As a child, foresight is hard to come by. There’s no grasp of consequence or implications of your actions or how the choices of someone else might affect you. When it comes to your relationship with your parents, the childhood inability to comprehend how the emotions and actions of your parents affect your own behavior is predictably inept. It’s not until you reach adulthood that a person can formulate even a sheer understanding of the complexities of relationships, beginning with the connection between parent and child. From there, the confusion ironically continues to build and becomes unfortunately frustrating as you try to filter friendships, romantic relationships, and beyond.
To learn more about how to decode the human connection beginning with childhood, I consulted with experts Scott Carroll, MD; April Masini, relationship and etiquette expert and popular media resource; and child psychologist, parenting expert, author, speaker, and mother Dr. Vanessa Lapointe.
As Carroll tells Bustle via email, every relationship a person has, beginning at birth, is rooted in the attachment style learned from his or her parents. “There are four attachment styles: secure, insecure-ambivalent, insecure-avoidant, and disorganized. A baby’s attachment system [will become hard-wired] with the same attachment style as the mother about 80 percent of the time; the other 20 percent seems to be genetically-driven in terms of temperament,” Carroll says.
Here are 11 ways to explain how your relationship with your parents translates to your romantic life in adulthood.
1. The More Attentive Your Parents, The More Open You Might Be In Relationships
“As we are loved by our parents, an internal ‘script’ is written for us. This script directs us in terms of our understanding of what love is, how we receive it, how we express it, and most importantly, how we come to ‘rest’ into love. In this way, the manner in which you were parented becomes an integral part of how you will navigate love in adulthood,” LaPointe explains.
Thus, how expressive and attentive your parents are during your childhood will reflect how open you are in future relationships. As Carroll says, “Expressive, affectionate and attentive parents tend to raise healthy children who are comfortable expressing themselves all five ways [of attachment]. This type of attachment is called a secure attachment.”
2. The More Inattentive Your Parents, The More Attention-Seeking You May Be In Relationships
“Inattentive or emotionally-dramatic parents who will attend to the child when they ‘turn up the volume’ raise children who are excessively attention-seeking and often ‘turn up the volume’ in their emotional expression (they will use whichever love language seems to cause a person to pay attention to them). The key is they will do whatever it takes to get someone’s focused attention. This is called an insecure-ambivalent attachment style,” Carroll states.
As an adult, if you often find yourself vying for a romantic interest’s attention, it’s likely you were constantly yearning for one or both of your parents’ attention as a child. Whether this was a result of one or both of your parents’ own attachment styles, the absence of a parent, or some other circumstance, depends on individual upbringing.
3. The Less Emotionally-Expressive Your Parents, The More Reserved You Could Be In Relationships
“Some people are raised by emotionally-reserved (or repressed) parents who strongly disprove of emotional expression and requests for attention from children. They train the child to not express their needs or their desires for affection, attention, and closeness with the parent. We know from research that the child desperately wants the parent’s attention, but simply doesn’t express it externally. This type of attachment is called an insecure-avoidant style and such people grow up to be stoic and unexpressive in their relationships at least until the other person threatens to leave them, which briefly shocks them out of their reserved state so they can express the true depth of their feelings. These people can express their love in non-verbal ways with gifts and physical touch and sometimes quality attention, but it’s their communication that is lacking. Sometimes they will even struggle with physical touch (i.e. only want sex and never cuddle, hug, hold hands, etc.), and they can spend all their time on hobbies or work so their partner feels ignored,” Carroll explains.
While this attachment style seems drastic and harsh, it is a comprehensible reality for many people. Whether you find yourself expressing such behaviors in adulthood, or you’ve been in a relationship with a partner who has such tendencies, dismiss the idea that something is innately “wrong” with you or another person. These qualities are learned from a very early age and can be viably worked through via constant communication and respective love languages.
4. If You Grew Up In An Abusive Home, You’re More Likely To Have No Emotional Attachment In Relationships
“The disorganized style is really bad and is typically caused by severe abuse and neglect (or loss of a parent from death, divorce, removal by child protective services, etc.). They tend to be manipulative in relationships and often don’t see people as human beings, only as objects that can be used to meet their needs. Since they are emotional con-artists, they can use any and all of the love languages, whichever ones their target responds to best to work their con on them,” Carroll tells me via email.
Unfortunately, many people are raised in abusive or broken homes, pending a number of reasons. It’s not uncommon for the behaviors learned in abusive homes to carry into adulthood, serving as reminders of what is “normal,” or even a subconscious or conscious response to actively avoid becoming vulnerable to any and all emotional connection.
In the case of carrying learned actions from childhood into adult relationships, Masini says, “If an adult child never breaks the cycle of abuse, and repeats it, any romantic relationship is going to have abuse as part of it. Of course, the abuse may show up as an adult who chooses an abusive partner because they haven’t worked through the trauma of their parental relationships.”
5. Having Divorced Parents Can Lead To Cynicism About Love & Volatile Relationships
“Having divorced parents often makes people either cynical about marriage or excessively cautious, but then they can throw caution to the wind and fall head-over-heels for someone they have excessive chemistry with. However, the excessive chemistry tends to be explosive and they often break up just as fast. You often see this pattern with the non-secure attachment styles. Basically, it is your attachment style that is the bigger predictor than your parents being divorced per say. However, divorce when a child is under 5 years old can affect attachment, as well as one parent abandoning or being inconsistent/disinterested in the child after the divorce can negatively impact the child’s attachment style,” according to Carroll.
While there are a number of circumstances that contribute to divorce and, as Carroll says, to how a child will react to and register divorce, having divorced parents does not pre-determine a person’s fate in romantic relationships. While possible, cynicism about love and short-lived relationships are not inevitable.
