Let’s go back in time. Think about when you were a kid. Are there things your family did that you were later surprised to learn was not how everyone else did it?
Did you keep butter in the fridge or on the table? Were birthdays a week-long celebration or not that big of a deal? Did you sit down at the dinner table every night at 6:00pm on the dot? Are there things you do a certain way today simply because that’s how it was always done in your home growing up?
The fact is, what we experience in our family of origin (which is the people who raise us and who we spend most of our childhood with) often does show up in your couple relationship in one way or another. How so? The following scenarios demonstrate three ways family of origin experiences can manifest in your relationship:
How strongly you adhere to traditions
Scenario A: On Christmas Eve, you always drink hot chocolate out of your special Christmas mug and open one present, saving the rest for Christmas morning, when you practice patience and build your anticipation by always opening stockings first. It’s just how things are done—it wouldn’t feel like Christmas otherwise.
Scenario B: On Christmas Eve, sometimes you celebrate at home, some years you travel to your aunt and uncle’s house a few hours away, and a couple years you even got to celebrate in Florida with your grandparents! Your family went with the flow – being together was the main goal.
Whether you identify more with the first or second scenario, chances are you’ll carry these tendencies with you as an adult and into your relationship. As you begin to form your own family unit, you’ll likely think about the role traditions will play and how important it is to you to carry on the ones you grew up with or create your own. If you grew up in a more go-with-the-flow family, you’ll probably have a similar attitude.
How you handle a major stressful event
Your grandfather was just admitted to the hospital after suffering a heart attack. Your mother needs to go to see him and be with your grandmother at the hospital – she’ll be gone for three days.
Scenario A: Your family goes into emergency mode. You and your siblings each have specific chores you’re in charge of, and everyone is expected to step up and help out. There are specific “dad’s-in-charge” rules that everyone knows and is expected to follow.
Scenario B: Your family goes into chaos mode. The house is a mess and homework isn’t getting done, but hey, McDonald’s for dinner! (You never get that when Mom’s home.) Dad just does his best making sure you’re getting off to school in the morning fully dressed.
It might not have been this black or white, but you likely have a general sense of how your family reacted to out-of-the-ordinary events. You might have actually felt a sense of rigid order or disorganized chaos during those times, or you just felt like this is how it must be for everyone.
Have you gone through stressful life events with your partner? What tendencies do you fall back on? If they are the opposite of your partner’s, you might experience some conflict, especially if you don’t have an understanding of where each other is coming from (and sometimes even if you do.)
How you deal with conflict and emotions
Your older sister has been skipping school – and your parents just found out about it.
Scenario A: The dinner table is icily silent except for the clinking of silverware on plates. You look nervously from your parents to your sister as both sides seethe silently. Your mom says, “Please pass the rolls,” and with those four words you know your sister is so in for it later.
Scenario B: The dinner table is silent for exactly one minute before the yelling begins. There is no mistaking the fact that your parents are pissed, and your sister is defiant. Punishment is dealt out amidst tearful protests and the whole thing ends with a dramatic stomping exit and slamming bedroom door. “Please pass the rolls,” your mom says chipperly.
What is your natural inclination when handling high emotions or addressing a conflict? Do you display your emotions clearly and confront the issue/person head on in the heat of the moment? Or do you maintain a reserved exterior subscribing to the notion that emotions are best tempered and kept to yourself while conflict is dealt with quietly? Neither is really ideal, but the behavior you were accustomed to growing up has likely etched itself into your psyche in some way. Perhaps you’ve learned to lower your voice instead of yelling when you’re angry or your logical side knows not to bury your emotions, but when you’re tired or stressed, these natural, knee-jerk tendencies can still bubble up.
So what does all of this mean for your relationship?
Takeaway #1: Your family of origin experience does have an effect on your couple relationship, whether you’d like it to or not.
Takeaway #2: Understanding differences and similarities between you and your partner’s family of origin can give you a lot of insight into certain dynamics of your relationship.
Takeaway #3: Communication is key. Talking to each other about your family of origin experiences not only increases intimacy and mutual understanding, it also gives you the opportunity to reflect on what each of you wants to carry forward or leave behind. What is most important to you? What are possible benefits and pitfalls of your similarities and differences? Where might you have to compromise? Discussing expectations now can prevent conflict and hurt feelings later.