You hear it all the time. I’ve said it to clients. We’ll be discussing your relationship and suddenly I’ll say “Oh, you married your mother (or father).” The reaction is often the same…” I DO NOT THINK OF MY MOTHER WHEN I HAVE SEX WITH MY WIFE!” (Insert appropriate gender changes where necessary!).
Here’s the thing. That’s not what I mean when I say that. Well, not usually anyway. It is actually a lot less disturbing than most people think. While there may be some underlying Freudian issues about desiring our mother or father, that’s not the part I am focusing on when I say that to my clients. It isn’t what I’m interested in.
I focus a lot more on patterns. Because we are creatures that follow patterns. We tend to do things in a similar way when we do them. It makes sense. It is the way we were taught so it is what we know. And often that way of doing something was successful in the past. And it makes life easier to repeat patterns instead of learning a new way each time we do something.
So where do we learn our patterns? While it is true we can learn new patterns at any time the fact is most of us learn our major, core patterns as children…from our family of origin. And yes, often our major influence was our parents. And we tend to keep gender tied to things, so when interact with a female we often expect her to act like our mother. When we interact with men we expect them to act like our dad. This isn’t always true but definitely common.
Patterns work like this. We act a certain way. And another person reacts to that behavior in a certain way. Systems usually have repetitive patterns. And families are just a system. So you grow up in a family and know that when you acted a certain way, your parents (or parental figures), who were the most important people in your life at that time, also had a standard reaction.
You got used to that reaction. It felt normal. When you were in a different system and got a different reaction, it felt weird. So what did you do? You did what many of us do. We seek out new systems that feel like the old system. There is even a phenomenon where we sometimes do things to cause our partner to react in a way that mimics our old pattern. Suddenly our partner isn’t who they used to be but rather who we’ve made them become.
So why do we do this? Because we equate “familiar” with “safe”. We tend to want to avoid the unexpected. If it is familiar you know what to expect. If it isn’t familiar who knows what might happen. It is part of our wiring and it helps protect us.
But here is the problem. Sometimes we get our wires crossed. While a certain reaction feels normal, it may not be the most functional. We may not realize this until we are in the new system and realize that we aren’t happy with the outcomes. But we aren’t sure why…because we think this is how it is supposed to work. It feels safe.
And sometimes we aren’t even that obvious about it. We actually know we didn’t like the way our parents acted. So we try to avoid that behavior. Except our subconscious still likes the familiar feel. So what do we do? We find the same pattern but dressed up in different actions.
Here is an example. If a parent was physically abusive the child may grow up knowing they don’t want a partner that is physically abusive. But the subconscious is still used to that strong reaction, that “punishment response.” So instead of someone physically abusive they find someone that is emotionally abusive. It looks completely different on the surface. But the underlying pattern is exactly the same.
Now, that’s a very dramatic example. More often it is just a parent that wasn’t emotionally available, or one that always made everything about them. Things like that. And while we were used to that pattern as a child, they often don’t get us where we want to be in our adult relationships.
So as a therapist I’m looking for those patterns. I’m trying to find where your subconscious has sought out that familiar pattern, even if you’ve dressed it up differently. And when I see it, I point it out. And for impact I’ll often say in just that certain way – “Oh, you married your father!” It grabs your attention and often causes a strong emotional reaction. A reaction that I want to use to NOT to suggest that you see your parents face in your partner but rather that your partner helps you recreate a pattern, that at one level feels familiar and safe but in reality is working counter to your desired outcomes.
But don’t despair. The next step is working with you to alter those patterns. All part of the path to getting where you want to be.