The relationship habits we learn from our parents

·6 min read
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images
Photo credit: Jessica Lockett | Getty Images

Squabbles with my partner always seem to begin the same way. "That's an interesting way to clean the stove," I sneer at him. "Oh I'd love to watch another movie about men and their guns," I mumble sarcastically another time.

I know that these comments fall into "passive aggression,” which is, of course, widely known to be both ineffective and potentially toxic to a relationship. But that knowledge doesn't stop me from sneaking in snarky comments instead of saying what I mean. And as it happens, I hear the shadow of someone else's voice lurking just beneath my own.

It’s my mother’s.

My tendency towards passive aggression is hardwired into me after years of watching and hearing her — "Brown socks with black shoes, that looks very professional," her voice scolding my dad echoes.

Watch and learn

It's normal for us to develop similar relationship styles to our parents, even if we know intellectually that our habits are counterproductive.

"We learn way more from what we see than what we hear," says relationship psychotherapist Yvonne Filler. "Our parents can tell us that a way of acting in a relationship is wrong but if they demonstrate that behaviour, we'll still take it on board. We find it hard not to follow what we have seen and act in similar ways."

From watching our parents, we learn everything from which accent to speak with to how to hold a knife and fork. It makes sense that we would learn habits for our future relationships, too.

Poor communication is one of the most common habits we pick up. In my case, I struggle to communicate openly, which can lead to tiffs, grudges and misunderstandings. But in more extreme cases, learned unhealthy communication habits can cause a relationship breakdown.

Filler tells me about a couple in their early 30s who she once worked with. "Rob,* who is 33, had a difficult upbringing. An alcoholic father and a fairly absent mother meant he didn't have strong attachments to either of his parents," she explains.

Occasionally, his father would become verbally abusive to Rob's mother. "Although Rob knew his father's actions were alcohol-related, he couldn't help but be programmed by these behaviours," Filler says.

When Rob started dating Tess*, these internalised communication methods became problematic. "She perceived his way of communicating as controlling and thought that he was unable to take on board her views," Filler explains. "This was a major problem for them and it was only during counselling and talking about his dad's behaviour that Rob could see that his way of communicating could be problematic to the relationship."

In Rob's case, Filler helped him look a little deeper at how his habits had been learned from his father. In a case like Rob's, Filler suggests, "Don't think, 'I'm not an alcoholic and I don't verbally abuse my partner, so I'm not like my dad.' Think about the behaviour that your dad's drinking led to."

Different ways of communicating

Our learned relationship habits not only impact our behaviour, but our speech too.

Annie*, a 31-year-old teacher from Surrey, was an only child. Her family was close-knit. Her parents made a fuss over birthdays, attended every school event, ate meals together each night and, somehow, her parents still managed to find time for a weekly date night.

When Annie moved in with her (now ex) boyfriend two years ago, she brought with her that same "team spirit" mentality she’d grown up alongside. "I tried to plan little surprises for him," she says. "You know, I'd make his favourite meal or surprise him by showing up on his lunch break."

Her ex, however, had different expectations. While Annie craved personal attention and demonstrations of love, he craved more independence, something he learned from his separated parents. "I think he found me a bit needy, And I always felt under-appreciated. We couldn't make it work," Annie says.

Filler explains that "if you're used to seeing a playful romantic relationship but a partner talks to you in a more mundane way, you might find that difficult."

When we come to a relationship with different habits, that's where the age-old tool of compromise comes in, but as Filler says, "It's hard when the compromise involves deeply ingrained beliefs and behaviours."

It's not all bad

On the flip side, our learned behaviour can also lead to positive, healthy relationships too.

Francesca, a 34-year-old writer and marketer, from Kent, explains that her parents always prioritised openness and empathy. "They always support each other, even during challenging times like money worries," she explains. "As a child, they would constantly tell her how much they love each other, it's inspiring." In turn, Francesca has become a fiercely loyal, caring partner herself.

Becoming familiar with our good habits is always useful. For one thing, pinpointing the positive patterns that you bring to a relationship can help you form healthier habits as a couple. Undoing bad habits is harder, but not impossible.

"It starts with recognising what they are," Filler advises. "A therapist will often ask about your parents in order to understand how you are the person that you are, but we can do it at home on our own, too."

Learning to grow out of learned habits is the first part of the battle. But what about our parents — can we help them in the same way we help ourselves? "If we're brave!" Filler laughs. "Someone challenging our learned behaviours can feel too critical, but we can try."

In my case, breaking the cycle of passive aggression will probably take some time. And it will probably take even more time to build up the courage to broach the subject with my mum. After all, her habits are even more deeply ingrained than my own.

Rather than accusing your parents of teaching you "bad" habits, Filler suggests having a conversation about what you've learned about your behaviour. Maybe, they can begin to relearn their habits by watching you develop healthier patterns with your partners in the future.

Relationships are never easy. We all come to our partners with our own unique set of ingrained habits — some good and some bad. By noticing our learned relationship patterns, we can begin to grow, change, and even create new habits together. Yes, we are all products of our upbringings — but history doesn't always have to repeat itself.

*Names have been changed

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