Dating your parents (no not literally, thankfully!)

I subscribe to the theory that what we are attracted to in a mate is often a reflection of both the ways we’ve learned to accept love as children and the unfinished business we have with people who were close to us as children.

And of course, by ‘we’ I mean me.

Given that my father is a psychopath, I have thankfully not to my knowledge dated any psychopaths. I have been able to work out that gunk outside of relationships to date. Whew.  I have, however, quite knowingly and clearly  dated people with key positive and negative characteristics of my older brother and mother.

My workaholic, weak-backboned, neglectful, minimizing, non-affectionate mother and my distant, arrogant, critical brother have provided lots of material for relationship power struggles and personal growth over my lifetime of intimate relationships. My wife is a carbon copy of my mother in some ways, albeit with a powerful difference, she loves me enough to grow in the places where we clash, and I’ve been able to grow in the places she’s needed. This process has been both conscious and intensely healing for both of us. As a result, those holes are finally filled.  I think I no longer need to be with workaholics, and am much better at asking for and getting the physical attention I need. I have learned to stand up to criticism and assumptions that I am a failure and to give the heave ho to potential partners who try that stuff with me.

I have, however, not till recently dated someone who so profoundly pushed my daddy buttons.

I’m going to respect her privacy and not talk about her. Suffice it to say that she had many of the qualities of my father that I’d experienced as positive and enough of a taste of the negative ones to trigger me at times. But what I will do is talk about what parts of my relationship with my father seem to still have enough unresolved juice to drive my relationship decisions.

My father was very affectionate with me. He paid a lot of attention to me. He noticed every single minute thing I did. For years I thought he could read my mind. He was extremely controlling, and dominant in that sexist way that requires instant submission or things get ugly. He never was accountable for his own actions or misdeeds, and to call him to account for something he’d done would be to invite a big fight. He drank beer daily, and would shape his day around the quest for the magic elixir. When we didn’t have enough money to feed the kids, there was still beer in the house. It was that important.  He was profoundly and unapologetically self-centred and narcissistic. He spoke in codes I seldom understood and that sounded sinister.  He was a sadist, and not in the consensual way. He enjoyed hurting people, psychologically mostly, although he also tortured animals, and of course, me. He was manipulative, and liked to play head games.

This image nauseates me. I think I still have anger at that little girl for being so gullible and trying so hard to please and fix everything. I need to understand and forgive her and let her feel her grief.
This image nauseates me. I think I still have anger at that little girl for being so gullible and trying so hard to please and fix everything. I need to understand and forgive her and let her feel her grief.

I loved him. I loved the attention that I didn’t get from my mother, the reading to me of bedtime stories, the physical affection that included brushing my extremely long hair gently with a boars-bristle brush before bed, his attention to and support for my music, I loved sitting on his shoulders, I loved being special. I was open-hearted with him in a way that I’ve rarely been since. I remember that feeling.  I learned to comply with whatever he wanted or there would be trouble. I complied because I wanted my nice daddy back and for a long time I hoped it was possible.

Like I said, I’m not going to paint my ex-girlfriend with this brush. She’s got character flaws for sure, but is not a psychopath. Suffice it to say, we’re not a fit for one another.  What I’m interested in is how deeply I got entwined in a relationship that didn’t meet my needs, and how I looked at obvious red flags that told me that this relationship wouldn’t work, noted them, and continued on anyhow.  I protected my heart to a certain degree, at some level knowing that the relationship was doomed, but kept on trying to be a good girl in hopes of getting back the attentive, sensual, loving and supportive girlfriend I’d initially fallen in love with.

I can see how people with my background can be pulled into relationships that get abusive. To be clear, this relationship I was in was not abusive, just not meeting my needs.

I thought I was wiser than this, but what I found was that when you are lonely, when someone gives you a small taste of something you’d hungered for for a long time, and, importantly, that clicks with places you are wounded,  that it takes a long time to accept that a taste is all you’ll be getting and it’s best to move on.  Just as for years I waited in vain for emotionally distant workaholics like my mother to stop and put me before their work because they loved me more, or for my actual mother to do the right thing and fess up to her complicity in my abuse, it appears I now have to learn a lesson to do with intimacy, touch and being deeply seen by people without putting up with crap from them.

