The past has a funny way of repeating itself, and many people find themselves re-experiencing family dynamics from childhood in their current adult relationships.
Whether it comes about through attraction to partners who match up with our mental pictures of what family life is supposed to look like; or by a process in which we subtly provoke our family members into roles that fit what’s in our minds; or even by simply imagining our family members to be the same as the characters we keep in our heads (projection), our adult psyches have an uncanny way of helping us recreate old, familiar storylines without even realizing that we’re doing it.
Take Sarah, who was known as “high strung”, “defiant”, and a “failure” in her family of origin, as she desperately tried to forge an identify for herself in the face of her older sister’s successes in just about everything, from behavior to popularity to grades. Sarah, on the other hand, was gutsy and vocal, protested loudly at the slightest provocation, and also took the blame for anything that went wrong in the family, from arguments on family trips to stressful dinner conversations. Sarah’s parents constantly compared her to her sister, begging Sarah to “grow up”, “be mature”, and “act responsible”. Sarah was acutely aware of her anger, and of feeling controlled and disgusted by her family’s attempts to “reform” her, as well as by their inability to accept her for who she was. Deep down, Sarah was also guilty and insecure, feeling that she didn’t measure up and wasn’t good enough for her family’s love and approval- although she was barely aware of those deeper feelings inside of her and only projected her angry side to the world.
Sarah’s husband, Jack, was just the opposite in personality, although he also felt a sense of guilt deep down; his guilt was about being the “good one” in his family of origin- and leaving his brother to “take the heat” as the family “troublemaker”. Jack was the firstborn child who could do no harm in his parents’ eyes, and he felt guilty for getting his parents’ love and approval while his brother only got yelling, criticisms, and put-downs. Jack was also secretly glad that his brother was the one who got all the negative focus because it took the spotlight off of him. So, being the “good one” felt like a protected position for Jack, but also one that highlighted his brother’s faults and added to his brother’s pain.
Both Sarah and Jack took too much guilty responsibility for their roles in their childhood families. It wasn’t Sarah’s fault that her family only noticed “rebellious” aspects of her personality to the exclusion of her wish for approval and success, and it wasn’t Jack’s fault that his parents only saw his brother’s faults without being able to acknowledge his brother’s need for love and acceptance. But both had felt the pressures of going along with the family roles assigned to them.
Jack and Sarah felt they had a great marriage, until their first son, Jason, reached the toddler stage.
Jason was cranky, hard to soothe, and very strong-willed by nature.
Jack saw his brother in Jason, and worried that his young child would feel unloved and unaccepted like his brother had; each time Jack witnessed Sarah berating, criticizing, or struggling with Jason’s strong-willed nature, he felt a strong urge to freeze. Jack wanted to be soft towards his child and accepting of his son’s strong will. He had trouble setting limits, as well as backing Sarah up when she got angry and frustrated and tried to take control.
Sarah, on the other hand, felt that her husband didn’t get how exhausted she was from taking care of a strong-willed child all day long, and couldn’t understand why Jack would leave her to be the “bad guy” all the time, rather than helping her get Jason to listen. She saw her husband as a “goody-two-shoes” like her sister, who was leaving her to take the heat- exposing her as a bad mother and making her look like a failure while he got to stay in the “good guy” role.
Deep down, Sarah felt guilty for being so angry and impatient as a mother.
Jack also struggled with his own guilt for not being able to protect his wife from being worn down by their strong-willed child, nor feeling able to extricate his son from his mother’s exasperation.
Rather than give each other support as they both tried to be “good” parents to a challenging child, they fought.
Jack couldn’t understand why Sarah made such a big deal about Jason messing up the house, saying “no” at bedtime, and climbing on the furniture. And Sarah couldn’t understand why Jack gave in to whatever their young son wanted; she viewed him as a weak father and dismissive husband.
When they first came for therapy, I could sense that Sarah seemed to expect me to chastise her; to expose her as a failure as a mother, highlighting her inability to subdue her three year old son as well as her tendency to lose her temper and become exasperated. Jack seemed to expect me to focus on Sarah as well, and to view him as the calm and patient parent, ineffectual in his wife’s eyes yet calm and contained in mine. Still, I could sense his own guilt as a father for not protecting his son or his wife from their mutual frustration and spirals of negative emotions, and his fear that I would tell him to be “more of a man” in the family system.
I asked Sarah to talk about times when she tried her best to be a soft mother (when she tried to be the “good, calm one”), only to feel like her best efforts ended in failure. And I asked Jack what it felt like to simply stand helplessly by, as the two people he loved the most got into power struggles with each other and wore each other down.
And then a beautiful thing happened.
Although it was hard at first, Sarah started to share her own insecurities about herself as a mother, as well as her deep fears of being unloved and unrecognized by her own child, with her husband. And, as Jack started to understand Sarah’s fears better, he was able to help her with them.
Jack reminded Sarah of the “good times” between her and her son; times when she was patient and loving and their son responded in kind. He began understand Sarah’s fears of being locked into a “failure” role; her feeling that no matter what she would do, her husband and son would never recognize her attempts to be a “good” mother. It was healing for Sarah when Jack could recognize her “good” side and remind Sarah that their son did not only respond to her as a “monster” mother. It was also healing for Jack to be able to give his wife the love and approval that his parents could never give his brother.
Jack also began to talk about his own fears of being “bad” or “mean” as a parent if he would set limits or get upset, as well as his belief that any conflict between himself and his child would automatically lead to a strained parent/child relationship, like the one he saw between his parents and his brother. Sarah was able to reassure Jack that by expressing some of his own anger and setting limits with their son, he would actually be helping her feel less frustrated as a mother- which would lead to less anger and frustration in the home overall. Jack was able to own his own strength as a father and husband, and both could see how sharing both the “good” and “bad” emotions and roles in the family actually made them both into a great team.
What are your thoughts?