Marital Blind Spots: Miming Our Parents’ Mistakes

Marital Blind Spots: Miming Our Parents’ Mistakes May 27, 2012

I recently read a guest post called “But He Never Hit Her.” Every once in a while I run across a post that really makes me think and evaluate my own actions, and this was one of them. The author starts by talking about her parents’ abusive relationship and then goes on to talk about how growing up with this view of marriage as normal affected her own marriage. After quoting from the article, I’ll provide some of my own thoughts and experiences with this.

So many people think that abuse is hitting. I thought so growing up. Now I know better. It is one form of abuse, but not the only one. For years, I watched and listened as my dad abused my mom without ever laying a hand on her. He never cussed her out. … Now I see that he didn’t need to do that. He held her hostage emotionally, spiritually, mentally and financially to such an extent that he never needed to cross those tangible lines of physical violence.  He controlled her in other ways.  His put downs and sarcastic barbs, his raging silences and a host of other tactics….

It wasn’t bad all the time, though.  There were enough good moments to make her feel crazy.  Maybe it really was her fault.  It had to be.  He wasn’t a bad person–in fact, he had the respect of the people around him who were convinced that he was a wonderful, Godly man.  If only she could just try a little harder and not set him off with her stupidity, her slovenliness, and all the ways she hurt his feelings.

That is the lesson I learned of what marriage looked like. And that is the filter through which I interpreted my own husband’s actions, even when his motives were entirely different. I took in my dad’s control tactics as the way to “win”, but at the same time learned to feel helpless like my mother, because that is what I saw and felt then. Those lessons are hard to unlearn.

… I didn’t repeat the cycle of marrying an abuser. But my mind was still locked into playing out some of the same scenarios. To ascribing the same motives to my husband, and of myself alternating between the roles of aggressor and victim. I’ve spoken with the same contemptuous tone of voice that my father used. I’ve reenacted her passivity. Most of all, I’ve come to the realization that I have no idea what a healthy marriage looks like. I haven’t spent enough time around one.

While my parents’ relationship was never abusive or one-sided like that of the author’s parents, my parents did have their own little tactics they would use as they sought to navigate a marriage they increasingly sought to base on extreme differences in gender roles. The “silent treatment” or the “emotional treatment,” generally combined with a good dose of passive aggressiveness – that kind of thing. Communication was never simple or straightforward because it was littered with little stratagems like this. I grew up with this as my model of what a relationship was supposed to look like.

And, when I got married, like the author of the above article, I repeated the patterns I had seen growing up. Like her, “my mind was still locked into playing out some of the same scenarios.” Like her I would try to psychoanalyze my husband, attributing to him all the wrong emotions and intentions based on the patterns I had seen growing up, and like her I sometimes used my father’s little tactics or my mother’s little ploys, whatever it seemed like would work best in a given situation. I’ve mimed my father and I’ve mimed my mother, but somehow these tactics and ploys never seemed to work the way I’d seen them work growing up.

You see, my husband was raised in a family where communication was straightforward and the use of such tactics as the “silent treatment” or the “emotional treatment” did not occur, at least where he could see them. He never saw his parents try to manipulate each other or supplant straightforward communication with psychological ploys. And so when I tried to use the various tactics I’d seen modeled growing up to manipulate my husband, it didn’t work. In fact, it kind of confused him.

Through my husband’s patience and my own self reflection I’ve come to value straightforward communication and realize how manipulative the tactics and ploys I tried to use really were. Today my husband and I are working together to create new patterns. We still have a long way to go, because it’s still so easy for me to simply follow the patterns I saw growing up as a sort of auto pilot. But little by little, we’re getting there.

Now I should point out that none of this is meant to indict my parents specifically; the reality is that no relationship is perfect, and theirs was a lot better than it could have been. And indeed, my husband and I will almost certainly set other patterns that are less than healthy and may drive my daughter nuts when she grows up and finds herself miming them. My point is merely to explain why the article above spoke to me so, because in so many ways it is my story too. It is so easy to run on autopilot, repeating the marital patterns I saw growing up whether they are healthy or not.

Sometimes we don’t realize how much what we saw modeled as children continues to affect us as adults.

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