getting it

Your Parents’ Romantic Lives Don’t Have to Determine Your Own

“Before the Wedding,” by Illarion Mikhailovich Pryanishnikov Photo: De Agostini/U. Marzani/Getty Images

I often joke that the day my dad ruined love for me forever was Christmas Eve ten or so years ago. Our family was at brunch for his birthday, and my mom got up to find a bathroom. As she walked the perimeter of the room to find her way out, my dad kept his eyes fixed on her affectionately. “Your mother’s a good-lookin’ woman, isn’t she?” he said without redirecting his gaze to me or my sister. Though I was only barely out of childhood and therefore minimally capable of appreciating my parents as human beings, I knew that it was unique that he remained not only affectionate, but openly attracted to her. They had known each other for more than 40 years at that point, ever since they lived on the same block in Arkansas in 1960. I distinctly remember thinking that day that their love had set the bar impossibly high. They celebrated 39 years of marriage in May.

It is not uncommon for children of successful long-term partnerships to fear that we are not living up to our family traditions by not having our own model relationships to match. Meanwhile, many children of broken partnerships fear that they will almost certainly live up to their family tradition of failed relationships. The common denominator is that our romantic lives are too often governed by fear.

Both parties share the belief that having a long-lasting, loving marriage is the most desirable outcome for our lives. Even though 68 percent of millennials have never been married, and more people are opting for long-term singlehood or marriage alternatives, 70 percent of millennials still want to be married some day. Our fear of replicating — or not replicating — our parents’ behavior is ultimately a fear that we won’t have what we believe love ought to look like.

It is strange that a generation of people who actively differentiate ourselves from our parents’ in every other facet of life have allowed their romantic patterns to carry such weight in our self-perceptions. Very few young people lose sleep over the fact that they didn’t go into the same profession as their parents. We certainly have less religion. And our relationships don’t look like theirs either: A 2014 USA Network survey asked how similar young peoples’ relationships were to their parents’ on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being “exactly like it.” The average was 3.5. There is a disconnect between how our relationships play out and what we think they ought to look like. It seems that for every romantic outcome, there is an adult child out there fretting over whether they’ll ever be able to emulate it or if they’re fated to repeat it. 

Lauren is 30, and her parents met at 17, were wed at 23, and have been happily partnered for the last 43 years. Though Lauren is not especially anxious about never finding a spouse, her parents’ example did inform her perception of how romance worked. “In the past few years I’ve realized how rare it is to find someone who actually loves you in all your weird, flawed glory — and I don’t think I fully grasped how rare a phenomenon this is due to the stellar example set by parents,” she tells me. “As far as I knew, finding a compatible, genuine partner would be easy — they figured it out before they could drive — so I’ve spent my life not worrying about whether or not it would happen.”

Stories like Lauren’s and mine might cause an understandable lack of sympathy from children of divorced parents. “Boo-hoo, you came from a loving two-parent household and it makes you unnecessarily worried, let me get my violin.” Not only do children of divorce face transformative consequences when their parents split, but society still speaks of divorce in apocalyptic terms. Stories with titles like “Is My Marriage Doomed If My Parents Got Divorced When I Was a Kid?” speak to the intense anxiety society instills in children of divorce. A Huffington Post article, “Are Children of Divorce Doomed to Repeat their Parents’ Mistakes?,” compares divorce to a genetic predisposition to disease and suggests that children of divorce vigilantly monitor their “risk factors.”

Sarah is 25 and in a healthy, stable relationship that doesn’t look anything like her parents’ relationship — which involved a duplicitous, financially irresponsible husband who quickly turned on Sarah’s mother after they were married. “I’m afraid that I can never really truly know my boyfriend — what if he reveals another side after marriage, like my own father did?” Sarah tells me. “Even now, after being in a stable, happy relationship for years, I still have underlying fears that not all is as it seems. I think it’s more having a hypervigilant awareness of my behavior and my own assumptions.” Michael, 26, says his mother’s influence following a failed marriage has affected his behavior. “The pattern I see that’s most repeated in my relationships is not working things out when they get rough, by just giving up and telling myself, ‘I’ll be fine by myself, relationships are bullshit anyways’ — completely mimicking my mom’s ideals,” he tells me. “It’s scary when I think about what could have been if I had just not run away. I’d always had a destined-to-be-alone mind-set ever since I can remember.”

Fortunately, despite our debilitating fear of messing up our marriages or never finding decent ones in the first place, we millennials are also relentlessly optimistic. Lauren says that although her two serious relationships never came close to the cohabitation or engagement stage, she isn’t worried. “This hasn’t been a source of anxiety. I’ve watched with great joy as my best friends have gotten married, bought homes, and started families,” she says, adding that wondering when it will happen for her feels natural. Michael says that despite his long-held belief that he is destined for solitude, professional help in recent months has helped him believe that partnership is possible. And despite Sarah’s family tree running thick with divorces, she works hard to create a different path. “I think I do work hard, in general, to distinguish myself from my family and its history. I want to create my own life without the baggage of my family’s past,” she says.

As for me, I’ve long been over the idea that I’d rekindle a romance with a childhood crush like my parents did in 1970s San Francisco. But some nights, I’ll get up from the couch to get something from the kitchen and catch a glimpse of my boyfriend watching me walk out of the room in the window reflection. And for a moment, love doesn’t seem so ruined after all.

Parents’ Relationships Don’t Have to Be Your Own