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Beware – your parents’ marriage can shape yours

The relationships we see growing up can subconsciously affect the way we behave in our own. Here’s how to know what patterns to not to take forward

As children, we tend to imbibe certain traits and patterns from being exposed to the kind of marriage their parents have, carrying it forward into our relationships as adults
As children, we tend to imbibe certain traits and patterns from being exposed to the kind of marriage their parents have, carrying it forward into our relationships as adults

We can read and educate ourselves about romantic relationships, but we can never know, with certainty, how we will behave when we are in one. This knowledge will come to us only with the experience of being in a relationship.

I am sure we have all, at some point, wondered why we acted the way we did in certain situations in our relationships. If we look at ourselves with objectivity, we’d probably agree that there are times when did not need to have acted irrationally. Yet, we’d struggle to find a logical explanation to how we didn’t know better in the moment. Why?

The answers can often be traced to who we had as our childhood role models.

Take R and K for instance. They have been married for two years. In our first session R mentioned that she had braced herself to face the anecdotal fact that the first year of marriage is always hard. With even their second year gone, the struggle continues. There is love and care, stimulating conversations and intimacy, but, she says there is a lack of harmony.

According to R, her husband K goes to great lengths to pick a fight. She adds that it almost seems like he derives some form of comfort from these fights, something that normal folks will find uncomfortable. From fights that are are for legitimate reasons, like insensitivity in a situation, to fights that seem banal, like why the fan was switched off while sweeping the floor, the last two years have been volatile. R says that her patience has finally run out. Their last fight was about how a packet of chips should be opened, that’s when R decided they need external intervention.

To K’s credit, after R pointed out that he itches to pick a fight, he agreed with her. But even with this awareness, he is unable to stop himself from slipping into this behaviour pattern. He too, craves a peaceful home. Yet he seems more comfortable when the environment is angst-laden and there are altercations between him and R. We delve into his behaviour in other environments, at work, with siblings and friends to establish if this is a personality trait. Especially since R mentions that she did not see this side of him while they were dating. K seemed to have no red flags in any of his other extended relationships.

We then got to the kind of relationship his parents have had. K’s parents have lived separately ever since he and his sister left home for further studies. They never got along, says K. In fact, he was the mediator for most of their fights. Not only was he exposed to the fights as a child, but he was also eventually involved in the fights. By this point, it was clear that K’s exposure to this aspect of his parents’ marriage might be a big reason for this problem. Even though he hated being pulled into their fights, there was a sense of comfort he derived from the familiar way his “role models” behaved, however dysfunctional it might have been.

R’s parents on the other hand, have had a great marriage. She has rarely been exposed to any fights, except maybe heated arguments. Hence, what K finds comforting, seems downright toxic to R.

Fortunately for them, they are keen to make their marriage work. To this end, we define some immediate and simple steps that they both need to commit to. K will be in self-observation mode. As much as possible, he will curb the urge to fight. R, will not engage when he tries to pick a fight. Ideally, she will leave the room and not be present to avoid any encouragement that a dialogue might cause.

Being aware of our actions, and what informs them, or why you do them, is always helpful. Once that awareness is in order, the next stage is to break any patterns that get ingrained in you from your childhood. It is always better to start with baby steps and to give yourself the time to unlearn what we may have learned unconsciously.

For children, the primary role models are their parents or guardians. Their regular presence in a child’s life sets the pattern for the way life is to be lived. This is especially true about the kind of person one falls in love with, and the kind of marriage they will seek as adults. Another client of mine is a successful entrepreneur. At the workplace she comes across as a go getter and extremely confident. However, by her own admission she is a completely different person in front of her husband — meek and subservient. As we work towards bringing in her confident approach at work into her marriage, my client is acutely aware that this familiar behaviour pattern is exactly like her mother’s, who had always been fearful, meek and subservient with her father.

The fact is it is impossible for parents to not be role models. Children lack the maturity, or do not have the control, to decide what they will imbibe from being exposed to the kind of marriage their parents have. Loving, joyful, steadfast, positive; or dysfunctional, toxic, abusive, and negative – these will become the comfort zones the children will seek when they grow up. This is due to the strange comfort of familiarity that having a similar environment offers. Identifying the negative patterns and breaking them then becomes essential to have a peaceful and happy relationship. Which then leads to breaking this pattern when you have your own children. Both are compelling reasons to make the effort to enhance your relationship with your partner.

This is a limited series by Simran Mangharam, a dating and relationship coach, who can be reached on

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