How does your parents’ relationship affect yours?

Our parents are often our role models for relationships, for better or worse. No matter how much I rejected my parents’ toxic relationship as a template, I’m sure messages of how a couple treats one another were deeply embedded in my psyche.

USOToday would have been my mother’s 83rd birthday. When my mother was a young woman, she had multiple prospective suitors. She and her girlfriends volunteered to entertain the troops by attending USO dances for soldiers stationed at the nearby military base. She was a fetching, slender, curvy, well-dressed beauty, so caught the eye of many. My father wooed her in person then through letters from his front-line encampment in the Philippines.

Many men had been interested in courting her. Knowing this, and that my parents’ relationship was tumultuous even from the beginning — including fighting on their wedding day — near the end of her life I asked why she agreed to marry him.

“Because he looked so handsome in his uniform” she replied.

“Didn’t other soldiers look handsome in their uniforms? Other men who weren’t so quarrelsome? Who treated you better?”

She said he looked the best to her, even more so than officers who were sweet on her.

Was this the primary husband-choosing criterion for a 21-year-old, naive, Kansas farm girl? She was smart — she skipped second grade — so why would she not think how her life would be with this contentious man who got fired or quit all jobs within 2 weeks in their first 4 years of marriage? Did she not think beyond his uniformed looks for other signs of future happiness?

How much of your parents’ mate selection decisions are you prone to repeat? Are you conscious of why your parents chose each other, and how that may impact how you choose potential mates?

My mother quickly regretted marrying the man who looked so handsome in his uniform. He seemed to always be threatened by her superior intelligence and his low self-esteem surfaced in his frequent bickering with her and others, resulting in lost jobs, wrecked friendships, and strained family relationships. But after we kids came along, she felt trapped as a divorce attorney she visited painted an even more dismal picture of her life if she left him. She never did get the confidence to leave the toxic relationship.

How have your parents’ relationship dynamics affected your romances? Even if you consciously reject what you don’t like about their interactions, might there be some subliminal messages that surface when you’re dating?

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6 responses to “How does your parents’ relationship affect yours?”

  1. Bookyone Avatar

    Hi DG,

    Wow, this is a really good piece, very thought provoking and insightful. My parents have been happily married for years and will celebrate their 40th anniversary this summer. They are each others’ best friends and have always been truly content and happy together.

    I’d like to say this has affected me in a good way and it has, as I do appreciate my close-knit loving family very much, but I also believe it has given me unrealistically high expectations when it comes to finding and maintaining a long term relationship of my own, namely that I want one as good as my parents’ is and I won’t settle for anything less. Needless to say, while this sounds good in theory, in practice, it hasn’t always worked to my advantage…

    Best wishes from bookyone 🙂

  2. Sassy Avatar

    I was lucky in that I believe my parents relationship was good…not perfect…but good and we had a lovely growing up. However, I did see this with my ex-husband. His parents had an odd relationships from the start that I knew him and as time (and troubles) went on, I could see that his parents relationship, as well as the one he had with his father, deeply affected him.

    Thanks for a great column today!

  3. nysharon Avatar

    When I was contemplating divorce from my exhusband my mother kept questioning me whether it was really “that bad.” I found myself constantly defending my reasons. I finally confronted her and told her that I felt that I had married a man just like my father. She complained constantly about him (except my dad was a better father than my ex). I didn’t want to end up with 45 years of marriage like her, with a man that is financially controlling, verbally abusive, not attentive or affectionate, and so much more. I wanted to teach my daughter too that it was not OK to tolerate a parter who makes no effort or concern about meeting your needs. The light bulb went on for her instantly and she never questioned it again.
    BTW DG: Had you ever considered that your father may have been suffering from Post Traumatic Stress from his experiences in the war? It is the first thing that occured to me and of course in those days, it was not considered a condition to be treated.

  4. tim Avatar

    Thought provoking piece – thanks. Beyond the details of my parents relationship, there is no doubt that I never respected them and never ever wanted a relationship that reminded me of them in any way. This has been a major reason I have never married. That has been fine actually. How much their “dysfunction” has affected my adult relationships is a tougher question – but asking some long time friends who used to be partners produced that knowing “it’s so obvious I’m surprised you had to ask” response. They all said that it resulted in walls they couldn’t get beyond and reactions to perceived issues that were
    often exaggerated. If nothing else, this wears out people after a while.
    I’ve always thought that part of being “adult” was getting over whatever stuff you had to deal with growing up. I guess that’s much easier said than done.

  5. Deborah Avatar

    How have your parents’ relationship dynamics affected my romances?

    Well, I would have had to have been insane to look at what my parents had and say “Gee, I want some of that.”

    My question to you, Dating Goddess is, isn’t it sometimes OK to just give it up? I wonder if I would really be happier coupled up than single except in my fantasies (which I am sane enough to recognize do not represent real relationships). I do occasionally see people in healthy relationships, but they are few and far between. I’m pretty happy single, EXCEPT when I start dating. I find dating too depressing and boring…I’d rather be at a museum or concert or reading a good book. It’s funny, but I have a lot of good friends, and when I think about how we got to be good friends, first we found we had something in common we wanted to do together (say, go to gallery openings); then we got together a few times just to do that thing together. Not much personal conversation. And then, gradually, after being “do-buddies” for a while, we’d start talking about our lives (as opposed to art, politics, literature, etc.). And then you get to the point where you actually care about each other. With dating, it seems so backwards: trying to get to know the other person before you have any reason to care. (I think that is why it is so brutal.) Having coffee or a drink with someone you don’t know and talking about yourselves doesn’t seem to me to be so world-expanding; it’s DULL. (Hiking through Belize was world-expanding!)

  6. Dating Goddess Avatar


    Good questions!

    Yes, of course, it’s fine to love being single and unattached. Many people choose that route because they want to do what they want when they want without answering to anyone.

    Then there are others who like having someone to build a life with, to be a “unit” and share their days, beyond just a good friend.

    If you find dating boring I’d suggest either 1) finding different criteria for whom you’ll go out with and build some foundation before you accept a meeting and 2) make a list of other topics that you find interesting so you can lead the conversation away from those you find boring.

    I’ve met fascinating men and boring ones. But a lot of it had to do with what questions I asked and how I steered the conversation.

    And if you like outings like museums, suggest those for early dates then have coffee afterward to discuss it. You’ll see if the guy has the wherewithal to enhance the conversation.