To add to that, Masini says, “Divorce is the norm, so most people are going to approach romance from the point of view of having had parents who divorced. They’ll understand divorce, from having had a front row seat, and they may either take a jaded point of view of romance, or they may want to make sure their romances don’t end in divorce. People have different ways of reacting so just because they come from a divorced home does not mean they will have a knee jerk reaction to divorce.”
6. Your Relationship With Your Mother Can Greatly Determine Most Adulthood Relationships
“Your attachment system that is established by your relationship with your mother will determine virtually all of your future relationships, from your pets to your friendships to your romantic relationships and then will determine how you attach to your children when you become a parent,” Carroll states.
As previously stated, a person’s relationship with his or her mother is the very first and subsequently determines lifelong attachment styles. A man’s relationship with his mother, however, is particularly indicative of how he will respond to romantic relationships, as Carroll explains, “[A man’s] primary attachment is with [his mother], and if he as a secure, loving, and affectionate relationship with her, then he is going to love his wife the same way. Plus, we often unconsciously respond to other people as if they were someone else who reminds us of the other person, aka transference. So a man’s deepest feelings about his mother unconsciously ‘transfer’ to his girlfriend or wife, just as a woman’s deepest feelings about her father transfer to her BF/husband.”
Masini counters that point to clarify, “Of course, there are many women who will show a man how they want to be treated and the man will want to please them and so, he’ll evolve and make changes in his behavior.”
7. Having Divorced Parents Does Not Foreshadow Your Own Romantic Relationships In Adulthood
“Attachment theory trumps whether or not your parents got divorced. Marriages between two securely-attached people are the least likely to end in divorce. Two avoidant people can also have lifelong marriages since they are both comfortable with the reserved, lack of expression in their marriage. When either insecure type marries a secure person, the secure person tends to ‘pull them up’ and can change the insecure into a secure attachment style over many years. Two ambivalent people tends to cause explosive, dramatic relationships that don’t tend to last. Of course, disorganized types can’t form stable relationships, and virtually, all of their relationships end in breakup/divorce,” Carroll explains via email.
To reiterate, although your parents may have gotten divorced, you are not likewise doomed for divorce in your romantic future. As Carroll draws home, however, the attachment styles of two people are great predictors of how their relationship will play out over time.
8. Healthy Relationships With Parents In Adulthood Increases The Likelihood Of Healthy Romantic Relationships
“Having a supportive parent who can listen and give good advice can really help smooth out the rough spots in a relationship (unless the parent hates the partner) and can help a relationship survive the inevitable challenges and rough spots,” according to Carroll.
Although a person’s relationship with his or her parents may evolve over time and become less of a factor as independence takes over, having a healthy relationship with one or more parents is only beneficial to romantic relationships in adulthood.
9. The Tendency To Follow In The Footsteps Of A Parent’s Behavior Is Not Uncommon
“[Learning by example is] especially [prevalent] in males. Sometimes males will cheat somewhat independent of their attachment style, though securely-attached men are the least likely to cheat and disorganized men cheat almost constantly. Women only tend to cheat if they have an ambivalent or disorganized attachment style and don’t tend to cheat just because a parent cheated. However, women can be drawn to men who tend to cheat if their fathers were big cheaters independent of attachment style, which tends to be a genetically-determined temperament/attraction issue,” Carroll explains.
Where infidelity comes into play, both attachment style and learned behaviors play a relevant role in a person’s likelihood to cheat or to be attracted to a person who displays qualities of a cheater.
To further explain this matter, LaPointe tells me via email, “The relationship dynamics that children absorb in their homes becomes part of how they understand the inner workings of relationships. And so, for example, if the child observes their parents struggling with emotional intimacy – which can lead one or the other spouse to seek superficial intimacy elsewhere via infidelity – then the same patterns of being in an emotionally barren relationship might play out with similar “symptoms” including infidelity. But it might also play out with other symptoms like withdrawal, rage, or numbing.”
10. Past Relationship Trauma Does Not Determine Present Relationship Success
“We’re all the sum total of our lives and if our lives contain trauma, there’s going to be remnants in it or heroic triumphs as a result. Just because we have challenges and setbacks in life doesn’t mean that’s who we are and that’s who we’re doomed to be,” Masini clarifies.
Although life experiences affect a person’s choices, beliefs, and values, trauma and negative memories do not define what the future holds. As an individual, you have the choice to craft your romantic relationships, friendships, and so on to be exactly as you’d like them to be.
11. All Is Not Lost For Those Who Have Had Terrible Or Non-Existent Relationships With Their Parents
“The ship has [not] sailed if you had a terrible relationship with your parents, or if you watched them in high conflict. Indeed, with conscious focused awareness of these dynamics and their probable impact on your adult perceptions of relationship and love, resilience can be awakened and a new script written that will be profound in its power to elevate you out of the perhaps negative relationship experiences of your childhood and into wonderfully fulfilling relationships in adulthood,” LaPointe confirms.
If you did not have a particularly pleasant childhood and still do not share a positive bond with your parents, hope is not gone for you and how your romantic future will play out. As previously stated, while you are expected to learn from past lessons, mistakes, and traumas, it is imperative to consciously act in favor of the life you wish to build for yourself.
No matter how your relationship with your parents was in childhood, has been through your transcendence to adulthood, or is now is present day, the way you approach love and romantic relationships will reflect your ingrained attachment style and love language. The success of your relationships, however, is independent of these factors and entirely dependent on how you choose to conduct yourself as a partner and whether you are ready and willing to give as you expect to receive in love.