He’s the son of an alcoholic, she’s the daughter of a Holocaust survivor — can this marriage be saved?
In my case, no, but why should our familial backgrounds even matter? Because they do, a lot.
Never mind all the people who want to blame the high divorce rate on commitment, more specifically a lack of an understanding of what commitment means. How many times have you read that women divorce because they’re unhappy or aren’t being fulfilled (and because women initiate two-thirds of the divorces in the States, we’re an easy scapegoat even though those divorce requests are often in response to a husband’s “misbehavior,” according to the National Marriage Project)?
I don’t doubt that some people don’t have a good grasp of commitment. And I don’t doubt that some women do file for divorce because they’re “unhappy” or someone’s having an affair. But I don’t believe that’s behind most splits, the ones that are because of “irreconcilable differences.” Sometimes we just marry someone who isn’t the best match for us. But why?
Maybe we can blame it on the Pill. A 2008 U.K. study found that contraceptives can make a woman desire the “wrong” man, a men whose genetic makeup is similar to hers when a better partner is one whose genetic makeup is different. Once she gets off the Pill, maybe because they want to start a family, it can cause troubles — like a sexless or sex-starved marriage. According to Rachel Herz, author of “The Scent of Desire” and a faculty member at Brown University, marriage counselors have told her that many wives who are no longer sexually interested in their husbands just don’t like the way he smells and, “if you can’t stand how someone smells, you cannot become intimate.”
Or maybe we end up with a wrong fit because, despite our doubts about him or her, we forge ahead with marriage anyway. At least that’s what “How Not to Marry the Wrong Guy” co-author Jennifer Gauvain found, and her article in the Huffington Post on her discovery that 30 percent of divorced women knew they were marrying the wrong guy on their wedding day got a lot of people upset.
But perhaps the bigger reason we end up with someone who isn’t right for us is not because of him or her but because of us. Each of us brings some bad stuff to the marital table, thanks to the patterns and behaviors we learned from our family of origin — meaning our parents. And unless we’re in an arranged marriage — and most of us are not — we choose our partners. Shouldn’t we hold ourselves accountable for that?
Although I read a little (too little, in retrospect) about adult children of alcoholics’ behavior, I read nothing about how having a parent who was a Holocaust survivor impacts a child. There are volumes written about it, and had I read them I would have had a better understanding not only of my mother’s behaviors but also how they influenced me, and boy did they!
We’re all influenced by our family-of-origin experiences and we bring them into our relationships whether we want to or not. A lot of it is subconscious. We even tend to marry people who look a lot like our mom or dad.
As psychology professor and head of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver Howard Markman says, “Marriage has a unique ability to tap into emotional issues from the families of origin.”
Our ideas about what adults behave like and what adult relationships look like were shaped by our parents, our first teachers. It isn’t really so much that women want to marry someone like dear old dad or men desire a woman like their mom — or, if they had a bad relationship with mom or dad, someone who’s the complete opposite. It’s more that we internalize messages, patterns and behaviors from our parents and if we don’t understand what those are — keeping what we like and discarding what what we don’t — then we are pretty much doomed to repeat them in our relationships.
This is not to say that we should point our fingers at our parents for screwing up our relationships. Hardly. After all, our parents were once children, too, wanting from their parents what we wanted from them — unconditional love and acceptance. If anything, understanding family patterns and behaviors allows us to have compassion and forgiveness for them.
That was the message of the Hoffman Process, the weeklong intensive program I went to as my marriage was breaking up. It was life-changing because I finally understood how my mother’s and father’s behaviors, many of which I brought into my own love relationships, impacted me — and not in the best ways.
If we truly want to avoid a partner who isn’t right for us, we need to understand ourselves better. And that means delving into what we learned from our parents. As cliche as it can sound, one saying — slightly tweaked — is pretty much spot-on when it comes to divorce: “It’s not just you, it’s also me.”
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