I did move on, and I’m proud of that, but I’m shocked at how long it’s taken to grieve. It’s because it’s not my ex I’m truly grieving.  It looks like I need to more fully grieve what I experienced as my ‘good daddy’, the Dr. Jeckle to his Mr. Hyde that had given me the crumbs of love and attention, nurturance of my musical, intellectual, performer self that I so deeply needed.

I have a new ‘type’ to watch out for, to heal and hopefully transform. I hope I’ve learned something from sorting out the residue of my mother and brother in my relationships that I can apply here. With my mother-gunk, what it finally took is understanding and progressively deconstructing the power-struggles and the pain that underpinned them. It took learning to be the bigger person.

I realize I tried to do that work with my ex, but it wasn’t the time or place. I tried to be the bigger person, to step down and away from power struggles again and again, to learn from them. I hope in the process I grew stronger and learned. My ex claims I taught her things as well. Perhaps I did.  My wife and I had a deep bond before we got into the power struggles that inevitably happen. This work takes a lot of relationship glue to keep from flying apart while you heal one another.  That’s what I need to know the next time I date someone who pushes my daddy buttons.

I’m not foolish enough to believe that I can become attached deeply to someone who doesn’t reflect back to me any of the gunk from my childhood, or for whom I don’t reflect back their own pain. I just hope next time, I have the sense to go a little slower, to build a base to grow from. I can also work on my ‘daddy issues’ on my own, grieve them for what they really are. I’d prided myself on being all evolved and healed, and it’s true, I am deeply proud of the growth and wisdom I have earned. I’m a whole person, not a wounded one. But that doesn’t mean I don’t, from time to time, find pockets of pain that need clearing out, or that I don’t continue to learn. It’s part of being alive and loving other people.

And I’m grateful for that.

0 thoughts on “Dating your parents (no not literally, thankfully!)”

  1. Pingback: New Year Resolution | May We Dance Upon Their Graves

  2. “It looks like I need to more fully grieve what I experienced as my ‘good daddy’, the Dr. Jeckle to his Mr. Hyde that had given me the crumbs of love and attention, nurturance of my musical, intellectual, performer self that I so deeply needed.”

    To this day, I think that’s the hardest thing – up until my mother died, that was my dad…a “good daddy” who somehow died along with my mother when I was 9. I truly think that is harder on me than the abuse I later suffered at his hands, and I know that’s the main reason why I don’t trust my own judgment about others, because my mind can’t reconcile the good daddy that was with the monster he became so I feel like I can’t trust my own sense of people. And that’s on top of the sense of loss…

  3. Yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about too. Sometimes when you love someone and you are both able to do the work, healing happens. Or sometimes we do small pieces of it with different people. In this last relationship I’ve had to look at the ways I am like my dad too, not all of which are bad, and embrace them as parts of me.

  4. When I got a sponsor in a 12-Step program, he told me that we usually marry one of our parents – the one that we have the most issues that need to be healed. Well, I became controlling like my dad because I didn’t want to be controlled and I wanted to feel safe and I thought if I controlled everything I would feel safe. I didn’t. I just felt more and more anger until it came out in explosions of rage directly at my husband until one day when I heard myself telling him I hated him and I hated my life. I realized that I didn’t hate him. I hated myself. That was the day that I started working at not being controlling. It was years before I admitted I was an incest survivor and that it was still affecting my life. My husband was my mom. Like her, he did anger passive-aggressively and denied it when I would confront him. It took years of me working on myself and him coming along at his pace of change before the parents were out of our marriage. We have been married 41 years. Some of those years were good, some were Hell and others, more lately, have been great. Our love for each other is stronger than it has ever been. Today, I have healed most of my issues. I hated it in the beginning when my sponsor would say that I had married one of my parents but eventually I came to see that he was right. I am a woman. My sponsor was a man. Why? When the 12-Step programs recommend that I have a woman sponsor. I didn’t trust women at the time because all of the women in my family that had authority over me as a child were very judgmental. I was still afraid if they knew about the incest that they would blame me. That changed a few years later when I met a recovering woman who was also an incest survivor. She helped me to start to trust women.

    1. Hmm… I have had control issues my entire life, yet never equated it with trying to feel safe. I also have never put together my issues with women with my feelings towards my complicit and rejecting mother. Thank you for giving me more pieces to the puzzle!

  5. “pockets of pain that need clearing out…” I like that. So much more hopeful than “damaged goods.” I appreciate you and your writing ability. You give a voice to the feelings that hover on the tip of my consciousness. Thank you.

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