Breaking Free of Family Patterns

To know what your significant adult relationships will look like, all you need to do is to look back at your ancestors’ relationships—your parents, grandparents, great grandparents—and you can know quite thoroughly what you’ll meet in your own. If you like your parents’ or grandparents’ relationships, this is good news. If not, let’s talk about what you can do, so you may change what you will offer to your children and their children in their relationships.

People unconsciously internalize family patterns through what they witness and experience growing up. Usually, the most significant exposure is to the parents’ relationship, if they’re together. If they’re divorced, then it’s derived primarily from the one with whom the child spends the most time. From observation, we learn the definition of love, relationship, marriage, friendship, or lack of friendship, by watching how our parents treat each other. If you’ve done self-examination, these statements are already obvious. If you haven’t considered this yet, the first reaction typically is to deny. Eventually, you’ll begin to see the patterns emerging.

We don’t necessarily always play the role of the same-sex parent, but the dynamic is indelibly printed, to be acted upon any time we’re under pressure, with a result of falling back into default or unconscious behavior. If the parents, grandparents, great grandparents had a positive relationship, then you may think this is a non-issue. But this is an area that merits deep observation because the objective in learning to live in and experience the Now is to be consciously awake in each moment, to be consciously choosing in each moment your behavior, your response, your contribution to the relationship.

It’s not enough to just get along well, because when the difficult times come, and they will come, what will you fall back on? You must know where your strengths and weaknesses are. The only way you can know those is through self-examination and paying attention to the present. Was your father non-communicative? Have you chosen relationships with someone who has great difficulty expressing themselves, or who is non-communicative? Was your mother frustrated? Overly solicitous? Do you pick partners, or do you play the role with those behaviors?

If you were to take some time and study your ancestors, not just knowing their names and date of birth and death, but what they valued, how they chose to live, how they chose to relate, what they felt was important to accomplish in life, you would see, sometimes shockingly, how you are living out the same life, just in a different time, a different generation. Often, the patterns, interests, values, career paths, and most definitely relationships will show tremendous similarities.

Q: Many children are growing up in single-parent homes. What will their relationships be like?

They will most likely have more role models affecting them. But most of this gets set before the age of 5 or 6 years old. It will continue to evolve past that point as the child becomes more conscious, and is able to be somewhat more separate from his or her parents’ life. But the most influence happens during those early years.

Times of great stress in a marriage will permanently imprint a child, no matter what the age. Any traumatic event such as death, divorce, and separation, leaves indelible marks, which, if left unresolved, may be acted out unconsciously later on. In a single-parent home, the greatest impact is usually from the parent to whom the child felt most strongly bonded before the separation. The circumstances of the separation will also color a child’s later acting out.

There isn’t an exact formula as to what a child will take from each parent. But be certain that the child does take from both parents. The extent is determined by circumstances and attachment. If the child loves the parent who leaves, then the child will have to work out feelings of abandonment and issues of trust. Without intercession, this child will grow up to be the one who leaves or who gets left. It will be played out, whether through their marriage ending in divorce or in a committed relationship ending. Or the child may go in the other direction and feel s/he cannot risk committing because s/he cannot risk being abandoned again. So they set up short-term serial relationships. There are too many possible scenarios to be generalized, except to say that you can see the patterns and likely scenarios each person will face by looking at the family history.

Q: After we recognize these patterns, how can we change them, if we don’t like what we see?

Be a reporter and gather as much information about the family history as people are willing to reveal. Sit down with a recording device or a notebook and interview your parents, grandparents, or whoever is living from the older generation, as though you were going to write that person’s life story starting from childhood. What was it like? What did they do for play? Who were their friends? What did they do at night at home? What were the traumas that affected their life? How did they overcome them? When did they start working? What did they choose to do? What were their values? How did they feel their parents felt about them and their siblings? How did they feel about their parents? How did their parents feel about each other? What were the family secrets? What were the consequences if the family secrets were broken or told? Who was the favorite and why? Who was the black sheep and why? Go through each generation. If you are an adult, you should include your siblings, and your parents and their siblings, and their parents and their siblings. You will begin to see a certain blueprint emerge; this is your family’s karma.

The law of karma is such that it will keep repeating itself unless you stop and look at what is happening and consciously change the behavior. You’ll notice certain personality traits in family members that each have in common. For instance, in your family (referring to one of the people present in the class), one of the major traits is intellectualism, another is sports, another is lack of emotional expression. All families have certain threads running through them; the unspoken rules that everyone internalizes.

Once the family history is recorded and you can look at all the parts, like chess pieces on a chessboard, you can begin to see this thing called the family dynamics. You can begin to see that there are really only a few personalities that keep being repeated within each family down through the generations. Everyone has their prescribed role to play, and they all do play it. It’s extremely hard to break out of. Many people need to get away from their families and break out of it with friends and strangers first, and then go back and try to break out of it with the family. Most families will rebel and will not easily accept this change in the family pattern.

Once the material is collected— your family’s roots, destiny, karma, patterns, whatever you wish to call them—then you may begin to see all of the traits, values, and behaviors that you also carry. Then look at this list and ask yourself, “Is this really who I am, or is this family karma I’m playing out?”

