Preserving the Good from My Family
How Does the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from our Families Affect Me—and What Do I Do about It?
By Dr. Thomas B. Holman and Abby Viveiros
We have sayings about that, and you have probably heard them: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” “Chip off the old block,” and “Like father, like son.” In a lot of cases, we hope these sayings are true—we admire our parents and hope we can live up to their examples as individuals, as a couple, and as parents. But even that “good scenario” raises a question: Do I have to do anything to be like them, or does it just happen because I was reared by two great parents?” In a word, YES—you have to do something. So that means you are going to have to work to make sure that your children can have as great examples to look up to as you had.
But what if there are things, maybe really terrible things, which were a part of my family life? Can I do anything about them or am I doomed, am I just going to be a chip off the old block? The answer to this question is NO you are not doomed because of what happened or didn’t happen in your family, and YES you can keep negative things which happened in your family from affecting your ability to establish a loving, high quality marital relationship. Children are not doomed by parents’ mistakes. Breaking away from the actions of the past is not always simple, but we’ll show you how.
What Does Chip Off the Old Block?
There is a great deal of research about what is passed on from parent to child. The research shows that families tend to transmit their family processes to each new generation.
Let’s get one thing straight before we go any further. We are talking about family processes, not events or happenings. Why is that an important distinction? Because most of you have probably heard people talk about how events like divorce or happenings like abuse or mental illness are passed on from one generation to the next. In fact, if your parents divorced, or if there was abuse between your parents or involving you or your siblings, or if there was a serious emotional disorder like depression, then statistically speaking your probability of divorcing, abusing, or suffering an emotional illness is somewhat increased. Somewhat increased, not absolutely going to happen! That is a very important distinction.
Cancer happens a lot in my family. My father died of cancer 5 years ago. My only brother died of cancer 7 years ago and my sister is in remission after receiving treatment for cancer two years ago. This suggests I am at risk for cancer. What should I do? Beat on my chest and yell, “Why me!?” Or should I give up and say, “What’s the use, I might as well just ‘eat, drink and be merry’ because I’m going to die soon anyway!?”Of course not. I should take care of myself, eat right, get exercise, and get regular medical checkups. And that is what I’m trying to do. Same thing if your family background has put you at risk.
Most people from divorced homes do not divorce. Most people who were abused or observed a lot of abuse in their homes do not abuse spouse or children. Most people from homes where an emotional illness was present do not suffer from emotional illnesses themselves.
Let’s get back to family processes, the things that do tend to be passed on from generation to generation. Family processes are ongoing ways of doing things that occur again and again, and are just accepted in families because they are so common and familiar. These family processes include:
- ways of communicating
- conflict resolution patterns
- problem-solving approaches
- strategies for dealing with stress
- ways of showing love
The ways your family did these things like communication or showing love are pretty engrained in you after all the years you spent in your parents’ household. For example, notice in the example below what Sheri and Brett (not their real names), a young married couple, told me about how their families’ processes affected their marriage.
Sheri: I obeyed my parents, even if I was furious at them. I was kind of scared of my dad, so if he would say “No! And that’s it,” there were no questions asked. Brett is much less dogmatic. He wants to negotiate and talk about everything. Sometimes I want to skirt the issue, but he just says, “Let’s talk this out.”
Brett: I’m used to being very open about almost everything.
Sheri: In his family all the kids will just call each other up and say, “Hey, why did you say this or that?” They get it out in the open if they’re upset about something. They talk about it, and then it is no big deal.
Brett: There are no hard feelings.
Sheri: At first I thought they loved conflict-you should hear them at family dinners; they all like to get in on it. It’s not like my family. I don’t think we talked about the real issues. If an issue is emotionally charged, you don’t bring it up.
Brett: Like sex. In our family, we talk about sex very openly; in her family you can’t even say the word.
Sheri: If you did, it would bring all the other conversations to a screeching halt. We just don’t talk about it.
Brett: I’ve converted her, though. Now if she has a problem, she will talk to me about it. Sometimes I still may have to pry a little bit.
Sheri: It’s getting better. I’ve learned the value of being open, and it has become easier with practice.
Preserving the Good from Your Family Background
We had grape plants in the yard of the home we lived in for 26 year and where we reared our children. Most years we’d get a good crop of both purple grapes and green grapes. It was great just standing there and eating this beautiful, sun-ripened, sweet fruit. They just pop with sweetness in your mouth! But we couldn’t eat them all and we wanted to be able to enjoy them well after harvest time. So we would juice them and preserve the juice for the winter. That way we were able to remember and enjoy the sweetness of the grapes all year long. So it is with wonderful, sweet family traditions and processes. We enjoyed them when we lived in our family home, but to enjoy them after we’ve left home, we need to make an effort to preserve them.
As you think about your parents’ marriage, the relationship you had with each of them, and how those things have affected you, and realize they did a great job preparing you for life, marriage and parenting, then the issue for you is to make sure you preserve what they gave you. Researchers have shown that parents are most successful at passing on good family values, and having their children follow them, when they do three things:
- Have the Three L’s Parenting Style of lots of Love, moderate amounts of Limits (rules), and give children Latitude to make decisions appropriate to their age and maturity. Parents who give their children the appropriate amount of latitude in controlling their lives also tend to talk and reason with their children a lot so that they understand consequences and can therefore make better decisions and understand the consequences of their actions.
The Three L’s of Successful Parenting
- They teach their children what is right and wrong and how to distinguish between them. These things happen in formal settings like family home evening or informal times when having fun together or just sitting and talking.
- They are good examples of what they taught. None of this “do what I say, not what I do” stuff.
If your parents did these things to the best of their ability and you have nothing from your family background that could have negative effects on your ability to form high quality romantic relationship and an eternal marriage, then you are ready for the next step— and there is a next step.
What are three family processes from your family you want to preserve that will help you be successful in dating and marriage? Look back at the list of family processes we showed you above and choose three specific examples of the things from that list or add your own. For example, if you liked the way your parents handled conflicts write down some specific ways you observed them dealing with conflict that you hope to preserve for your own marriage.
No matter how well your parents did rearing you, you have to choose how much of the good from your family you will take into your life. You have to exercise agency and choose to be like your parents and adopt their healthy family processes into your dating and marriage. Adopting them doesn’t just come automatically by osmosis.
So decide right now how you are going to bring good things from your parents’ example into your life and dating and then start doing it!
This article is one of a series. For others in the series, see: