Why Do We Marry Our Parents?

By Greg Baer M.D.

November 18, 2006

Recently I spoke with Mark, who described his mother in rather unflattering terms: critical, controlling, nagging, ungrateful. After a couple of minutes I said, "It sounds like you don't enjoy being around your mother much."

"No, I really don't," he replied.

"Odd, then, that you ended up marrying her, don't you think?"

Mark scowled and asked, "What do you mean?"

"As you were describing your mother, I was thinking that the description would fit your wife, Lee Ann, as well."

Mark smiled and nodded his head. "You're right. They are very much alike. But if I dislike my mother so much, why did I end up marrying somebody like her? And another thing: When I first met Lee Ann, she wasn't critical and controlling. She didn't nag me like she does now. So, how could I have known way back when I met Lee Ann that she would end up being like my mother?"

It's quite common that we marry a partner much like one or both of our parents, and psychologists have a merry time—pun intended—explaining this. One favorite explanation is that we marry someone like our parents so we can work out issues that were unresolved in our childhoods. Nah. We're not nearly that clever or complicated. When Mark was dating, he did not spot Lee Ann and think, "You know, this would be the perfect therapeutic opportunity for me. I never did like how I left things with my mother, who was critical and controlling. Now I can marry a woman just like her, so I can re-enact my childhood and work out those issues."

The Real Reason We Marry Someone Like Our Parents

What really happens is much easier to understand. In the absence of sufficient Real Love, we all become expert traders in Imitation Love, and we each tend to enjoy a certain combination of praise, power, pleasure, and safety, in proportions unique to us—a kind of Imitation Love stew.

Some of us enjoy more praise and power in our stew, for example, while others prefer more pleasure and safety. As children we quickly learned—and served—the recipe for the Imitation Love stew that our parents preferred. It was a matter of survival: If we learned well, our parents gave us more of the approval we craved; if we failed to give them what they wanted, disapproval was a certainty.

Not only did our parents prefer a certain combination of Imitation Love for themselves, but when we gave them what they wanted, they tended to reward us with a fairly predictable combination of praise, power, pleasure, and safety, a combination often different from the one they enjoyed receiving. We became accustomed to the particular blend of Imitation Love that our parents gave us, just as we became accustomed to our mother's cooking.

It happens that a great many of us—90+%, in fact—were not especially happy as children. We didn't like the blend of Imitation Love we were given by our parents—because we had to earn it and because it lacked the deep satisfaction of Real Love—so many of us resolved that we would choose a partner who was different from our parents. Nonetheless, we usually choose partners very much like our parents, because despite our best intentions we tend not to do what's best for us. Rather, we do what we know. We tend to repeat patterns that are most familiar to us.

When we're dating, for example, we offer to our potential partners the same Imitation Love stew—or at least a similar recipe—that we learned to offer our parents when we were children. Without our realizing it, that recipe naturally tends to attract people who are just like the people who originally liked that recipe: our parents. We're making the same kind of trade we made as children with our parents, so we end up with partners similar to our parents.

What We Can Do to Change This Miserable Condition

All this trading of Imitation Love—no matter who we do it with—leads to a great deal of unhappiness. What can we do to change this miserable condition? The solution is not complicated. If we're single, we simply need to tell the truth about ourselves and find partners who accept us as we really are, refusing to establish relationships based on Imitation Love. We can read much more about this in Real Love in Dating. If we're married, we can tell the truth about ourselves and take responsibility for the Getting and Protecting Behaviors and the unhappiness that we have brought into our relationship. Then we can find as many sources of Real Love as possible and introduce the influence of that power into our marriage. A longer explanation of this process—which is highly recommended—can be found in Real Love in Marriage.

The way we are raised has a powerful influence on the way we see the world, which in turn virtually determines how we make decisions, often for the remainder of our lives. But we can always learn to choose differently. We can choose to feel victimized by a childhood where we were insufficiently loved—where the trading of Imitation Love was the rule—or we can learn to change the course of our lives and find Real Love and genuine happiness. From extensive experience I have learned that we really can learn to choose happiness in our individual lives and in our relationships.

Real Love in Marriage

Find genuine happiness now and forever.


{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

About the author 


Subscribe to our newsletter now!