Three Ways Your Parents Are Still Messing With You

Three ways your parents are still affecting your relationships: Attachment and Relationships.

We are all playing a game. A game we learned in childhood. The rules were given to us by our parents, not always written down or in words but through their actions. They taught us what was safe and what wasn’t. Their actions indicated to us when and whether we mattered, how and how loud to yell to get our needs met. Sometimes their inactions spoke even louder to us. And now, we continue to play the game each and every day. But here is the thing. You now have the power to change the rules, to see how your actions and inactions affect those around you. Our parents and early environment are absolutely the largest influences on our behavior and relationships today, but we are in charge now.

Three ways your parents are currently affecting your relationships

1. How you communicate…

Do you talk around an issue or straight to an issue? Do you shut down in a challenging conversation?  Do you add in subtle insults in your conversations?  Is your tone of voice supportive, aggressive, empathic or condescending? Do you like small talk or want to dive straight into religion and politics?

2. Whether you like to be touched…

Do you walk right up and hug someone or take a step back and push your firm hand shake out in front of you? Do you feel comfortable with public displays of affection? Do you think sex is a critical part of a relationship or the side game?

3. How you fight…

Do you clam up when you are upset? Or do you lean in and lay out an impenetrable argument? Do you raise your voice or walk away? Do you stonewall and pretend your partner doesn’t exist? Or do you take some time to calm down and then sit down to listen to your partner?

In the answers to all of these questions, we can see remnants of our parents. Your parents taught you key lessons that significantly affect your current romantic and non-romantic relationships

You were trained during your childhood to know…

1. What was safe and what wasn’t. Certain situations or environments may raise your blood pressure. You may fear or revel walking into a room of party-goers. My parents used to throw regular parties so my acclimation in that environment left me with skills to walk to a room of semi-strangers. Maybe you were raised in a suburb and your grandparents talked about how dangerous the city was, leaving you with a deeply seeded discomfort when walking between skyscrapers.

2. Who was safe and who wasn’t. Your parents likely communicated this to you in subtle and not so subtle ways. Your dad may have told you not to talk to strangers or your mom may have grabbed your arm and hurried her steps when she saw men on the sidewalk she perceived to be dangerous. On a recent walk with a friend of mine, I felt him tightened and step up his pace when we passed a group of homeless men on the sidewalk, likely a leftover reaction taught to him by another.

3. How to act to get your needs met. What was the most effective way to communicate your needs to your parents, regardless of whether they actually listened? I found stealing $300 worth of alcohol from my parents “alcohol closet” (who has an alcohol closet and doesn’t expect a teen to take some!) the most effective way to get my parents to notice I was starting to hang with a crowd that was getting me in trouble in 8th grade. You may have slammed the door to your bedroom and put on loud music as a way to communicate that someone at school was bullying you. One of my sons will quietly mope up the stairs with his head down, a clear indication he wants me to follow and ask him what he needs. Through our parents response to us, they taught us what works and what doesn’t to get our needs met.

We play out our childhood again and again. We go towards what is comfortable and familiar. Especially in times of duress, we fall back into our childhood patterns. Have you noticed how you act different with different people? Some people bring out the best in us and some bring out the worst! It is only through examining our lives and gaining an awareness of the patterns we learned oh so long ago that we have a chance of breaking out into more adaptive and healthier behaviors. My observations, which research backs up, is that one can move from insecure attachment behaviors to secure attachment behaviors through introspective, awareness and refinement (and by choosing partners that don’t replicate unhealthy situations).

Four basic profiles of adult attachment

Secure attachment. Secure attachments in adulthood emanate from secure attachments in childhood (or from lots of introspection and therapy). Typically, your parents paid attention to you, noticed when you were trying to communicate, nurtured you and also let you develop your independence. Your parents were the secure base from which you explored the world. You knew they would be there when you didn’t do well on the SAT, broke up with your girlfriend or when you came back on break from college.

