Why I Married My Mother
In working with couples struggling with relationship issues, one thing that I encounter time and again is that we often choose spouses with the very traits we struggled with in our parents. So often I have heard someone from perhaps, a difficult childhood, profess that they've been adamant to marry someone with the opposite traits e.g. if they experienced a parent as highly critical, they may be determined to find someone who will not criticize them. Yet, when I see them in the counselling room often it will be precisely because they are struggling with criticism from their partner.
Look to your own intimate relationships and you will find traits – both positive and negative – that are shared by one or both of your parents. I can look to my husband and quite clearly recognise similar character traits, attitudes and even beliefs to those my mother holds; traits that caused me difficulties growing up and which can still irritate me today as a mature woman. So what's going on? How can someone be aiming in one direction only to find themselves back where they started? The answer lies in the part of ourselves that is out of awareness; the unconscious part.
It is now well documented that a child's psychological development is heavily dependent on the care-givers. An infant's first intimate relationship is with the primary care-giver – usually but not exclusively, the mother. A child's very survival depends on these relationships and as a result they are very powerful in shaping the child's and as a result the adult's understanding of what it is to be in relationship, how to behave in one, and most of all how to protect the self whilst relating to another person.
Now, a child throughout his/her life is a mass of needs and contradictions. The most skilled, attentive, informed and aware parent in the world will not be able to meet all these needs all the time. Until we can read the mind of another human being, feel what they feel, see what they see and be party to what they think, mistakes are inevitable. Those mistakes result in psychic wounds, wounds to self-esteem, wounds to how we feel about ourselves, our world view and our relationships. They are part of what shapes who we are. The best any parent can be certain of is giving their child more positive experiences of their care and valuing than wounds; in short, being a 'good-enough' parent.
However, according to (1)Hendrix (2005) those childhood wounds become significant when we are seeking a partner. He suggests that by choosing a partner with similar traits – and usually the negative traits - of one or both of our parents what we are trying to do is address and repair those early wounds. It's rather like trying to replay an old movie script hoping to get a different ending.
So, for example, if you were criticised by your father for not achieving the high standards he expected in say, your school work, sports, etc. you may have grown to feel that you were somehow inadequate or stupid and so affecting your self-esteem and confidence. A child will believe what his/her parents tell them because their very survival depends on the care-givers being reliable and able to protect them. It is such a frightening prospect for a young mind to see the care-giver as flawed or unable to meet his/her need that they are more likely to see the flaw in themselves than their parents. This is why many who were abused as children can often be heard defending their abusers, seeing themselves as responsible for provoking the abuse.
The person you will later be drawn to will have those critical traits, however, in the early stages of love you may not recognise them as such. You may be drawn by the other's intelligence, by their seemingly having a lot to say about a lot of subjects whereas you feel you struggle to be certain of even what you think you know. You may be drawn by the confident manner with which they talk to the waiter in the restaurant, whereas you may feel too anxious, nervous or embarrassed to send back the food delivered tepid. Their criticism of you will be understood as concern and a desire to help. And of course both parties in the early days of a relationship will be unconsciously sharing mainly their positive traits and on their 'best behaviour', so to speak. Only with time will more of their personality emerge.
Hence, You will marry 'your critical father' and unconsciously replay scenarios from your childhood hoping that your husband will value what you do or at least that you might be able to stand up to the criticism. Because it is primarily unconscious all you will experience is the pain of your husband, yet again, saying something that hurts, unaware that what you are really doing is replaying a childhood script and your choice of partner is just reopening the wound.
(1)Hendrix (2005,3) refers to such a union as the 'unconscious marriage'
The bad news is that our unconscious choice of partner is destined to rewound us. The good news is that they are also the very best choice for helping us to heal the wound. For this to happen both partners have to be willing to and able to communicate honestly and openly. Many couples come to counselling when they're communication, empathy and understanding of one-another has broken down. Through a process of learning - perhaps for the first time - to recognise and respond with empathy to both the wounds in the self and the partner, the process of healing for both can begin and a move towards what (1)Hendrix (2005,85) refers to as the 'conscious marriage' – a marriage able to fulfill the deepest needs of each partner.
(1) Hendrix, H. 2005, Getting the Love You Want, Simon & SchusterUK,London
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