Unsurprisingly, the relationships that characterised our childhoods create an imprint for our adult relationships.
But how does this happen? Does your childhood affect your relationships? More specifically, how do parents’ relationships affect their children? And does your parents’ marriage affect yours?
At The Ribbon Box, we know the importance of understanding how your upbringing affects your relationships, as it can help break unhealthy habits caused by toxic parenting, childhood issues or trauma. And better yet, understanding the ways your adult relationships are shaped by your childhood can mean having good quality relationships as an adult.
To learn more about the connection between childhood and adult relationships, we’ve turned to Decoding Couples. Decoding Couples is made up of two relationship experts, Stacey Sherrell and Rachel Facio, who happen to be licensed marriage and family therapists. In 2020, the duo realized they weren’t alone in needing a new type of relationship space. One year later and Decoding Couples has turned the relationship self-help space upside down with a fast growing Instagram following, relatable reels, tools that work, and a tight knit, supportive community.
Over to Rachel and Stacey…
Childhood experiences and how they impact adult relationships
We’ve all heard it, maybe even said it… “Oh my gosh, I am dating my dad!”
What that statement means for the health and future of your relationship, is largely dependent on what your relationship with your parent(s) was like growing up and what you saw modeled for you in your parents’ (or primary caregiver’s) relationships.
Whether we like it or not, how we were raised does affect our adult romantic relationships. To break unhealthy cycles or continue to make healthy, positive choices when it comes to partnership, it’s important to understand how our relationships with our parents impact our relationships as adults.
Why does it feel like I’m dating my parents?
In childhood, two really important things happen that impact us as adults:
- Our attachment style gets formed (keep reading to learn more)
- We see our first model of romantic relationships
How the adults we love most treat us, show care and love for us, manage conflict and make us feel safe is the basis for our childhood attachment. When we grow up, this attachment style stays with us and shows up in full force as we pick a person to be vulnerable with.
In some ways, the romantic partner we choose fills the same shoes our parents did growing up. Our attachment styles dictate how we respond to conflict and how we feel safe with another person, and is our guide to what “repair” looks like in relationships and how we go about this.
Mix our attachment style in with relationship values that we saw modeled between the primary adults in your life and viola: “Oh my gosh, I’m dating my mom!”
How can my “bad” childhood affect my adult relationships?
Let’s talk about what it means if you experienced a “bad childhood” and how it affects your relationships as an adult. Everyone’s definition of what a “bad childhood” is will be different – and that’s okay; there isn’t a winner or “right and wrong” version of a difficult childhood.
If it felt bad to you, if it felt lonely, chaotic, traumatic, volatile, sad… then that was your experience and it’s valid. If you didn’t feel safe with your parents, either because they had a toxic relationship, or because they were abusive or neglectful to you, there is a good chance your adult romantic relationships are going to feel it.
Here are some of the common ways we see bad childhood experiences show up as adults:
- Challenges with vulnerability. If there wasn’t safety with emotions modeled by your parents or you received any sort of backlash for being emotional or vulnerable, you will have to relearn that skill in your romantic relationships. There has to be safety in order for vulnerability to be present. If you are uncomfortable being vulnerable, there is a good chance you pick a partner who lacks safety because it feels familiar and recreates a dynamic you saw and/or felt regularly as a child.
- Poor communication skills and “unfair” fighting. We all need to be taught healthy communication and healthy conflict skills. This can be taught either directly or by modeling (aka you watch the important adults in your life engage in these skills so you pick them up). If you were not taught these, and what was modeled was unhealthy, volatile and/or unfair you’ll likely default into what feels familiar – unless you do the work to break these patterns.
- People pleasing. If there was chaos in your childhood, you may have learned that getting small, not rocking the boat, stuffing your feelings/needs was the safest way to survive your environment. In this case, it can be really hard to show up assertively and authentically in relationships. Again, we default into what we know, so if you grew up in a chaotic home life, being honest with opinions and feelings can be scary and you may find you avoid it at all costs.
- More likely to identify with an anxious, avoidant or disorganized attachment style. All of these attachment styles impact (in negative ways) what conflict looks like, how we deal with unmet needs in the relationship, our relationship with ourselves and what soothes us from a partner.
It is important to say that all of these patterns and experiences mentioned above can be reversed and changed with intentional work, such as self help books, courses, therapy, etc.
My parents had a loving relationship – how does this affect my relationships as an adult?
What about the other side of the coin? What if you had a really positive relationship with your parents growing up and they had a healthy, happy marriage? There can be some very positive outcomes from this and some pointers on what to keep an eye on! If you’re in this boat, here is what we commonly see:
- You are more likely to have a secure attachment. This means there is a healthy amount of individuality in your relationships, self esteem can be higher, you know your worth when joining with another person, there is more of an ability to access empathy and “see both sides” in conflict.
- You have expectations for your relationships. This can be seen as a positive or potentially a negative if the expectations are too rigid. On one hand, you have a great model of a healthy relationship, so you know what red flags and green flags to look out for. On the other hand, some take these expectations and make it more of a set a rules than flexible expectations around who they are and who their partner is. An example of this would be calling off a relationship because the partner isn’t “just like my mom” or the relationship “it isn’t exactly what my parents had.”
- You’ve seen healthy communication and conflict. You have a jumpstart on productive communication and fair fighting because it was modeled for you. You may enter relationships with a skillset that others have to learn later in life.
My relationships as an adult – where do I go from here?
The first step is understanding how your childhood and parents’ relationship is showing up in your adult life and relationship now. Paying attention to what “feels familiar”, triggering, healthy, or unhealthy for you currently. Without that awareness, it is going to be hard to make any substantial changes.
Next, identify what type of help you’re open to – if any at all. There are a lot of resources like books, IG accounts, courses, therapies, workshops, etc. that target breaking childhood patterns to help adult relationships thrive. Once you know what you have emotional and physical energy for, dive on in! Breaking generational and childhood patterns is hard work, but may be necessary for the healthy relationship you deserve.
If you feel you had a bad childhood and are concerned how your parents affect your relationship, don’t fret. It’s completely possible to break damaging habits and patterns from childhood and forge positive relationships as an adult.
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