The first is illustrated by the reflections of a candidate for a psychiatric residency: “My parents got along well. My father was in charge of everything—money, church, and who checked the locks at night. You might call him a benevolent dictator. He was not harsh—he just took care of everything and the net result was total control. Mother seemed not to mind, seemed even to be very happy with being so well taken care of—it really was sort of a parent-child marriage.” He went on to describe his own marriage as one that was very different. “I didn’t want all the power—I really wanted a more equal relationship with shared responsibilities, and that’s what we have. I’m very happy and think my wife is too.”
There are several issues reflected in this vignette. One is the question of how many persons want their marriage to be like that of their parents. One study of spouses with successful marriages reported that only 5% said they based their marriages on that of their parents, but there are no data from representative populations.5 Five percent may be too low: we simply do not know.
A second question is whether dominant-submissive parental marriages that seem acceptable to both parents have any downside for their children. Once again we are without systematic data, but it is not hard to speculate that such marriages may indoctrinate some children with very narrow sex roles. In the example given, the risk is that some sons may grow up believing that like their fathers they need to be in control of everything and that women are relatively incapable of executive functioning. Daughters are equally likely to grow up with such narrow and reduced expectations of themselves. Exactly what factors may encourage such internalizations and what factors may protect against them are simply not currently known.
Another and very different type of parental relationship is one characterized by the lack of any outward signs of emotional closeness. Such couples often treat each other with civility, but their lives seem to be on different tracks. A woman in couple’s therapy described her parents’ marriage as follows: “They’re both really nice people, but they don’t seem very much connected. I’ve never seen them hold hands, hug, or kiss. They both have friends but not usually the same ones. Their interests are also different—Dad is very literary, surrounded by books, and Mother plays golf almost every day. I’ve often wondered how they came to marry each other and be intimate enough to have 2 children,” she said, shaking her head.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the woman’s complaints about her husband in the above vignette centered on his lack of emotional availability, and initially she did not see the subtle ways in which she discouraged his infrequent attempts to be more available. At one level she had unconsciously selected a partner with whom a crucial aspect of her parents’ relationship was reenacted, which is not an uncommon repetition. Despite her conscious wish not to repeat this pattern, she had done so, and this speaks to the strength of early internalization.
It is, then, not just the internalizations of one’s relationships with each parent but the taking into one’s developing self the pattern of their relationship that can shape adult life. A recent attempt to study this phenomenon has been reported by Story and her colleagues.6 They studied young couples at the time of their marriages and 4 years later. The partners’ initial reports of negativity in their parents’ marriages were significant predictors of their own marital outcomes 4 years later. Both husbands and wives dem-onstrated observed negative behaviors in their interactions with each other at the 4-year follow-up. The authors discussed a number of potential mediators of the relationships between reported negativity in the parental marriages and the subsequent development of dysfunctional marital behaviors, but the truth is that we do not know.
It is clear there is much work to be done to better understand why some persons appear to repeat the often dysfunctional marital patterns of their parents and others do not. We know that the quality of one’s marriage is a potent influence on overall life satisfaction, physical and emotional health, and life meaning, so the work to be done has great importance.