Preoccupied (anxious) attachment. Adults with an adult profile of a preoccupied attachment often grew up with an ambivalent/anxious attachment with their parent(s). As adults, they are self-critical and insecure. They engage in behaviors to elicit approval and reassurance from others. Even when they get what they are seeking, it does nothing to relieve their self-doubt or that internal critical voice. These adults fear being rejected which translates into a lack of trust in their partner as well as anxiety in many situations. They may act clingy and overly dependent on their partner. They may seek a romanticized version of love and may seek to be rescued by love. Their insecurity leaves them turned against themselves and their partner and emotionally desperate in relationships. In clinging to their partner to seek a sense of safety, they tend to push their partner away, which reinforces their belief of themselves as unworthy and their belief that they were justified in not trusting their partner.

Dismissive attachment. A dismissive attachment in adulthood likely comes from an avoidance attachment in childhood. Adults with this profile avoid conflict, avoid emotion and may avoid relationships all together. They may be more comfortable being alone. When conflicts arise, they distance themselves and remain emotionally removed, having very little reaction. They may come off as self-absorbed or not caring.

Fearful avoidant attachment.  These adults may have grown up with disorganized attachments. In childhood, an adaptive pattern was detaching in times of trauma, and thus, in adulthood they may still detach from their own feelings and from others. However, they also seek relationships (and love) but their behaviors are characterized by ambivalence. They want and desire relationships until the emotional closeness is too much. Once people get too close, there is a fear of being hurt. So the person who is seen as necessary for safety is the same person that is too frightening to get close to. They may relive some of their old trauma in their present relationships. They tend to experience emotional ups and downs and they may find themselves in dramatic relationships. They may fear abandonment and also struggle with being intimate. They may cling to their partner when they feel rejected and then feel trapped when they are too close. There is little coherent sense of self or a clear, consistent connection with others.

Behavior You May See In People With a…

Secure Attachment: Comfortable in their own skin. Comfortable with intimacy and independence. Pursues one’s own passions and does activities with their partner. Communicates well. Empathic. Trusting. Preoccupied/Anxiously Attachment: Seeks approval and responsiveness. Seek high level of intimacy. Overly dependent. Lack of Trust. Clingy. Needy. Romanticizes love and relationships. Anxious. Insecure. Impulsive.
Dismissive Attachment: Independent. Emotionally unavailable. Suppress Feelings. Self-absorbed. (Appears) uncaring. Critical. Intolerant. Fearful/Avoidant Attachment: Ambivalent about relationships. Emotionally labile. Insensitive. Seek less intimacy. Suppress feelings. Fearful of abandonment. Lack of Trust. Clingy.

 Attachment Related Questions to Ask Yourself

Get curious about yourself. Start asking yourself questions. Reflect on your last relationship or your current one.

  • Do you push or pull when in a relationship?
  • Do you withhold your love? When?
  • Do you trust your partner? What raises feelings of mistrust?
  • Do you trust yourself? Why or why not?
  • How do you feel when someone expresses their love to you? What does your internal voice say when someone gives you a complement?
  • At what point do you start backing away from a relationship?
  • What do you over-react to?
  • When do you feel smothered? When do you smother others?

Two Major Take Away Messages

1. We instinctively go towards what is known or comfortable. Sometimes this is not a good thing. If you are hitting barriers or issues in your relationships, your best bet is to recognize your patterns and start creating new patterns.

2. We can change our attachment patterns. We, as adults, have the power to learn to read our environments differently, communicate our needs and make changes in how we behave.  We can also start making good choices in terms of our partners.  We can say no to people who bring out the worst in us and yes to those who bring out the best.

We all have issues. Every single one of us. The best we can do is be aware of our issues, communicate them to our partner and even start to make impactful changes. Come to the “Attachment in Relationships” workshop on Wednesday, January 21st 2015 from 6:30 to 8:30pm to learn to do just that. Register at localflamesmaine.com.


Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.

Erin is a researcher, relationship & divorce coach, and mediator.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child wellbeing and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Contact her now at erin@localflamesmaine.com or 207-200-3970.  More information here.  localflamesmaine.com

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