If you grew up in a family with secrets, unhealthy coping mechanisms and indirect ways of relating to one another, you may be drawn to the same sorts of behavior in romantic partners. For many of us, what is comfortable in a relationship is often what is familiar — even if that means dysfunction.

A dysfunctional family, at its core, involves destructive and harmful parenting regardless of the intent of the parent. The dysfunction can occur because of abuse or neglect since both do significant harm to the child. Common patterns in dysfunctional families include:

  • Alcohol or substance abuse. When a substance becomes the primary focus for a parent, the children take a backseat to cravings and denial. Because alcohol and drugs impair functioning not only when the person is using, but when they are waiting for the substance, their behavior is often unpredictable. The sober members of the family take part in different roles revolving around the addict. Some of these roles include ‘the caretaker’, ‘the scapegoat’, and ‘the enabler’.
  • Domestic violence. Children who witness physical abuse or are physically abused themselves may have a skewed perception of their own worth. Children are inclined to believe the negative assessment of their primary caregiver(s). As adults they may find themselves attracted to abusive partners who hold them to the same unrealistic expectations and dole out harsh criticism.
  • Pawning. When a child is used by one parent to manipulate the other, the child can find themselves in a real life chess game. Their ability to think independently may be underdeveloped. If their feelings are not taken into consideration, they may feel helpless and passive toward life and their ability to make choices on their own.

Dysfunctional families manipulate the child’s sense of trust in the world. Not only doubting others and their intentions, adult children may also distrust their own feelings. They may find certain situations acceptable that people in healthy families would not tolerate. Violence and emotional manipulation may in fact seem like passion and care to those who have grown up understanding those tactics from loved ones.

When starting an adult life with new relationships, one must identify what a healthy relationship really means. Here are some helpful questions to ask during the early stages of a relationship:

  • Do you find yourself making fun of your partner or putting him/her down?
  • Does your partner let you make decisions on your own?
  • Do you believe that your partner’s actions and intentions are the same?
  • Does your partner support you?
  • Do you each have friends and hobbies outside of the relationship?
  • Do you feel that you make more sacrifices than your partner?
  • Will your partner make any sacrifice for you despite how they really feel?
  • Can you talk to your partner about difficult issues or is it easier to avoid him/her?
  • Is the relationship significantly more intense than it is light hearted?

When looking for a healthy partner, maturity, honesty, respect, and independence are all important factors to consider. Although maturity often comes with age, someone can be older while still behaving with little responsibility for themselves or their actions. When someone has reached maturity, they are often independent to make their own decisions and shape their own life without excessive guidance from others. When they are able to take responsibility for their own life, respect usually follows.

Affection, a sense of humor, and playfulness are also good signs of a healthy person. When emerging from an intense family, extreme emotions may feel normal. To achieve a happy relationship, there must be a balance of emotion. Although these characteristics may seem foreign or only possible in small doses, there are many people who possess the capability to be healthy.

Just as people who may come from dysfunctional households are attracted to others with the same upbringing, healthy people are often attracted to other healthy individuals. Before starting the dating process, it’s best to be comfortable with who you are. This includes being able to spend time alone, stand up for what you believe in, and know your limits. Self respect is the foundation for all healthy relationships.