And Now, Your Parents' Relationship?

January 1, 2009

She paused for a few moments and then responded, "I don't know when children may begin to think their parents are unhappy with each other except, of course, if there are a lot of arguments and fights. My parents didn't argue or fight, but they were not openly affectionate either.

She paused for a few moments and then responded, "I don't know when children may begin to think their parents are unhappy with each other except, of course, if there are a lot of arguments and fights. My parents didn't argue or fight, but they were not openly affectionate either.

“They were just there, and I never thought about it-nor did I have any other marriages to compare, no grandparents or aunts and uncles around. Then, when I was 12 or 13, my mother began talking to me about how unhappy she was with my father. She told me he was cold, uncaring and, at times, mean. I remember feeling very uncomfortable, like I was being asked to take sides.”

These recollections of a parental marriage were shared with me in one of several exploratory interviews that is a part of the ordination process for the Episcopal Church. The primary intent of the interviews is to screen out aspirants for whom a religious vocation may be psychologically unsuitable. One module of the data that I seek is the pattern of interpersonal relationships across the aspirant’s life. Most of these persons are in midlife, and it is often possible to identify a clear pattern of relationships beginning with early attachment experiences with both parents. Another source of helpful data is the nature of the recalled parental relationship-the adult relationship most persons’ early development is immersed in and reactive to.

In contrast with the thousands of studies of infant and adult attachment patterns, there has been little systematic research on the developmental impact of various parental relationship patterns. Our own research at the Timberlawn Research Foundation in Dallas has demonstrated that observed parental interactions influence a child’s early development independent of his or her relationship with each parent.1 The problem, however, with adult recollections of early-life parental relationships is that they often change over time and may do so outside the person’s awareness. One longitudinal study, for example, reported major changes in the recall of parental warmth from adolescence to midlife.2 Another of our studies revealed that new mothers’ family of origin memories changed in response to the availability and helpfulness of their husbands.3 These findings are part of a growing number that suggest that just as past influences present, the present influences how the past is recalled.

The Episcopal aspirant’s recollections of her childhood experience of her parents’ marriage are not, I believe, unusual. Unless there is obvious discord or clear revelation of marital unhappiness, the child denies that there is anything wrong. It is simply too threatening to believe that one’s world may fall apart. Those readers who are inclined to skepticism about childhood denial need to be aware of studies that document the relationship of parental marital unhappiness to phys­iologic markers of anxiety in children as young as 4 years.4 It seems clear from such studies that an unhappy parental marriage will probably result in anxiety for at least some of the children. We are not, however, able to say which children are most vulnerable. Can age, sex, sibling rank order, or other relatively straightforward variables be crucial? Or is vulnerability a much more complex process that involves, for example, the child’s affect sensitivity, anxiety level, or early identifications? We simply do not know what factors influence whether a child may be particularly susceptible to what is going on in his parents’ relationship.

We also are ignorant of whether it is simply the lack of parental marital satisfaction that is toxic to some children or whether specific parental relationship patterns are-separate and apart from level of satisfaction-disruptive to vulnerable children’s development. To illustrate, 2 very different relationship patterns can be described. One can be called a “dominant-submissive, complimentary relationship”; the other can be described as a “distant but nonconflicted pattern.”

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.


1. Lewis JM. The Birth of the Family: An Empirical Inquiry. New York: Brunner/Mazel; 1989.
2. Offer D, Kaiz M, Howard KI, Bennett ES. The altering of reported experiences. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2000;39:735-742.
3. Lewis JM, Owen MT. Stability and change in family- of-origin recollections over the first four years of parenthood. Fam Process. 1995;34:455-469.
4. Gottman JM, Katz LF. The effects of marital discord on young children’s peer interaction and health. Dev Psychol. 1989;25:373-381.
5. Wallerstein JS, Blakeslee S. The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co; 1995.
6. Story LB, Karney BR, Lawrence E, Bradbury TN. Interpersonal mediators in the intergenerational transmission of marital dysfunction. J Fam Psychol. 2004; 18:519-529.