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Relationships • Finding Love

Why We All End up Marrying Our Parents

One of the most superficially familiar but enduringly striking (even shocking) ideas bequeathed to us by psychoanalysis is that we will all end up, without being aware of the fact, marrying either our mothers or our fathers. We may think we are engaged in choosing candidates on the basis of their distinctive merits and on the surface, our partners may indeed differ markedly from our parents in terms of their lifestyles and tastes. But there is a very high chance of eventually discovering fundamental equivalences at the level of emotional temperament.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

If this thesis normally comes across as sad (or indeed, as a kind of horror story), it is because too many of us have highly complicated relations with the parent of the gender we’re attracted to. The last thing we’d therefore be interested in doing is committing ourselves for a lifetime to a person with the very same issues we’ve been trying to run away from since adolescence.

But this apprehension misses the second, much more hopeful aspect of this theory. Psychoanalysis doesn’t merely insist that we will marry someone like our parent, it also proposes that what we really want to do — and this explains the intensity of our longing — is to give the story with a parent-type figure a different ending. We might well hunt out a situation with the same sort of character at its centre — but this time, armed with the full resources of maturity — we want to make things go well. We want a partner who is sufficiently like a parent to feel familiar, but sufficiently different to prepare the way for a kind of happiness we yearned for but were denied in our earliest years. From a psychoanalytic point of view, what we call love is at heart the distinctive enthusiasm we experience at the thought of bending a familiar trajectory of pain towards a longed-for fulfilling conclusion.

In wondering how our romantic lives should ideally go, we should ask ourselves three questions:

1. What were the good sides of the parent of the gender we’re attracted to?

2. What were their flaws?

3. What would we need to do in order to overcome and heal these flaws if we were in a relationship with someone who had similar ones?

This will give us a range of clues. It will guide us to what sort of person is likely to thrill us, what we are likely to want to ‘do’ with them — and how we should assess our degree of genuine long-term compatibility. The person we should be with isn’t someone who early on excites us because of their resemblance to a parent, they are someone who deep down agrees with the ‘happy ending’ of the story we are plotting.

We should never for a moment forget that certain people may have no interest all in the story we are trying to give a satisfying conclusion to; they might share the emotional makeup of a parental archetype, but have no desire to be calmed down or warmed up, tamed or nurtured. What powers most divorces are essentially disagreements as to the direction of the story each partner is unconsciously trying to take their spouse on.

We don’t need to worry at all that we are going to marry a version of our parent. We just need to check very carefully with any prospective partner that they truly are in agreement with the happy ending we quietly have in mind for them.

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