Dear Dr. Yael,
I just listened to your lecture about loving the people who love us. When you acted out the part of the wife who was abrupt with her husband and excited when her friends called and then the mother who was nice to an unexpected guest, but short-tempered with her children when they came home from school, I suddenly saw myself.
I have a really good husband who comments frequently that I am nice to my friends then to him. I have good children with whom I should be more patient and loving.
Why am I like this? This is how my mother treated her family. She was always busy with her friends, with doing chessed and other activities. Yet, I remember promising myself that I would be different. So why am I acting like my mother?
My father is a loving person and he tried to really be there for us. My husband is also great to the kids.
Dr. Respler, I am so disappointed in myself. What can I do to change?
A perplexed wife and mother
What you describe is very common. Many adults reenact what they saw at home, even though as children they had decided to be different “when they grew up.” How we behave in committed relationships is very often how we experienced relationships in our original families. Most people talk, walk, eat, and even think like their parents without even realizing it, often first seeing the nuances when they themselves have children. When conceptualizing a relationship, it is important to remember that we carry a family culture made up of expectations about the world and how to act in it. In order to change any family dynamics, we have to make a conscious effort to recognize what we are doing and then we have to want to change.
If you have followed my columns and my lectures, you know that I often speak about the IMAGO theory. Developed by renowned therapist and bestselling author Harville Hendrix, PhD, Imago is a groundbreaking approach to working with couples. The “Imago” is the unconscious image we hold of our parents. According to Hendrix, people select their mates by seeking “Imago matches” – individuals who resemble their parents in salient ways. A couple’s relationship dynamic is created and shaped as each partner interacts with his or her Imago match, revisiting unfinished or unresolved issues from childhood.
I can tell you how often clients tell me, “Dr. Respler, I can’t believe that I am behaving in similar ways to my parents” Or “My spouse is exactly like my mother/father in ways I thought I would never have chosen.”
What complicates this situation is that sometimes your spouse has character traits similar to your parent, but your perception of the situation exaggerates the IMAGO. The greatest challenge we face in therapy is getting people to see the patterns they are repeating. You are already ahead, as you have recognized that you do not want to treat your family in a certain way and are ready to make a change.
Now comes the hard part. You have to be consistent in your efforts to recognize the behaviors in yourself that you don’t like and work on changing your thought patterns and words. You can begin by sitting down with your husband and telling him how much you love him. That you know you don’t speak to him the way you should, in the way he deserves to be spoken to. Tell him that you want to change and need his help. Ask him if he’d be willing to help you by saying a silly word or making a certain signal when he sees that you are having trouble. I call this technique “Pattern Interrupt,” in which one uses a signal to interrupt a negative behavior. Once you get used to a new routine, it will be easier to make the change.
I admire your courage in reaching out and wish you hatzlacha on this journey. I would say that if a significant amount time goes by and you see that it is not working, professional help to accomplish the goal might be appropriate.