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How does your relationship with your father impact your romantic relationships?
One of the most intriguing findings in the field of couple therapy is that people tend to unconsciously pick partners who resemble their parents in some way. And dads have a key role to play. Research shows that women tend to be drawn to partners who are similar to their fathers psychologically, behaviourally or emotionally. Women who have positive relationships with their fathers even tend to pick partners who resemble their dads physically.
Why? Well, on a certain level it's simple: We live what we learn. But some couple researchers have taken it a step further. Harville Hendrix, a United States–based couple therapist, has argued that people unconsciously pick partners who resemble their early caretakers in order to work through old wounds or unresolved issues from their childhoods. Since parents are only human -- and because we are so vulnerable and dependent as children -- there are inevitably old hurts present.
Continuing the paternal pattern with partners
Research also shows that women in long-term couple relationships tend to reenact the relationship patterns they learned from their dads. This makes sense when you consider that your relationship with your dad is where you learned to relate to the opposite sex. This can be either beneficial or problematic. If your dad was a supportive, emotionally available parent, then you will have learned the skills needed for a healthy relationship early on and your romantic relationships will likely benefit as a result.
On the other hand, if you were in an unhealthy role in relation to your dad you may be at some risk of continuing that role in your couple relationships. For example, if you were a caretaker to your dad you might find yourself excessively caretaking your partner in your couple relationship and feeling exhausted or resentful as a result.
How to bring positives from a negative relationship
Awareness is key. The more you can bring your triggers, behaviours and reactions into conscious awareness the freer you can be from your past. If you find yourself having strong negative reactions to your partner, there's a good chance that childhood material is being activated.
For instance, are you projecting onto your partner disappointments that are really about your dad? Or do you repeatedly find yourself dating the same kind of guy with the same negative outcome? If you can become aware of what you're doing that isn't serving you, then you can begin to empower yourself to make different choices that will nourish and benefit you in your adult intimate attachments.
What if your dad wasn't around while you were growing up? Lots of people grew up without a father. If you are carrying powerful negative emotions about this -- such as a sense of abandonment or feelings of unworthiness -- then I encourage you to do some healing work, preferably with a compassionate, caring therapist. On the other hand, without any hardwired internal templates you are free to create a couple relationship that suits you best.
Assess your relationships
Take an honest look at how your dad might be affecting your couple relationship today. Are any of your father's behaviours causing conflict with your partner? Does your dad express approval of your partner or criticize him? This behaviour has the power to strengthen or weaken your couple relationship. Is your dad respectful of your relationship or is he intrusive or controlling? If he is controlling,consider setting some limits to protect yourself and your couple relationship. A good, relationship-oriented therapist can help support you in setting respectful boundaries.
So take stock of this important relationship with your father. What do you honour and appreciate about what you've internalized from your dad? And what might you need to work on or change inside of yourself for the benefit of a more satisfying couple relationship – not to mention your own freedom, health and happiness?
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Carole-Anne Vatcher, MSW, RSW is a Therapist and Relationship Coach for women. She works with women in person in her private practice in Kingston, Ontario and via telephone with women across Canada. For more information or if you are interested in working with Carole-Anne visit her website at www.carole-annevatcher.com.