Whether we were raised in a family we are proud of or one we don’t get along with, our family life is a unique culture that leaves its imprint on us. We all bring our own learned habits, preferences, communication styles, ways of expressing emotion, and so much more from our families into relationships and marriages. Some of these patterns—for better or for worse—are deeply entrenched in families and have been carried on for generations.
Reflecting on how our family of origin—the family each of us was raised in—influences us can make us aware of patterns we hope not to repeat, and help us to intentionally cultivate the parts of our upbringing we hope to emulate. In my own marriage and in my work as a therapist with couples, families, and individuals I have come to see how helpful it is to address family-of-origin patterns or wounds—and how harmful it can be when that history is ignored.
If we ignore the ways in which our family has shaped our lives, then we not only miss a crucial opportunity for personal growth—we also risk repeating problematic or unhelpful patterns in our own relationships and families. On the other hand, if we react to experiences in our family that were unhelpful or unenjoyable by going to the opposite extreme, we may make unwise decisions by responding reactively to our family’s influence. For example, if you take a laissez-faire approach parenting your children because you hated your parents’ strict child-rearing when you were growing up, your children may suffer from the lack of direction in their lives.
The goal here is not to judge, but simply to notice the patterns in your family of origin—in particular, the way relationships and emotions were handled—and be curious about how such factors may have influenced your approach to relationships. In our example, noticing the authoritarian style your parents raised you with and your adverse reaction to it is a start, but being curious about how this now impacts your personality and parenting style is where real growth happens.
Understanding Our “Well of Experiences”
The mix of experiences from our past that are cemented in our memory by various emotions is what marriage and family therapist and clinical psychologist Dr. Nancy Burgoyne refers to as our individual “well of experiences.” When something in our day-to-day lives—particularly experiences in our intimate relationships—unconsciously activates an unfavorable experience from our history, our well of experiences gets stirred up, often leading to an adverse reaction.
This may help explain why you are immediately upset when your husband uses “that tone” with you, or why he blows up when you give him the silent treatment during an argument. Each of these spouses has likely unconsciously triggered in the other something from his or her past, something that they may not even be aware is affecting them in the present.
When we become curious about our disproportionate reactions (why did I freak out about his tone?) or what is going on for us emotionally at these moments (what was I feeling when I walked away from him?), we might be able to relate them back to our families of origin. Marriage and family therapist and author of Loving with the Brain in Mind: Neurobiology and Couple Therapy Dr. Mona Fishbane recommends asking yourself in these moments of emotional upset, “Is this feeling familiar? When have I felt like this before?”
In my work as a marriage and family therapist, one woman I worked with came from a volatile household with a quick-tempered father, and so she had entered marriage adamant about not recreating this reality. While she was justified in wanting respect and peace in her own household, she found herself shutting down her husband at his first sign of frustration. Connecting the dots of past and present, she realized she was projecting the fear of anger she had harbored from her father onto her husband, silencing him at any possible sign of expressing anger—which was actually inhibiting her husband from sharing his thoughts, feelings, and particularly his frustrations with her in a healthy way.
For a premarital couple I worked with, the man struggled to resolve conflict with his fiancée, and instead anxiously withdrew from her. In our work together, he connected this to his family of origin, as he shared with me and his partner how his father had been largely absent while he described his mother as always “making a big deal” about issues. My client noticed how he had learned to withdraw from conflict—like his father—rather than deal with the problem. Instead, he had let his mother handle conflict, trying to “get out of her way.” But now this learned habit from his family of origin was not working well in his relationship with his fiancée. Hearing this, his fiancée had more compassion for where he was coming from, and together they came up with a new, productive way to approach conflict.
Using Reflection to Avoid Misunderstandings
Taking a look at our own family of origin and the way it influences us can help forestall misunderstandings in our own relationships. It can be extremely valuable to “connect the dots” of past and present with a therapist, especially if your upbringing feels painful or difficult to think about. The purpose of looking curiously at our family of origin as adults is not to blame, point fingers, or even to fix our families, but rather to compassionately develop heightened awareness of our own history and wounds, as well as tendencies that our families may have contributed to. Some helpful questions to ask yourself, reflect on with a therapist, or discuss with your significant other include:
- What emotions were expressed openly and what emotions were not okay to express in your family?
- How was conflict handled in your family?
- How did your family communicate? What communication patterns do you notice?
- How was affection shown and how was physical touch approached in your family?
- How were finances handled in your family?
- What role, if any, did faith play in your family life?
- What did your family do together for fun? What traditions did you have?
- What parts of your family do you admire? What aspects were difficult for you/do you hope not to imitate?
- What role did you play in your family? What roles did your other family members play?
Speaking from experience, seriously reflecting on my own family of origin has reaped benefits in my marriage, as well as professionally as a therapist. My husband and I talked about the influence of our families of origin on us as a couple when we were dating and as a part of our marriage preparation process, and we have continued to revisit the conversation throughout our marriage.
Growing in awareness of our familial histories, sensitivities, and influences throughout our marriage has helped us develop an even greater emotional intimacy with one another, as well as anticipate or empathize with each other’s reactions. Additionally, through such self-awareness, we are better able to catch our own reactions before they spiral out of hand.
Best of all, spending time reflecting on our families helps us better appreciate the blessings our families are to us. I have my mother-in-law’s compassion and my father-in-law’s gentleness to thank for the patience my husband shows me. Likewise, the unwavering faith my dad’s family showed through multiple tragedies is responsible for the resilience and deeply-rooted faith that has been carried on in our family for generations. As our awareness of our own and each other’s backgrounds has improved, so too has our love and appreciation for our own and each other’s families—the people that helped make us who we are today.