Have you ever had an argument with your spouse and suddenly, they seem to transform into your mom? During a conflict, have you ever felt like you are screaming at your dad?
And all you can think is : Oh shit, I married my mom.
Why Do We Marry Our Parents?
Harsh truth: most of us have unresolved issues with one of our parents.
Harsher truth: many of us will marry our parents. We will choose a person that shares many qualities with our frustrating parent.
It is common for me to be in a coaching session with a client, listening to them describe their frustration with their spouse. Small quirks, long term issues seem to pile up and then finally— BOOM! Someone is dragging their partner into counseling as a crisis response to the unhappiness in the marriage.
Personal Growth Can Challenge Your Marriage
It is normal when personal growth is taking place for one spouse to feel like the other spouse isn’t keeping up or doing their part to make changes.
After a couple of sessions, it can becomes clear that the unhappy spouse married their mom (or dad). It sounds bananas, but midlife seems to be the time to identify the unhealthy patterns that keep repeating in your marriage.
A series of unconscious choices, like a GPS, cause you to zero in on a partner that will represent your most frustrating parent. Many of us will marry our parents unknowingly.
The chemistry of attraction combined with the promise of a fairy tale blind us from seeing that we are pursuing our mom. In fact, you can marry a man who behaves like your mom, and it will emotionally feel like home. Minus the clean sheets and home baked cinnamon buns from the oven.
So How Does This Emotional Witchcraft Happen?
We all have caregivers when we are little people. Babies are helpless, relying on a caregiver to nurture them and keep them alive. There is a theory in psychology that identifies how babies “attach” to their caregivers. It is called “Attachment Theory”.
Attachment Theory Basics
Most people will attach to their caregiver in one of four ways. Attachment style depends on how the caregiver interacted and met the needs of the baby.
- Anxious Attached: baby is unsettled and unsure about getting needs met. Looks to inconsistent caregiver and feels anxious about being connected to caregiver. As a result, this type of person might feel anxious in relationships and might need lots of reassurance from their partner.
- Avoidant Attached: baby is not getting her needs met, and as a result she no longer expects to get what she needs from caregiver. She “shuts down” and withdraws into herself, anticipating that she will not get what she needs from others. This type of person might seem withdrawn or unwilling to commit in relationships.
- Secure Attached: baby experienced a connected and reliable caregiver. As a result, baby believes that her needs will be met, and she can count on caregivers/people. This person will most likely offer a balanced, reliable partnership.
- Disorganized Attached: baby has experienced unreliability and uncertainty with caregivers. Depending on the circumstances, baby will present with anxious behavior wanting to attach or will withdraw to self-protect against disappointment. This person might struggle with wanting to be close to their spouse, and then feel a strong need to withdraw.
The above is a very brief outline of Attachment Theory, follow this link for a more in-depth discussion of the origin of attachment styles.
Is It Wrong To Marry Your Mom?
For some of us, marrying our parent is working out well. Sure, we have some normal frustrations within our marriage/partnership, but for the most part marital life is satisfying, supportive and we experience a healthy connection.
And then we have the folks that married their parent, resulting in an unsatisfying, frustrating and possibly combative marriage. Awesome. Just awesome.
Blame It On Brain Bias
Psychology suggests that we choose a spouse that is like our parent for unconscious reasons. Our brains search for two different solutions when we are stuck in an unresolved parental dynamic.
1. Staying safe by ensuring we remain in the known cycle of dysfunction.
2. Attempting to resolve unfinished business with a parent by repeating the cycle with your spouse.
Hey, deep breath! You are normal, most of us will marry our parents. Once you understand that your unconscious “relationship radar” choose a parental figure as a spouse, you can begin to see your frustrations in a new light.
Begin to Identify Similar Traits
Identifying behavior traits that are similar between spouse/parent can be an important step. Take some time, without a confrontational argument or accusation, and mentally note the similarities. There is no need to speak to them out loud during this time of identifying and evaluating. Become aware of the triggers that happen in your relationship, getting curious about the emotions that come up for you.
