Leaving Our Parents; Joining Our Partners

This posting describes the need to leave our home psychologically as well as physically before we can fully enter our marriage.

Today's post will be the final installment in a series which has looked at different aspects of human relationships as outlined in Genesis.  

Harville Hendrix, the relationship theoretician who has most influenced me, writes that we are attracted to our partners for their positive and negative resemblance to important people from our childhood, usually our parents.  He describes the radar-like process by which we scan our prospective mates, finding a match only when we see someone who contains both these positive and negative qualities.  He posits that the real work of our marriages, the real but usually unconscious contract we sign on for when we get engaged, is that our partner will help us face the demons and baggage we bring from our childhood by being just enough like one of our parents to make us deal with these issues.  The purpose behind this is another wrinkle on our striving for our wholeness:  for us to have the opportunity to transcend the programming and wounds we inherited from our parents, who inherited them from their parents, and so on through the generations. 

Several weeks ago, in recommending films which do a good job of portraying the complexities of relationships, I wrote of All About Us, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Bruce Willis.  There is a marvelous scene in there which I have used during talks to demonstrate exactly this principle.  Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer are just about ready to "kiss and make up" in bed after a period of estrangement, when suddenly a voice in her head speaks up to spoil the moment.  Rob Reiner, who directs the movie, has the voice embodied by Michelle Pfeiffer's mother who is suddenly actually sitting next to her on the bed. As soon as Bruce Willis responds with the tapes he learned about intimacy from his parents, his parents appear next to him on bed.  Suddenly what started as an attempt at reconnection between two estranged spouses blossoms into a cacophony of competing voices from both sets of parents and Bruce Willis and Michelle Pfeiffer -- all of whom are in bed.  The scene ends with an ugly thud.

Genesis 2:24 says:  “thus shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be as one flesh.” Yes it is referring to a physical leaving of the home.  But it also refers to an emotional leaving and a psychological leaving.  Each partner must cleave unto whomever their partner actually is: without the filter of their respective parents, without the tapes they play from their personal history channel.  Only when we leave our father and mother psychologically as well as physically are we truly freed up to cleave unto our partner.

Do you have a question about your marriage or relationship? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at josh@joshgressel.com.

Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com.

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Toni1965 July 09, 2012 at 05:29 PM
This is so true, I have a sibling who, even though married for many years, is unable to truly "leave" our mother. In the same token said sibling married someone like our mother which creates its own set of problems within the marriage, but facing and dealing with the history of mother/child dynamics hasn't happened yet. However, "my whole life sucks because of how mom raised us" is the crutch they have used for years. At some point you have to stand up and take responsibility for your choices and behavior in life.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D. July 09, 2012 at 05:53 PM
Hi Toni: Thanks for your comment and for sharing a real life example which illustrates the point I was trying to make. Most all of us need to go through a period of complaining about our parents. It's a developmental stage which is necessary in order to differentiate as well as to recognize some of the hurts and how they affected us. However, as you correctly suggest, it is important not to get stuck at this stage but to move on. Our parents did the best they could. Yes, in many ways it wasn't enough. But we all have to ask ourselves how we are going to be different. When we take ourselves on in this way, one of the first things we'll have to face is how we are like the very parents who may have failed us. In facing this honestly, we'll have more compassion for our parents and more humility for ourselves. It's a sobering, but necessary part of growing up.
Caroline October 23, 2012 at 10:12 PM
Hello Josh, My name is Caroline, and I have been grieving with an Estrangement set of issues which came up when my son turned 17 and now he's 22. In this case he isn't married, and at his age of 15, after a 20 year marriage with his dad who would not get aide for his addition issues with booze, plus change of character and abusive mental behavior towards me. I was opted for having to leave our home with our son so not to have to continue being co-dependent as well stop the change of being an enabler, meaning remaining with him though he wouldn't seek the necessary help to get medically well. This no doubt brought added stress to both my son and I. To the point when he turned 18 he walked away from the medical help I was attempting for him to continue with a Psychologist and assistand to anti meds, because his character go over the top. However, moving forward, and having to apply tough love, he's gone completely Jeckl and Hyde, though he's not married, thank God, but none the less it's been a disaster between mom and son, plus the young man who was developing well, went zap? Have you discussed this on here at all? Or do you feel the young man needs to fly away like the Prodical Son did, and what of all the hurt emotions "why's", guilt's, etc. for the hurt parent?
Josh Gressel, Ph.D. October 24, 2012 at 04:32 AM
Hi Caroline: Thank you for your comment. I didn't know anyone was reading this older posts! This article has more to do with partners needing to leave behind the programming from their childhood in order to be more fully present to the reality of their spouse. The situation you are describing, which I have to assume is very painful for you, sounds like it's more between a parent and child. I wish I could give you some sage advice on how to let go of a young man in whom you've invested so much love and care. I have to imagine that he will come back to you after he has gone through whatever he needs to. If he is open to contact and willing to sit down with you, you might try getting some outside professional help to repair the breach. If not, I think the best you can do is let him know how much you love him and that you will be open to reconnecting whenever he is ready. Good luck on this. In some ways, it gets harder to parent the older our children get: the consequences of their actions are more serious and we have less control.


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