We’ve all heard people explain romances gone awry with comments like, “She’s got daddy issues,” or “He’s just trying to find someone his mother approves of before he gets married.” The truth is, it’s totally normal for parenting issues to “feed forward” into your romantic relationships, thereby causing conflicts, says Laura Roberto-Forman, Psy.D, psychiatrist and marital therapist at the Psychotherapy Center in Norfolk, VA. You may not even recognize how your upbringing can impact your love life, but looking into your past can put you on the path to a happier future. Once you understand how your family history influences your love life, you can start to break old patterns that may be interfering with true romance. Here are some common examples — and how to solve them.
Problem #1: You put yourself first — and expect whomever you’re dating to do the same (and possibly even put you on a pedestal).
Why it could be keeping you single: Mom and dad gave you a great life: tons of attention, lots of “stuff,” etc. There’s nothing wrong with that — unless more than one ex has called it quits by saying that you’re selfish. Your charmed childhood may have set you up to think that you can always have it your way... especially in relationships. “Children of over-giving parents sometimes expect their partners always to be attentive to their needs, but usually aren’t equally attentive in return,” says Diana Kirschner, Ph.D., author of Opening Love’s Door: The Seven Lessons. “This gets old fast. Good relationships are all about that give-and-take happening between both partners.”
The solution: If you’ve been accused of being self-centered, take a good look at yourself and ask where it’s getting you in your love life. “Generally, getting your way all of the time doesn’t make you happy on a deep level,” says Kirschner. So try turning things around: “Do three nice things for your partner each day or every week, expecting nothing in return,” suggests Kirschner. “By practicing giving instead of always taking, you’ll be able to finally change your patterns.”
Problem #2: You bail at the first sign of a serious relationship.
Why it could be keeping you single: Your parents weren’t around when you needed them most. Maybe they were preoccupied with work, or perhaps they struggled to divide their attention between you and your siblings — whatever the reason, they weren’t able to provide all of the nurturing you required, so you figured out how to take care of yourself. Now, as an adult, you’re extremely independent — and while that’s a trait that probably pays off big-time in the workplace, it can get definitely in the way of romantic relationships, says Kirschner. If you’ve been self-reliant for years, it’s natural to feel anxious about letting someone else have power over your emotions. You protect yourself by putting the brakes on a budding relationship before any real feelings form or by falling for emotionally unavailable types.
The solution: If you’re really looking for love, you have to let down your guard a little. Next time you find yourself about to blow off yet another romantic prospect, resist the urge. Instead, take one little step forward: Agree to a second (or third) meeting. Take a risk in this way, and you may get an incredible reward.
Problem #3: You try to do everything for your mate — and we do mean everything.
Why it could be keeping you single: You were the family member who could fix any problem. Maybe your mother relied on you as a confidante because, even as a kid, you always offered her a reassuring perspective. Or maybe you knew how to distract your younger siblings and stop them from fighting while dad was working in his study. “If you’ve always been the family hero or heroine, you probably feel as if you need to be needed,” says Roberto-Forman. Unfortunately, now that you’re all grown up, not everyone appreciates it when you swoop in to their rescue. Let’s say your partner is annoyed by your habit of always trying to find him or her a new, better-paying job. Is it because the lack of extra income is hurting your life together as a couple — or are you trying to scratch that “hero” itch?
The solution: Spend time identifying your needs — and then fulfilling them. Reacquaint yourself with interests and hobbies that fuel your own passions and self-growth, and let your partner focus on his or her own issues. Teach yourself to recognize the fact that enriching your own life is just as important as doing it for someone else.
Problem #4: You’re always overly critical of the person you’re dating.
Why it could be keeping you single: You probably had at least one perfectionist parent. If you didn’t get perfect grades, they were deeply disappointed — or maybe you didn’t measure up to their standards in other ways. Even if the critical comments seemed to roll right off your back, they may have left some soft spots in your self-image, says Kirschner. For example, if you were deemed “lazy” as a kid by one or both parents, you might get annoyed when your partner doesn’t appear to be productive enough in your eyes.
The solution: The next time you start focusing on one of your partner’s so-called “imperfections,” stop and listen for a second: Whose voice are you hearing? Could it be one of your parents? Then, ask yourself if your expectations of this other person really are fair. Here’s why this works: By becoming aware of the negative patterns your parents may have unintentionally ingrained within you, you can then stop yourself from repeating that pattern and learn new ways of reacting instead. This, in turn, will free you up to “create the kind of love and understanding that you really want” in your relationship, explains Kirschner.
Nicci Micco, a contributing editor for Self, lives in Burlington, Vermont.