Why Our Parents Influence Our Relationships Whether We Like it or Not

Have you ever sworn never to be like your parents only to find yourself replicating some embarrassing mannerism your parents do? Maybe you let a dad joke slip, or picked up one of your mom’s habits? You’re not alone; it happens to the best of us –er, actually, all of us. (Fun fact: did you know studies show dad jokes are actually funnier when you follow them up with prerecorded laughter? Anyways, I digress…)

We’re social creatures and have evolved by surviving and thriving in social contexts for hundreds of thousands of years. Because of this, a vast amount of our brain centres are dedicated to processing socially relevant information. In fact, neuroscientists refer to this circuitry as the “social brain,” which encompasses neurological regions responsible for helping us experience others through our senses, recognize and interpret facial expressions, and predict social behavior (largely through our emotions). All of these brain systems begin to come online in early childhood, when our brains are most rapidly developing and being shaped by our environments, a big part of which is usually comprised of our parents!

Because our ancestors started walking upright, which shifted our anatomy, human heads need to be small enough to fit through the birth canal, so a great deal of our brain development and the cortical shaping that will influence us for the rest of our lives, happens outside the womb during our first years of life. Since we’re among the most immature species at birth, we have an innate (survival) need for caregivers. This is why there are built in biological functions like bonding hormones oxytocin –often referred to as the “love hormone”— which gets released during hugging, kissing, sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding. These processes are all natural instincts to foster strong attachments and survival and the nature of our early relationships is thought to shape our attachment style later in life.

Research has shown that the dynamics of one’s attachment with their primary caregiver(s) is the basis of one’s “attachment style,” which greatly influences their behavior in subsequent significant relationships. This is most prominent in romantic relationships, as we learn how to love from our relationship with our parents. Children are also little sponges in that they absorb everything around them, and quickly learn social and cultural norms (e.g. such as gender roles, habits of daily life, emotion regulation, patience/impatience, communication patterns –criticism or compassion, how to argue, how to apologize/or not, etc.) from what their parents model to them (ever notice how fast your kids pick up your unintentional profane slip of the tongue?). Children closely observe their parents’ relational dynamics, which forms the basis of what they know to be normal in relationships. This social shaping, coupled with the child’s attachment style, forms a “relationship template” that they subconsciously go out and seek to replicate in other relationships. Actually, the “chemistry” in romantic relationships has been attributed to this process of relational reenactment, or finding similar relational conditions to what you grew up accustomed to. It’s been said that the greater the chemistry, the more comfortable and familiar the person is to you, and the more likely they are to be like your primary caregiver(s) in some subconscious way, usually in terms of attachment style. If you’ve ever wondered where your tastes and habits in relationships come from, learning your attachment style might be a good place to start (check out a self-assessment quiz at https://www.psychalive.org/what-is-your-attachment-style/ ). You often have your parents to thank in some part!