Children who marry their parents: the psychology of courtship

It’s “sweeps” week and the TV talk shows are putting their “Satanic Sibling Serial Killers Who Dress Like Tramps Reunited with Their Fertility Lab Dish” guests on parade. One subject I haven’t seen—at least this week—is “Children Who Marry Their Parents.” And, yet, this may be the rule rather than the exception. Okay, okay. Let me explain before you change channels.

Sigmund Freud, the Austrian psychoanalyst, believed that all of our behavior was controlled by an impish “id” which was subconsciously directing our morals (our “super ego”) and our thoughts and behaviors (our conscious “ego”). Sort of like space aliens who suck out peoples’ gray matter and replace it with brains bent on intergalactic destruction. Of course the hapless humans have no idea that they are now controlled from the mother ship.

In Getting the Love You Want Dr. Harville Hendrix, believes our “old brain” which records emotional responses, creates an exact resume’ of our future spouse. We marry the emotional image of our care-givers—both positive and negative. For instance, I realize that I only dated brunettes—despite the advertising campaign at the time that “blondes have more fun.” My mother and grandmother had dark hair! How weird!

Dr. John Money agrees that each of us begins to form ideas of the “perfect” partner the moment we are born. We begin to make a mental list of the qualities we most value in those closest and dearest to us. Dr. Money believers that, by the time we are eight years old, we have an unconscious but very precise idea of what our future dates and mate should look like.

Many believe that our dating radar is programmed to detect those who match up to these unconscious emotional images. An once we find a match—Wow! Zap! Oo-la-la! We feel a powerful attraction to that person. It’s “love at first sight.”

Dr. Hendrix also believes that we marry someone with the same character flaws as our parents, in hopes that we can somehow solve unresolved issues of our childhood. For instance, both Lois and I came from homes which were not very demonstrative about voicing emotions—good or bad. So, we have worked hard at saying “I love you” to each other and to our kids. (I’ve even gotten to the point of hugging my parents.) In other areas, though, we haven’t coped that well. (We’re both terminally stubborn.) But understanding the tendency to marry someone to solve childhood issues has been helpful in seeing why we expect certain things from adult relationships.

Other researchers believe we begin to fall in love even before we’re born. Here’s how they explain it: For nine months there was oneness between us and our mother. No “Mom” and “me,” only the warm, dark oneness of the womb.

Even before we were pushed, kicking and screaming down that dark tunnel toward the bright light, we still viewed the world outside the womb as a part of ourselves. The hunger in our little tummies and the breasts that fulfilled that need were one. The need for comfort, protection, and dry bottom were one with the warm, caring blurs that came running at three o’clock in the morning to meet those needs. Everything from the crib to the diaper wipes to our parents were viewed as a part of our being. There was no “me” or “thee”—only warm, wonderful “we.”

But then came a shocking discovery! There was something out there that was not “we.” Our bodies, blankets, and dry diapers were not one. And, most frightening, the warm, loving blurs were not one with us at all. They were very independent beings known as Mommy and Daddy.

The splintering of our private world was frightening. Child development experts believe “the terrible twos” syndrome is our reaction to the discovery that we are not the masters of the universe. Our world has not only been splintered, but it’s now out of our control!

During late childhood, we made one last-ditch effort to regain our sense of power. We dreamed about super heroes. Perhaps Wonder Woman or Superman could reassure us that mere mortals could have super powers. But by the first day of junior high, most of us had come to the awful conclusion that human beings are pretty powerless and often very alone.

Common emotional needs

M. Scott Peck, the author who has taken The Road Less Traveled, speaks of these feelings of separation and loneliness as “ego-barriers.” The barriers between babies and parents are mostly physical. As children develop, however, other barriers block their inbred desires. For instance, there comes a day when we guys are no longer allowed to go with Mom into the women’s rest room. The first day of day care or kindergarten brought another assault on the oneness of early childhood. (“Wait! Don’t leave me here Mom! Hey, I don’t know these people! I’ve seen undercover investigations on TV about these places! Don’t leave me!”) Perhaps Dad stops rough-housing with his daughter once she begins to “mature.”

Ah, but once we meet that emotional “image” of our future spouse (and he or she actually says “yes” to dinner and a movie), these “ego barriers” begin to collapse. We begin to experience that wonderful feeling we call “falling in love.”

Once again we sense the power we had lost in infancy. There is nothing the two of us—Superman and Wonder Woman—can’t do as long as we have each other. We will accomplish all our dreams. We will defeat every foe. We will live happily ever after. (My blood sugar level is rising just writing this!)

Unfortunately, we are falling in love with our own romantic ideal—not necessarily with the real person. Warren J. Gapaille claims this emotional state creates “honest dishonesty.” Remember when you couldn’t find one fault in your future spouse!

Unfortunately, these wonderful feelings don’t last long. The “terrible two’s” also occur in relationships. Gradually, we discover that our loved one is not merely an extension of our own ideas, dreams, and desires. This rude awakening usually happens within just a few months, when the strong emotional feelings begin to fade. When this occurs, the couple can either choose to find someone else to “feel” in love with or can go on from baby love to a deeper, more mature love. Many choose to look around, which is fine for the junior and senior high school years. This also explains why many divorces occur in the first two years of marriage. Too many couples never get beyond the “feeling in love” stage. They don’t understand that this is only the early stage of lasting love. Instead, they move from one relationship to another, to another, to another.

