For better or worse, most couples follow similar patterns that they saw their parents’ model for them. However, with self-awareness of our core beliefs and behaviors, we can begin to make intentions about having a different kind of marriage. This comes down to how we are taught to view ourselves as capable or inadequate of having a successful marriage, and whether we are deserving of love or unworthy.
Most experts believe that the first step in getting out from the shadow of your past is to gain awareness. Authors Gay Hendricks, Ph.D. and Kathlyn Hendricks, Ph.D. write, “A close relationship is a powerful light force, and like any strong light it casts a large shadow. When you stand in the light of a close relationship, you must learn to deal with the shadow.”
5 Tips to stop sabotaging your marriage:
- Gain awareness of your past and your expectations of marriage. Talk to your parents about their marriage and reflect on your childhood. Examine the extent that your childhood experiences affect your present experience and expectations about your partner’s behavior.
- Acknowledge the damage that was done and shift to an impersonal perspective – focus on understanding and healing rather than blame. Seeing your parents with new eyes can facilitate healing.
- Take responsibility for the ways you contribute to unhealthy dynamics with your partner and stop blaming him/her for your unhappiness. You might have unrealistic expectations of how a relationship should be – leading to disappointment.
- Begin to repair damage such as becoming more aware of your core beliefs and negative thoughts by writing your thoughts and feelings in a journal. For instance, you might believe that most relationships end badly and this can cause you to give up too easily on your own marriage. Therapy can be helpful when dealing with past issues impacting your marriage.
- Make positive intentions such as: “I desire a close, respectful and loving relationship with my partner.” Set up a few specific goals to address these intentions such as making comments to show appreciation to your partner two times a day and showing them affection. Keep in mind that your intention is your vision and your goal can help you attain it. Be sure to write it down and monitor it by asking your spouse, “How am I doing on showing you more appreciation and love lately.”
Perhaps it’s because intimate relationships bring the possibility of love and closeness that we are confronted with wounds from our past. For instance, Holly is a caring mother who has been married to Tom for six years. At 35 years old, she is aware that she sabotages relationships that might be good for her. Holly’s thinking mistake is to minimize the positive aspects of her marriage and to jump to the conclusion that their marriage is over when they go through a challenging period. As a result, she stonewalls by withdrawing and issues ultimatums when they disagree – leaving Tom confused because he was raised in an intact family, values marriage, and doesn’t want to give up on their marriage.
With great intensity in her voice Holly says, “It’s almost as if I’m reliving my past. It’s like I’m so familiar with pain that I want to end it before it gets horrible between us. I don’t feel comfortable with waiting things out and seeing if they’ll get better because of how my parents’ marriage ended.”
Holly reflects: “I just have this tremendous urge to hurt Tom before he has a chance to hurt me, so I go into a shell to protect myself. My therapist is helping me to see this pattern and since I’ve stopped threatening to leave, Tom isn’t as frustrated with me.”
According to Dr. Joshua Coleman, author of The Marriage Makeover humans are unique in how much error they pass along to their offspring. He writes: “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 by her mother that men can’t be trusted complied with this belief by constantly choosing men who couldn’t be trusted or by provoking men to behave in an untrustworthy fashion.”
Many people fear being vulnerable with their partners, believing they will get hurt and will lose out on love. Fear of relationship failure is something Holly knows well. Many times, even in the most blissful of moments, there is a lingering thought in the back of her head that her marriage will not work, and that it will come crashing down on her. She explains, “I’m don’t want to follow the path of my parents. I’m also scared to open myself up to Tom, probably because of fear of being rejected by him.”
When we avoid memories from our parents’ marriage, it can cause us to project inaccurate feelings and intentions on to our partner. For example, if your mother suffered from depression when you were growing up and your father was gone a lot, you may have become a “parentified” child who took on too much responsibility. As an adult, you could be overbearing or controlling with your partner if you’re not aware of this pattern.
In order to be a more loving and competent partner, we need to be able to look in the mirror to reflect upon our feelings and mindset related to our view of intimate relationships. For instance, once Holly realized that she was sabotaging her marriage by giving up too soon when she issued ultimatums such as threating to leave. Once she realized this, she was able to minimize the impact of some of their negative patterns of relating (such as bickering) and she began focusing on improving communication by stating what she needed in positive ways and not assuming the worst of Tom.
You don’t have to let your parents’ marriage or divorce dictate the decisions you make today. With self-awareness, practice, and patience, you can begin to imagine and experience the kind of marriage you’ve always dreamed of. Like all challenges in life, greater awareness and willingness to work on an issue can spark positive change over time.
Find Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True on February 18, 2020.
I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry