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.
Conflict between partners who are deeply connected to one another often serves to bring programmed behavior to light. Conflict often occurs when the circumstances of the relationship change as, for example, with the birth of the first child. Partners who are clear about their own identities are the most flexible and in the best position to deal with the discomfort involved in change.
Creating a New Family Culture
Genuinely new (non-programmed) relationship behavior develops out of recognizing and practicing fresh approaches to relationship dilemmas while honoring the former value of older approaches that no longer fit. This is evident when the partners perceive they have choices about how they behave with each other. Since the process of enlarging choices appears risky and confusing, a strong degree of motivation is necessary to reconsider old ways of doing things.
Whether and how the relationship survives the differences in programming depends on the extent to which the partners acknowledge and accept the reality of their different programming. The test of acceptance is the willingness of each partner to work with mutual respect on resolving immediate differences and learning to live with enduring differences.
Immediate differences are usually more concrete and situation-specific, such as where to go on vacation or who does what household chore. These differences usually are resolved by problem-solving and negotiation techniques.
Enduring differences are more general and develop out of longstanding character traits and preferences, such as a liking for particular sleeping arrangements, a dislike of shopping, or a discomfort with confrontation. It often takes assertive and empathic abilities for the partners to create the emotional distance, understanding, and creativity to find ways to learn to live with their differences.
Mediators and psychotherapists may be called upon to help couples that have difficulty employing these techniques and skills. Often, though, it is a matter of attitude toward change and the strength of mutual desire to find a way to live together. Couples who consider their differences to be the “work” of their relationship are well on their way to developing their own family culture.