Is Your Past Affecting Your Present?
By: Beth McHugh 2006
Did you choose your life partner because he or she was physically attractive to you and has qualities that you find important? You may believe that you chose your partner based on the thoughts and feelings you had about them at the time you met them. But other, deeper forces may have been at work.
It’s not uncommon to choose partners who in some way physically resemble our opposite sex parent. But it’s even more common to find ourselves in a relationship with someone with similar character traits to one or both of our parents.
Sometimes this can be beneficial. We may choose a partner with a laid-back personality just like dear old Dad. Or a very determined and driven-to-succeed personality like our mothers.
But sometimes we chose a life partner who is just like Mom or Dad but for all the wrong reasons. One or both parents may have smoked when we were children: we marry a smoker or we become smokers ourselves. Children of alcoholic parents often go on to marry an alcoholic. Many children who suffered at the hands of alcoholic parents, and vowed never to go through that experience again, find themselves in a long-term relationship with an alcoholic, or a drug user, a gambler, a workaholic, or a substance abuser. Alternatively, that child, now a grown adult, may become a user themselves.
The situation is repeated with children who have been abused, either physically or sexually, by parents of guardians. Logic would suggest that the child who has been subjected to repeated physical abuse in the form of beatings and other violent parental behavior would be the last person on earth to re-visit that behavior on their own children. Statistics tell a different story. Children of smokers, for example, are more likely, on average, to smoke as adults. Children of alcoholics are, on average, more likely to become alcoholics themselves, or become enablers to alcoholic partners. Physically abused children are statistically more likely to go on to abuse their own children.
Why is this so? Why would a person deliberately chose to re-experience their childhood problems, and even pass that same dysfunctional behavior onto their own children?
The answer? Because it’s familiar. Much of our behavior is what psychologists call “learned behavior” and there is a whole school of psychological thought devoted to testing and proving this hypothesis. Under times of stress in adulthood, we often revert to what we learned or experienced as children. We drink alcohol to take away the pain of life, just as we watched our parent do. We beat our children just because it is the way that things were always done. It is the familiar which wins out.
For those of us who did not experience such behaviors as children, this phenomenon may seem unbelievable, or at least extremely confusing. Yet for those who grew up in dysfunctional families, it is an all too familiar story.
But we don’t have to be caught in this trap, endlessly repeating
the same dysfunctional cycle for generation to generation. In coming
blogs, we will look at the process of breaking family patterns.