So, how do we avoid appearing on those talk-shows where couples express their frustrations with their partner to ten million viewers?

First, by understanding the dynamics of falling in love. We seem attracted to those similar to our parents or childhood care-givers. So, our mates may not be angry with us at all, but with unresolved issues with those very same parents or care-givers who didn’t meet their emotional needs.

Hendrix suggests that both partners make a list of all the positive qualities about the other, and then make a list of unfulfilled needs. By creating that list, couples have a sense of hope (“We have a lot going for us!”), but also a sense of each partner’s unfulfilled needs (“My parents rarely told me they loved me, so I need you to tell that more often”). By doing so, couples can begin resolving childhood issues that are sabotaging adult relationships.

But, before we say “I do” in the first place, we need to understand the practical aspects of a solid relationship. For instance, when I talk to youth camps about love, dating, and sex, there are always three kinds of campers: pranksters with shaving cream and water balloons, campers who attempt to create the world’s tallest human pyramid, and couples out in the woods. The couples out in the woods could learn some important lessons from the pyramid builders. Pyramid builders are always careful to pick the strongest (or at least the biggest) campers to create the foundation. They know that without a solid base, the whole structure will collapse. In a relationship, that base cannot be the fragile feelings of eros.

Common values and beliefs

A solid relationship needs common values and beliefs for a rock-solid foundation—or at least something more than you both loving deep-dish pizza, the Pacers, alternative music, or even incredible sex. Feeling a mystical attraction to a person may spark a relationship, but romantic feelings can’t hold up a relationship for more than a few months.

Now, take out a fresh sheet of paper and a number-two pencil. Answer these important questions: How do you and your partner view the world? Do you believe people are basically good or typically self-serving heathens?

What’s your philosophy of life? Does having a life philosophy even matter?

What are your religious convictions? Political persuasions?

How do you look at money and how do you spend it?

Okay, okay, this is a little deep for the first couple of dates, but a relationship that is going to last needs to have a solid foundation of common values and beliefs.

Common goals

Do you have the same goals? These make up the second level of the interpersonal pyramid.

A relationship is going to teeter and then collapse if your goal is become a Peace Corps volunteer and your partner is planning to be an inside trader on Wall Street.

While in Portugal speaking at a conference, I saw a wonderful example of common goals while watching farmers plow with oxen. Each pair on the plow was tied together by the horns. Both animals were forced to look in the same direction in the yoke. Before we “yoke up” with a person, we better be sure we’re headed in the same direction. If not, the strongest ox will determine the direction of the pair. If both are equally strong (and bull-headed) then both will end up with a pain in the neck and little progress toward their goals. Most of the time, however, the “team” breaks up.

Common backgrounds

One of the advantages of being a ninety-eight-pound teen was that I always wound up on the top of human pyramids. Common backgrounds are the “lightweights” that top off the pyramid, but don’t add to the strength and stability of the structure. I am not suggesting that we become racists or economic snobs, but each difference added to a pyramid does create additional challenges to keeping in balance.

For instance, Lois and I came from very different backgrounds: Lois from a family of seven living on a dairy farm who never did any vacationing, and I from a family of four living in the suburbs who had seen most the lower forty-eight states by my senior year of high school.

I was horrified when Lois’ family would sit around the dinner table and discuss the family business.

“Bessie’s in heat, so we need to call the inseminator.”

“BettyLou has an infected [bleep], so you better call the vet, too.” (If I ever said that word at the Watkins boarding house, I’d be having soap for dessert!)

And worse, they’d describe the very cow you were eating for dinner. “Bossy was a good producer until she got mastitis.”

I did manage to learn the difference between a heifer and a Hereford3, but there was constant tension. Lois’ parents thought I was—and I quote—”a silly city boy” who didn’t know how to “work by sweat of his brow.” (Hey, you try to write a book!)

And Lois continues to be frustrated by my concept of a vacation. I’ve seen most everything from Cypress Gardens to Fisherman’s Wharf, so vacation to me means staying home, closing the curtains, and letting the answering machine take calls. Lois, however, wants to drive half-way across the country and stop at every tourist attraction from “Ralph’s Reptile Refuge” to those other rip-offs with the word “Wonder” in the name.

That’s just the minor stuff. Growing up in a smaller family, I wanted two kids, Lois wanted three. (We compromised on the national average of 2.6.5) I’m more of a liberal, she’s more of a conservative. Her family puts the toilet paper on the holder so it feeds off the back bottom side, my family prefers top and front. On and on and on . . . .

Opposites may attract, but they soon attack without agreement on the most basic issues. But, because Lois and I are in conformity with our core values, beliefs, and goals, the pyramid is still standing after over twenty-five years. It occasionally teeters, but it’s still upright.

Finally, while self-help books can be beneficial, counseling with a qualified marriage counselor may be even more helpful. (We’ve found it so even though and I write relationship books and Lois counsels couples.) Much more helpful than watching talk shows with “Couples Imprisoned for Attempted Murder of Each Other, Who are Petitioning for Conjugal Visitation.”

Where’s the remote? Click!

© Copyright 1998 James N. Watkins. All rights reserved.

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