Have you thought about how your relationship with your partner can affect your kids relationships when they're older
A sixteen year old sat in front of me shaking his head. "It's just so weird - I really like her but I keep treating her like sh*t!"
He'd been with this girlfriend for six months - which is pretty much like a marriage at that age, super major commitment. They have the same interests, hate the same teachers, love the same YouTubers, and the fancy each other, a lot. So what's the problem?
We sit together, pondering this deeply puzzling question.
It's not unlike the quandary a lot of adults face. Together for months, years even, all boxes ticked - on the face of it anyway - so why the turmoil?
I ask him to describe the fights they have, and yes, they are nasty. The arguments become verbally abusive, he gets jealous when she talks to other boys and scared that she'll dump him. He flies off the handle because "she drives him crazy". He buys her gifts and pays for her MacDonalds but she still does stuff to upset him.
How do his parents get on I wonder aloud? He looks at me like I've lost it. It's obviously completely unrelated to his problem so why am I veering down this unpleasantly dark alley?
But he humours me and has a think about his parents. They are definitely in love he says. How does he know? They've been together for twenty years. Neither of them ever left, not for long anyway. Occasionally mom would go to her parents for a few days after the bigger fights but she'd come back, always. And then they'd be very happy for a while - so they're obviously good together. Lots of passion - which is good, right?
As our work progressed we explored how he defines love, respect, commitment. What value does he place on his happiness and his worth? What has he learned from his parents' relationship that he unconsciously sought out and repeated in his own life?
In other words - What is his version of normal?
There is a huge difference between "normal" in the healthy sense and "normalised" in the learned behaviour sense. As 'normal' humans we confuse the two easily and that can lead us to make poor choices.
This lovely young guy is not without insight. He knew in his gut that there was something amiss in his parent's relationship long before I ever explored it with him. And he didn't really want to talk about it at first because that might pose a threat to his idea of 'normal' - and none of us like that.
His last relationship was a disaster - they had zero in common and she was flirtatious, argumentative. But he was devastated when it was over. The ending took a couple of months. Boundaries were poor. Yes, somewhat like his parents, back and forth. Drama disguised as passion. The parallels were emerging from the chaos.
This time he purposely chose a relationship with a girl with whom he had a lot in common - to avoid a repeat disaster, and mindful that his parents have little in common. It was a clever strategy and one I applauded.
What caught him off guard though was that at some level he felt 'programmed' to bring conflict and drama into the relationship. Even where there was no evidence of cheating he suspected it. Even though he loved her free spirit he felt he should curtail it in case she ran off. Even though he admired her intelligence he found himself calling her stupid. When things were good he was waiting for something to go wrong - enjoying peace and fun felt alien and weird.
So if it didn't 'go' wrong, he'd make it go wrong. Which completely bamboozled the poor guy. He realised he was trying to control her, like his Dad controls his Mom.
Normal v's Normalised He found this awareness painful, fascinating and scary. Would he turn out like his Dad?
No is the answer of course. We don't have to repeat patterns, but we do need to be vigilant. The language of relating healthily may be a different language to the one we learn at home. Shouting, manipulating, victimising, and being victimised all became "normalised" for this guy, and morphed into "normal".
It happens a lot, it might even feel familiar to you as you read this. (If it does, breathe, take your time and read on.)
And so he created what felt normal because even though it's dysfunctional, it was familiar. And we like familiar because we feel more control. This is how unhealthy patterns become patterns - we gravitate towards the familiar.
I worked with a man once who said to me that if I put him in a room with a hundred women he would pick out the few that he could abuse in seconds. And I believed him. I also believe that as he chose them, they would choose him.
Can we change how we choose? Yes. We can make healthier choices by being aware of whom we choose and why.
As we ended our work together this lovely teenager told me the questions that he found most useful, and I want to share them with you here and with his and his mom's permission:
- What have you learned from your parents about being in a relationship?
- What does 'happy together' look like?
- What do arguments sound like? How are they resolved?
- How do your parents show that they love each other?
- How do you show your girlfriend that you love her?
- How do you show your girlfriend that you are consistent and reliable?
- How do you show kindness?
- Do you take responsibility for your feelings?
- Do you ever try to make her feel guilty/ stupid/ mean?
Staying together for the sake of the kids:
His parents chose this dysfunctional relationship and in doing so unwittingly taught their son how to do the same. This is not about blame though. Please, it really isn't. They probably learned that from theirs and so on through history. His mom did this great thing by daring to break a well-established cycle. It was a bold, courageous move, one that has changed the course of her son's life and the quality of his future relationships. Even if she chooses to stay.
If she should choose to leave, she would be teaching him what she expects and what she believes she deserves. A good thing to teach. This Dad has no interest in therapy or change. But other people do.
Sometimes we can leave for the sake of the kids. You are not harming them by leaving. Promise.
I'm hopeful that this guy will find the path that is healthy for him - a new 'normal'. Assuming he chooses to make the 'right' choices for himself.
And given the awareness that he and his mom so bravely took on, the likelihood of that is now far greater.
If this piece has triggered you or made you aware that you are in an abusive situation then please do get the support that you deserve. It's never too early, or too late.