When you grow up in an unhealthy family, what you learn most is what not to do, who you don’t want to be, and how you don’t want to relate to people you love.
Maybe you don’t remember: You made a promise to yourself as a child. You said things to yourself like, “When I grow up, I’m going to be nice to my kids.”
A lot of us started planning our weddings 20 years before they happened. We dreamed of the family we’d have and how it would make everyone happy and everything okay. Maybe it worked out just like you planned.
But I doubt it.
One of my favorite Facebook memes: “What screws you up is the image in your head of how it’s supposed to be.”
I explain partnerships and parenting to my clients this way: “You’re just like me – you were raised by unhealthy people. This image you have in your head about how healthy relationships are supposed to work…where’d that come from?
Answers I’ve collected over the years range from the Waltons to the Cosbys to Boy Meets World. We learned about love through sit coms and romantic comedies. TV and movies were our default teachers of how it should be. We were children and young adults watching romanticized shows in which everyone’s problems were resolved in half an hour. Everyone was good to each other: no one ever yelled, nobody got drunk and made a scene. Nobody got divorced and nobody ever got hit.
What’s most amazing to me is that most of us have never connected that what we were learning was a scripted version of ideal marriages and families that doesn’t exist anywhere.
Rude awakenings: Maybe you fell in love. Maybe you started a family long before you even grew up. Maybe you found yourself in a partnership that’s a lot like your parent’s. Maybe you’re like me and learned all your lessons the hardest possible way.
I was married at 20. That’s laughable to me looking back. As if I knew anything about how to live or love myself, much less be a partner to my wife. I was a dad at 21 and again at 22. That seems so insane to me now. I’m 49 and I have days where I think maybe I’m ready now. I was a kid raising kids.
If you’re anything like me, whenever you didn’t know what to do, you just did the opposite of what your parents did and hoped for the best. Even if things turned out okay, you’re still always scared and convinced you’re not doing it right.
The more insecure we are, the more we compare ourselves to others. This never works because it always seems like everyone else knows what they’re doing. My friend Pat Lemieux wrote a piece some time ago about Facebook families and how perfect a family seems in posed pictures.
So, a few thoughts from a guy about to celebrate 29 years of loving the same woman, and about to celebrate the 27th and 28th birthdays of two amazing adult children:
- It’s okay that you don’t know what you’re doing.’ It’ll only mess you up to keep pretending that you do.
- You’re probably doing a lot better than you think. Stop being so self-critical.
- Find a mentor. Someone you know who’s more experienced and willing to share what they’ve learned. Healthy people like it when others can learn from the ways in which they screwed up.
- If you have a half way healthy/half way sane partner, you need to have the guts to open up and share in no uncertain terms what you want, need, feel, and fear.
- Think of it as a team and be your partner’s best friend. Put no one before them. Ever. (except the kids and try your best to balance that too).
- Do your best to always encourage your kids. Tell them 10,000,00 times that you love them, that they’re good even when their behavior is bad, and that you believe in them.
- Don’t try to change your partner. Ever. Don’t disparage things they love that you think are stupid. Just keep asking, “How can I help?”
- Parenting is the hardest job in the world. Take breaks. Have one hobby. One night out. It’s not selfish to take care of yourself – it’s necessary.
- Maybe the hardest one of all – whenever you’re stuck, ask yourself two questions: “How would I see this if it was a friend’s life? And “What would I tell them/do for them?” Then do that.
- Forgive yourself. You will screw up. You will hear your parent’s voice come out of your mouth. You will go through hard times. Just don’t give up and it’ll be okay sooner or later.