Parents remain our touchstones even after death. They are both missing and present. So when I succeeded, I would glance sideways and see a snapshot of how my father handled success: with wry pleasure and a strong sense of the capriciousness of life. When I failed, I would glance sideways and remember how he handled failure: with grit and perspective. He got up, put on his tie, and went back to work. “Well, it isn’t cancer,” he would say, until, of course, it was. — Ellen Goodman, Boston Globe, June 20, 1999.
How we act in our committed relationships is largely the result of how we experienced relationships in our families of origin. We often talk, walk, eat, think, and may even vote like our parents. We may not realize, however, how influential they have been. For some, it is only when dealing with their own children that they first recognize these similarities.
In viewing a relationship, it is important to remember that we carry this family from childhood within us, a “family culture” made up of expectations about the world and how to act in it.
There are three components of this culture, each learned while growing up in our families:
Roles, or the parts we play in our life with others;
Family rules, which guide “appropriate” action; and
Core beliefs, or the thoughts at the base of our feelings and actions, which provide the standards against which we evaluate our experience and ourselves.
In committed relationships, often there is a clash between the family cultures each partner brings to the relationship; the goal for the couple becomes one of creating a new, mutually satisfying and meaningful family culture of their own. To do this, the partners must become aware of how their family of origin programmed their expectations.
We internalize family culture with our observations and our learning, and what we learn in these early years takes on an inflexible character about which we have little choice. It is useful to name our early learning our “programming,” since it is the source of much of our behavior in close relationships. During childhood and into adulthood, we test and retest our programmed learning, opting to replicate it or reject it.
What this means, in general terms, is that we behave like our parents or their perceived opposites and continue to do so, without awareness, until life experiences allow (or force) us to recognize alternatives to our programmed possibilities.