Spend some time associating the frustrating emotions that re-occur with your spouse and try to find similarities in your parental relationship. Ask yourself: why would I marry my parent? How does that benefit me?
My Friend Married Her Mom
I have a friend that married her mother. Her husband was the male version of her mom. My friend grew up in a family that didn’t discuss emotions or have much flexibility around emotional expression. Additionally, it was common in her family to tease about personal characteristics. Like many families that was the accepted way of showing love, but it felt very demeaning and painful at times.
Unconsciously, she married a man who could not express or receive emotions in a safe healthy way. His preferred behavior was teasing. As time went on, it became a game between her husband and her mom to “tag team tease” this woman, discussing her perceived flaws in sarcastic hurtful manner.
Their teasing banter went like this:
Friends Mom: (Sigh) that is just the way she is. My daughter has always been like that! Even when she was a baby, she had that type of attitude.
Friends Husband: I know! I wish I could find my receipt so I could return her!
Mom and Husband laugh at their “funny” joke. Ha ha ha.
Teaming up together against my friend, the messages she got was that she was “broken” and not wanted. Even though it was done in a teasing manner, it was hurtful and made my friend feel like her two most foundational relationships were emotionally unsafe.
Eventually my friend divorced her husband, she got tired of being teased and manipulated by his humor.
What Makes Us Choose To Marry Our Parents Even Though It Can Be Painful?
Our brain wants to feel safe, and let’s remember, the brains idea of safety is not always healthy. Patterns and cycles are safe and familiar to our brains. Humans are wired for connection and community, so when we learn maladaptive ways to connect/get our needs met, we will continue with that unhealthy, but successful behavior.
Historically people have needed a community to stay safe, so our brain pressures us to stay in the known. Fearing the unknown keeps us “safe” but stuck. Being stuck in unhealthy patterns is the most normal thing for all people, our brain wants us to be safe.
How To Change Your Marriage
- Identify the behaviors that mirror your parent. Look for things like teasing, disrespect, and passive aggression. Many people grew up with parents that didn’t know how to help process feelings. Most parents are emotionally immature due to family cycle of dysfunction.
- As a result, we choose a spouse that shuts down our feelings. Be a detective and look for patterns.
- Check in with yourself when you are feeling activated by your spouse. Slow down and examine the source of the trigger. Does it make you feel like a child? Do you hear the voice of an “authority” or do you feel like you are being told what to do?
- If you feel like a child, that is a good clue that there might be a parental link to this trigger. Do some journaling around the idea that you married one of your parents.
- Speak up and let your spouse know your concerns. The next time you feel upset with your spouse, take time, and look for clues to help you understand. When you can share in a way that is respectful and clear, ask your spouse to sit down with you. Carefully explain what you have observed, without accusations, and ask your spouse to work with you to shift your marital interactions.
What Happens After We Marry Our Parents?
Like the rest of life, the only thing you have control over is your behavior, attitudes, and actions. As you continue to identify your triggers and work within in yourself to create change, you will begin to heal the unfinished parental business.
As you begin to understand more about your unconscious patterns, be authentic with your spouse. Clear direct communication is the only way to open the door to change in any relationship.
Should You Tell Your Parents?
Some people might choose to begin a conversation with their parent about what they have discovered. If you have a parent that can receive truth wrapped in love, go ahead and try it!
But if you have a parent that is defensive and avoids self-examination, it is probably best to skip that conversation. Be grateful for your growth and continue to offer grace to a parent that is self-protective.
Remember, most of us marry our parents! Now that you understand the psychology behind your relationship radar, challenge yourself to make some changes in your behaviors. Invite your partner to consider the hurtful patterns that impact your marriage.
Taking time to self-examine and look for patterns in our behavior is critical for self-growth. Authentic living is the foundation to a healthy marriage. Practicing self-awareness is the best way to show love for ourselves. When we understand ourselves better, we enlarge our capacity to love our partner with greater emotional health and clearer intentions.