Our first idea of how marriage works is by watching how our parents interact with each other. Good or bad, we can learn a lot about marriage and what does and does not work from these first teachers. Many couple seeking marriage counseling do so because they have a distinct idea of how a marriage should function – and theirs isn’t following that pattern. Many times couples have also not considered the impact that learning from their parents has on their way of relating to their partner. Each marriage has its own dynamic, and taking what you have learned from your parents and striving to include the good and eliminate the bad can be helpful in some cases.
First things first
One of the first things you should do is sit down with one or both of your parents and talk to them about their marriage. Your impression of the marriage is a marriage colored through the eyes of a child. Often, what appeared to be a perfect marriage to you may have seen arguments taking place in private. Even a bad marriage may have seemed worse to you, as a child, than it did to your parents. Sitting down with them, you will be able to get their story and view it with the eyes of an adult. You may come away with many new insights on what a lasting marriage takes. It may also help you put your own experiences into perspective within your relationship.
With two job families being the norm, it may seem your parent’s money arguments resulted because one person took charge of the financial things and the other was excluded. You decide that each person should contribute half of all expenses and keep what is left from their own pay. This may work in some cases, but often those seeking marriage counseling do so as a result of money issues.
It is possible that one of your parents had a problem actually sitting down and seeing that money went to the places it needed to. As a couple, your parents could have decided that your dad worked and “handed” his paycheck to your mother. In realty, they decided that the money belonged to both of them and one earned it while the other took the responsibility to see it went where it was needed. Finding out what their policy on money matters was based on can help you decide what is best for your marriage. Knowing the “why” behind a system helps you understand it better.
One of you came from a home where you never saw either parent raise their voice and they always seemed to agree on things. Once the kids all leave home, however, you are surprised that they get divorced. Your partner, however, grew up in a home where it seemed like there was always disagreements, yet his parents are about to celebrate forty years together, What can you learn from either situation?
While you may not have heard any arguing, your parents may have had horrible fights when you were gone. On the other hand, maybe they didn’t have any arguments, because one or both kept everything in and the bad feelings grew and pushed them apart eventually. Typically a pattern like this leads couples to feeling lonely and isolated within their relationship. The couple who always seems to be disagreeing may actually enjoy seeing a situation from a different viewpoint. It might have been simply heated debates fueled by their passions that seemed to you, as a young child, that they were fighting. On the other hand, being more heated during conflicts sometimes runs the risk of causing more immediate harm through shaming, hurtful words or violence. Disagreements, or the lack of them, do not make or break a marriage. In fact, often in couples therapy, I work to help couples actually have disagreements because at least then they are attempting to reconnect. What counts is how the couple handle the disagreements and if they respect each other.
Your parent’s marriage can teach you much about things like finances, sharing, handling disagreements, spending time apart and together and so much more. You may run into problems, however, if you base your marriage on a picture you created as a child. As an adult, talk with your parents. Often, a large part of marriage counseling is helping couples have genuine and honest communication about the impact that their pattern of conflict has on them. Ask them what worked for them and why. Ask them what they would have done differently, and why? By allowing them to share what they learned through living, you give you and your partner a more realistic picture to work from. It can also help you be clear about which parts of their marriage that you might want to strive for and which parts you would want to do differently. In the end, however, remember that you as a couple are unique and, while your parents can give you basic guidelines, it is by working together and finding out what works for you and your partner.