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What Did Your Parents Teach You about Relationships? (A Discussion) July 6, 2009

Posted by Onely in Food for Thought, Guest Posts.
Tags: , , , , ,

Recently, fellow singles blogger, Special K, offered to collaborate with us on a special post in which the three of us wrote brief responses to the question, “What did your parents teach you about relationships?”

You’ll note that we each hold markedly different perspectives on the issue, and we hope you’ll offer your own below!

Special K says:

“Sheesh, nothing,” one muttered… Well, that’s not exactly true. Like parenting, most people’s parents leave an impression on things you’d like to do that they did, and things that you’d like NOT to do that they did. Parents are powerful role models (we can talk about other role models another time) as well as mirrors for our own relationships. So here’s the thing: whether single or married, with kids, or with dog, your parents matter to your current single-or-not status. Period.

Why? 1) They taught you something about relationships through their relationships with other adults. For example: Did they have friends? Did they kiss in front of you? How did they support each other in their careers? How did they handle conflict? 2) They taught you something about relationships through their relationship with you. This is the old “blame the parent” approach for why you’re current love life sucks (“Your dad never paid attention to you/paid too much attention to you when you FILL IN THE BLANK”). I think this influence, however, is not as strong as #1. Or at least it isn’t for me, due to the many other influences and inputs I have in my life (education, books, role models, the media, traveling). Perhaps for other people, #2 above does hold more power than #1.

Maybe it’s my personality. Maybe it’s where I live (in an urban liberal setting versus a conservative rural one). Maybe it’s because I ate dog food when I was little…I don’t know exactly why; I just know that if I start digging around in my past with either one of my parents, I remain un-changed. It’s not that your parents will DEFINE your approach or philosophy of/about relationships, but rather that they inform it. I am not now single because my parents demonstrated an extreme lack of shared interests and later divorced after 20+ years. But it does add to my disillusionment about whether one long-term relationship can THRIVE and “complete” a person… My parents’ flaws relationally serve as the foundation for the disillusionment, perhaps, but so does our instant voyeuristic Jon-and-Kate-plus-eight culture. They now carry equal balance in shaping my philosophy – compared to my adolescence, for example, when pleasing my peers carried more weight than anything, but now it doesn’t. Wait! Do I have a relationship philosophy? Hmmm….

Lisa says:

I always knew I didn’t want to get married or have kids. Well, that’s not entirely true: I assumed I would get married, but I didn’t want a wedding. And I thought that if I did have kids, the rest of my life would have to be completely stable for my perfectionist self to raise those kids the way I wanted – and because stability seemed so far away, kids did too. Today, of course, I am sure I don’t want either.

I would say that, unlike Special K, although contemporary pop culture influences my perspective, much of my current (and long-standing) perspective about relationships absolutely stems from my parents. A short history: My parents are still married today, but I grew up with them fighting almost daily. They came close to divorce in my teens, but apparently managed to salvage the relationship when they moved from the Midwest to the Bay Area when I left for college. I think they should have gotten a divorce a long time ago, but they held onto the belief that divorce was morally wrong, and so they have lived through a relationship that has made them both unhappy. Whenever I visit, I am sharply reminded of my childhood, as they continue to squabble and carry the same painfully bad habits of communication as they always have. It makes me miserable. It always has.

And so that has been my model of marriage and parenting. When I was younger, my parents’ marriage made me dread (and refuse to address) conflict in my own relationships – a problem in itself. Now that I’m older, I feel incredibly cynical about how having a single, long-term relationship can be intrinsically valuable. And now that I’ve gotten over the assumption that I will get married or that I must have kids, I feel incredibly comfortable being single and childless. Because otherwise, I might turn into my parents!

Christina says:

I’m going to weigh in here because I don’t want any heteronormaholes who are reading this to think that we in the singles-advocacy community are “just” reacting to our parents’ poor marriages. My parents have a strong marriage, are very happy, have excellent communication skills with each other, and are often laughing. And yet I, like Lisa, am in no hurry to find a significant other, and I do not ever intend to get married. Perhaps this is because–if we go back to Special K’s theory that we cannot escape our parents’ influence–I base my standards for a relationship on my parents’, which is a tough model to follow. But I can’t just lower my standards. Once you’ve had Ben and Jerry’s ice cream you can’t just go back to Giant-brand frozen yogurt.

Readers, how do you answer the question: “What did your parents teach you about relationships?” And how does it relate to your single status today?


1. Alan - July 6, 2009

Like Christina, my parents had a strong marriage. And like Christina I was never interested in marriage.

While my mom mentioned a few times that she would like to see me married, I didn’t really receive any pressure to marry.

My sister married, but did so later in life.

2. Keysha - July 6, 2009


MY mom didn’t even let me have boys call the house, so by the time I got to college and had my first boyfriend, I was socially inept.

Then she didn’t have a boyfriend, after she broke up with my dad. So maybe that’s taught me that relationships are not necessary . . .

hmmm never thought about that.

