities of a parent – appearance, behaviour or tastes. The similarities can be negative like Nancy and Bob’s conflict or positive like Sam’s finding a girl "just like the girl who married dear ol’ Dad." Both negative and positive features are familiar and fit into the patterns we know so well. That’s why those attractions frequently remain subconscious.

Without old negative patterns getting in the way, you’ll enjoy a closer relationship with your spouse. Celebrate the healthy ways your parents’ attributes attracted you to each other. When you say, "You’re just like your mother (or father)," let it be an expression of praise.

Louis McBurney was the founder of Marble Retreat Worldwide, which provided counselling for clergy and missionaries at the time of publication.

© 2008 Louis McBurney. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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