How Your Relationship with Your Parents Can Affect Your Romantic Relationships
“She has daddy issues.” “He’s such a mama’s boy.” You’ve probably heard these phrases at least once in your life. With any luck, they weren’t directed at you or your partner. People might flippantly refer to parental issues, but there’s truth behind these statements: the relationship you have with your parents can affect your romantic relationships for the rest of your life.
It’s not just the way your parents treated you, either. The quality of their relationship with each other will also influence how you relate to others. Since children accept their home life as normal, you might have grown up thinking that all families operate the same way. It’s not until much later, as adults, that we have enough perspective to gauge whether our families were emotionally healthy.
If you’ve ever blamed your parents for the way you relate to partners, read on. Your relationship with your parents may very well be influencing your romantic relationships.
A quick introduction to attachment styles
Your early childhood sets the tone for your attachment style throughout the rest of your life. Researchers have found that the way parents treat their infants sets the stage for how the child relates to others.
There are four main attachment styles: anxious-preoccupied, avoidant-dismissive, disorganized/fearful-avoidant, and secure. These develop as a child discovers what they can expect from their parents or caregivers. “The child is dependent on his or her caregivers and seeks comfort, soothing, and support from them. If the child’s physical and emotional needs are satisfied, he or she becomes securely attached.” If, however, your parents did not meet your physical and emotional needs, you may find yourself anxious, avoidant or ambivalent.
It makes sense: if your parents emotionally neglected you, you probably had to act out to get the attention you needed. On the other hand, if your parents put you in the middle of emotional drama, you might avoid complicated situations and expressions of affection. Some parents disapprove of emotional expression so much that kids are trained not to let on how much they need love and support. Worst of all, if you grew up in an abusive home, you might not be able to form emotional attachments at all.
Attachment styles are complicated, and many people don’t fit solely into one style. However, if you find yourself struggling in relationships, it’s worth exploring further.
If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother
Sometimes our issues stem from just one parent. When a person has “mommy issues,” it can manifest differently. For example, a woman with mommy issues often felt verbally abused or put down by her mother, whereas a “mama’s boy” “can happen when moms are super servile and instill in men a sense that this is how women should behave.”
All of these dynamics contribute to insecure or avoidant attachment styles. For example, “[s]o-called mommy issues can also result from overprotective or overly permissive mother-child dynamics. Maybe she did all the household chores and looked the other way when you made mistakes. Or perhaps she tried to be your best friend and confidant, not your mother.”
In short, your mother is often the person who sets up your expectations regarding nurturing and caregiving. A dysfunctional relationship with her can manifest in your romantic relationships later on.
Dads play a role in attachment styles, too
“Daddy issues” also affect men and women differently. Women with emotionally unavailable or absent fathers are more prone to sexually risky behavior and have difficulty setting boundaries with romantic partners. Men experience “a range of issues, including the lack of a male role model, feelings of inadequacy such as a lack of self-confidence and self-esteem, and a quest in adulthood to find father substitutes.”
Fathers face fewer societal expectations regarding emotional support and nurturing—but their absence can affect children just as deeply as a dysfunctional relationship with either parent. Their behavior sends a message, and it’s one you can subconsciously assume without even realizing it.
Overcoming attachment issues
Again, these early childhood experiences affect your attachment styles, as well as the way you see potential partners of either sex. If the overview above has pinged your parental issue radar, read up on attachment styles and early childhood development. Then consider what your family dynamics have taught you about how relationships work, how you perceive partners of your preferred gender(s) and whether you see any recurring themes.
We can blame our parents for a lot—including that weird cowlick from Dad—but ultimately, the power to work with or overcome your attachment styles comes from within. If your parental relationships continue to dog your romantic relationships, the key to happiness lies in self-reflection.