For instance, in your family, one of the traits may a quick temper. Yet this may not really be in your nature. But because it became a means of self-expression in your family coming down the line from your father’s family, and your father’s mother’s family, it has been internalized as a means of self-expression available to you. When you’re frustrated, your default position is to spontaneously fall into quick anger to release the frustration. But ask yourself, is this really who you are? Or is it a default family position? As you go down each of your family traits, ask yourself and examine the trait. “Is this me? Or is this something that I’ve accepted by being in my family?” You’ll begin to get a clearer picture of who you are innately, separate from family karma. Once you begin to see clearly who you are, and aren’t, you can then begin to look at how you behave in relationships. Is it based on a family body memory, or based on who you are now, and how you want to behave now as a conscious being rather than as a tentacle coming from the large family of tentacles?

Q: How can you be sure of who you are vs. how you behave as a member of a family? For example, how does someone tell that being quick to temper is not who they are?

Because they wouldn’t like how it makes them feel when they behave that way. It wouldn’t feel good or right. It’d feel like an impulse that they might have difficulty controlling, but it wouldn’t reflect how they want to behave or who they know themselves to be.

We could say a quick temper is simply one more tool in a way of relating to people to get the job done. But each person has to find within themselves their own tools, and not just walk around with somebody else’s toolbox, because it was handed to them so many years ago. Many of the tools we’ve been handed are rusty, broken, and dangerous to use. But we keep using them because it’s convenient and it’s what we know. It’s convenient, meaning it requires no thought. But to create your own toolbox requires effort, energy, thought, self-examination, and a certain ability to attain clear seeing and clear thinking. This is why we emphasize the need for such activities as meditation, journal writing, and other forms of practicing clarity. There can also be great benefit if you can find a good therapist.

Q: Does it take both members of a relationship to change a relationship once you’re already involved in it?

To change for the better, yes. Both people have to be willing to grow and to behave differently if that’s what’s required to improve the relationship. If one person changes and the other one doesn’t wish to change, it may cause the beginning of an irreparable rift. In order for a relationship to survive in a healthy form, both parties must be willing to go down that path together. It’s a wide path and there is much room for differences, but nevertheless, both partners must head in the same direction. If one lags a little behind, then patience is required by the other. What is most important is an acknowledgement of the willingness to head in the same direction.

Q: So this karma or this DNA is not a destiny that can’t be changed. It’s difficult, but it can be changed.

No, it can’t be changed, but you can be very selective as to where you choose to place the emphasis.

Q: Please explain.

All relationships have elements that work and don’t work. At this stage in human evolution, you cannot change from who you are, including your DNA, or your family history. An apple can grow into a healthier apple (a bigger, better form of itself) but it’s not going to become a banana.

Q: But if your parents had a bad relationship, can’t you have a good relationship with your spouse?

Yes, you can. But the way you’ll do that is to basically still look at the parents’ relationship as the measuring rod and try to do the opposite. Can someone from a completely dysfunctional, destructive family grow up to be a healthy human being and achieve healthy relationships? Yes. But the odds are against them. If they do beat the odds, the reason is because they have figured out the family karma and have figured out how to do the same thing differently. This is not to say that there can’t be other very significant important people who can shape an individual, such as teachers, friends, and mentors. These people can play a significant part in how a person develops. But essentially you are still dealing with the same raw materials. You can shape them in a number of different ways, but the raw materials you’re given are set.

Q: Does that mean the dynamics of a first and second marriage are the same?

No. For instance, the dynamic of a first marriage can be your father and mother’s relationship. The dynamic of your second marriage can your father’s relationship with his mother.

You do not need to witness every facet of a relationship to repeat it. This is the potentially troubling part of family karma. So much of what gets repeated is what is not consciously seen. This is why it’s also important when you interview to ask about the stories each person has to tell about family members who are dead because you will find so much of who you are is actually a grandparent, or a great grandparent, or great aunt or uncle.

Q: If we learn to a greater extent about the other ancestral relationships, would that help us get things right the first time, and not repeat what our parents did?

That would not be the most likely outcome because what you see the most is your parents’ dynamic. It is most likely that people first have to play out what they saw the most. This is not a hard and fast rule, but it’s the norm. Sometimes someone bypasses the parents and plays out their grandparents’ role in marriage. But usually it is the parents’ relationship that the children duplicate first.

Most people fall in love and think they can fix whatever else they need to fix down the road. But the essential ingredients are too often missing. And the road splits and there is nothing that can be done about it. You cannot start with a mismatched person and turn this into a healthy long-lasting relationship. It can last and there can be positive things about it, but it’s extremely unlikely that either person would flourish under those beginnings.

So here you are, having acquired a certain understanding and wisdom about love and relationships. You have looked at your family’s karma and have brought much of it to a conscious level, and now need to help your children choose wisely. Realistically, to what extent can you impact them? The answer is a challenging one because it is to the extent to which you are willing to repeatedly hold possibly unwanted conversations with them (when they are mature enough to understand) in ways that may make everyone uncomfortable.

You would have to be willing to be very clear with them about why you and their father or mother were not able to stay together. You’d need to explain with equanimity, the critical change points from the very beginning of the relationship all the way to the end. You’d have to be willing to say how you came to realizations, why you made the decisions you made, how you chose another partner, and so on. You would have to talk to them about how they’re choosing attractions at this point in their life, and over the long term what kinds of qualities they should be looking for in a partner. You should also discuss what kinds of qualities they need to develop to attract a good relationship.

Share your knowledge of what ingredients go into the making of a healthy lasting relationship as soon as your children are able to comprehend, and you will give them the opportunity to break free of family patterns without first having to repeat them. What a gift to be able to pass on to your children.

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