How Your Childhood Can Affect Your Marriage

Statement of Faith

We believe that God created man and that He created them male and female. As such He created them different so as to complement and complete each other. God instituted monogamous marriage between male and female as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. Therefore, we perform and mentor marriages in accordance with Biblical guidelines. (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-6; John 4:16-18; Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 5:11, 6:9-11. 6:18-20, 7:1-3 and 7:8-9; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-7; 1 Timothy 1:9-11)


By Terry Gaspard MSW,
LICSW is a licensed therapist and author

Your past has a bigger impact on your present than you think

When Deborah, 38, and Scott, 39, (*not their real
 sat on the couch in my office during a couples counseling
session, they described their pursuer-distancer pattern. Deborah seeks more
connection and affirmation than Scott is comfortable giving. When Deborah makes
demands, Scott retreats because 
he feels criticized and

Deborah put it like this, “I feel so lonely in my marriage like
I did growing up. I don’t think my parents cared much about me. They were
either fighting or threatening to leave. Eventually, my dad moved out when I
was ten and never turned back. My therapist says my fear of abandonment is
triggered by Scott’s withdrawal and I know she’s right. But it’s hard to give
him space when I need reassurance.” 

Scott reflects, “When Deborah gets clingy and points out
my faults, like not paying attention to her, it makes me feel trapped and
discouraged. So, I just walk away.”

What I explained to Deborah and Scott is that we tend to
have a composite picture of the people who influenced us in the past—their
looks, personality, tone of voice, behavior, and other traits. People often
gravitate toward relationships that resemble their parents or the way their
parents treated them.

For instance, you might pick someone who is emotionally
detached because one of your parents was that way. Psychoanalysts refer to this
as “repetition compulsion.” It’s an unconscious tendency to want to fix the
past, to recreate it, to make it better. 


Everyone has assumptions about how relationships work
based on their prior experiences. These assumptions, which include how others
treat you, can lead to unrealistic expectations, misunderstandings, and

“We humans are unique in how much error we pass along to
our offspring. This is problematic, since children lack the intellectual or
emotional base of experience to know whether their parents’ messages are
correct. Thus, a woman who was constantly told that men can’t be trusted
complied with this belief by choosing men who couldn’t be trusted or by
provoking men to behave in an untrustworthy fashion.”

Coleman, Ph.D.

Most people enter marriage with unrealistic expectations
that their partner will restore wholeness. They have a faint memory of their
childhood and attempt to recreate it. Truthfully, even in families where
parents did their best to nurture their children and maintain stability, there
is a myriad of opportunities for things to go wrong. 

In Keeping the Love You Find, Harville
Hendrix, Ph.D., writes “We develop defenses against the inadequacies of our
childhoods, over which we have no control, and we drag them along with us
wherever we go, whomever we’re with. These are coping mechanisms, which,
through repetition, harden into character defenses that continue through life
to obey the original mandate to ensure our survival. They are the only way we
know to protect us in what we perceive as threatening situations.”

For instance, Deborah clings to Scott when he recoils
from her. This behavior can be traced back to her childhood when she’d reach
for her dad and he’d 
turn away from
her. However, Deborah focuses on the few times her father took her to the beach
and bought her ice cream. Since she idealized her father, Scott rarely lives up
to her expectations. 

Or, Scott withdraws at the first sign that Deborah
criticizes him. He reenacts early patterns of experiencing harsh criticism from
his demanding father. When Deborah makes critical remarks, he withdraws and
pushes her away. He fears being controlled by her, like he was by his dad.


When you get close to someone, it can bring to the
surface unresolved issues from the past. In Deborah’s case, she wasn’t aware of
her fear of abandonment until after she married to Scott. Due to the
inconsistency in her caregivers, she developed an 
 style. It’s difficult to separate
from Scott and see him as a person with good qualities and flaws.

Likewise, Scott’s avoidant
 style developed as a result of having
a father who was controlling and insensitive. Scott’s fear of entrapment
surfaced after the birth of their son when Deborah started needing more support
(she found parenting challenging due to ineffective role models). 

Once Deborah and Scott gained awareness about how the
differences in their attachment styles contributed to their 
pursuer-distancer dynamic,
they could discuss it and felt less triggered. They learned to empathize and be
more understanding.


Most experts believe that the first step in getting out
from the shadow of your past is to gain awareness. This means to adopt a more
realistic picture of your childhood. Do this by talking to one or both of your
parents, siblings, or close friends. Try to maintain an open mind, even if
their memories of your childhood differ significantly from your own.

Next, examine the extent that childhood experiences
affect the way you experience your partner’s behavior. Pay special attention to
the ways your parents dealt with conflict. Did they communicate effectively,
argue for extended periods, or sweep things under the rug? If they rarely spent
time together discussing issues, this might cause you to overreact to your partner
he or she turns away from you. Then,
acknowledge the damage done in your childhood and focus on healing rather than
blame. Take ownership of how unhealthy dynamics in your upbringing may color
your thinking about your partner. You can develop an accepting perspective by
focusing on their strengths rather than flaws. Make a plan to repair any damage
done. For instance, attend 
couples counseling and
read books together such Dr. John Gottman’s book 
Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime
of Love.