We shared your post today on SingleWomenRule.com

3. specialkphd - July 6, 2009

Research does show that it is not whether or not your parents get a divorce or stay together that leads to good outcomes for kids, but the LEVEL of hostility in their divorce/marriage.

4. Amanda - July 6, 2009

I think that my mom’s constant need to have a man in her life, and to a lesser extent, my sister’s, has really taught me the value of enjoying being by myself and really knowing who I am and what I want out of a partner. I think both of them have been with people that weren’t exactly good for them (or for me and my sister, in the case of my mom’s boyfriends) just because they couldn’t handle being alone. My parent’s divorce hasn’t turned me off marriage, and my mom’s subsequent two didn’t either–rather, it’s reminded me that it’s important that I’m with someone who’s good for me, to not settle just for the sake of being with someone. I’d like to beat the odds, and in my mind, the only way I’m going to have a chance at that is really being true to myself and what I want. And until then, I’m willing to be by myself until I do find it.

5. bobby - July 6, 2009

Basically what I learned was from Mom. She taught me to love and respect woman in general, but to be partners with my wife or girlfriend. She believed marriage should last “’til death do us part.” The main thing I got from her was to be honest and treat my partner with respect. I’ve always carried that lesson with me through life and I’m glad that I have because she was right!

6. Lauri - July 7, 2009

My parents are still together, and I don’t know if they have a “good” marriage or not. I think at this point, it’s just the way it is. I thinkmy parents’ relationship has shown me that a lot of marriage is an economic partnership, a division of labor. My parents are very traditional. While my mother worked when I was really little and again once I was in high school, she was really in charge of EVERYTHING regarding the house and kids except for making the bulk of the money. I think this aspect did make me more suspicious of men’s motives for marriage, and made me think of marriage as being sort of practical but not really fair.

In terms of relationships in general, I don’t think I learned much of anything from my parents. This may or may not be the reason I didn’t even go on a date until I was about 23. I always wanted boyfriends growing up, but never thought I could get one. I don’t know how much of this idea my parents contributed to- I know that once in high school I liked this guy I was friends with and my mother dissuaded me from telling him because he wouldn’t like me other than as a friend. I think my parents eshewed any ideas I had about boys- that it was a frivolous thing to waste my time thinking about when there were math tests and swim meets to worry about. I think my parents always stressed the importance of being able to support myself. I think they assumed I would get married, but oddly enough they always said you can’t count on anyone else. This I think was very interesting given how interdependent their economic relationship is. I had a lot of crushes in college, but I took college so unbelievably seriously I’m not surprised I never had any luck with boys. I never really worried about my appearance or anything, because as my dad always put it, going to class and getting good grades was what I was getting “paid” for.

To this day, my parents never really comment about my lack of marriage, except for occasionally expressing their desire for grandchildren.

I think it’s interesting that you ask if our parents had friends. That’s one thing that was hugely important in to my parents. They’ve always copious amounts of friends. And though they don’t say anything about my lack of boy, they do often comment on how I need more and/or “better” friends. Socializing is huge to them. I grew up with a lot of defacto aunts and uncles- this may be why I expect more out of friends than I sometimes get. Interestingly though, all of my parents’ friends are married, and all have at least 2 kids. Also all of them start off as my father’s friends- I’ve never met anyone who was my just my mother’s friend.

onely - July 9, 2009

Interesting that your parents didn’t criticize your relationship status, but rather your friends–and that they eschewed your tendencies towards dating in favor of other hobbies. All while having a very interdependent relationship themselves. Could they have been trying to protect you from something about their lifestyle that they didn’t like, and/or couldn’t extricate themselves from? Or am I making too much of a V.C. Andrews novel out of this?

7. Rachel - July 7, 2009

This is a very interesting post because I’ve been puzzled by how I ended up drinking the matrimania cool-aid. Maybe it’s because my parents seem to have a good marriage that it never occurred to me until I was almost 40 that I could just choose to be single! I did have an uncle who chose to be single – at least from what I’ve heard, I never had a chance to actually talk with him about it (he died a few years ago). Or maybe it’s being steeped in matrimania in society. It’s probably “all of the above” and it might be very difficult to sort out what’s what.

I think overall, we’re creating new ways of living, of relating, which makes living single exciting but also scary. The role models for a successful (happy) single life are rare… To me that makes it even more important to connect with other single folks, especially older ones, who can replace our parents as default role models (or add to them).

8. Simone Grant - July 8, 2009

Amazing post. Made me think – a lot. Hope you don’t mind but I just linked to it from my blog.

9. onely - July 8, 2009

Wow, it seems like you all have such varied responses to this question — much like the three of us did! I do think that we all learn something about relationships from seeing those around us thrive — or shrivel — in theirs. I’m no psychologist, but it’s certainly worth remembering so we can better understand ourselves and the decisions we make.

Thanks, also, Simone and Keysha, for linking to us!!

— Lisa

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