OUR parents are our first teachers — we model almost everything they do in our early years. And as we grow up, their relationships direct in a big way the kind of choices we make.
A 2014 study, Parents' Relationship Quality and Children's Behavior in Stable Married and Cohabiting Families, by Julia S Goldberg and Marcia J Carlson, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found some evidence that parents' relationship quality and children's behavioural problems are reciprocally related. Overall, the study suggested that more positive couple interactions are beneficial for children, and positive aspects of the parents' couple relationships — such as greater trust, empathy, and effective communication — have beneficial effects for children's externalising and internalising behaviours.
Another study, by Monica Del Toro (2012) out of Boise State University, titled The Influence of Parent-Child Attachment on Romantic Relationships, found that when children have a healthy relationship with their parents, they are more likely to have healthy romantic relationship patterns in future romantic relationships.
How did seeing your parents' relationship affect how you handle yours? We asked these four women, and this is what they said.
Janice M, 40, loans officer:
My parents were married, but my dad was an alcoholic who drank out all his money, and my mother had to do domestic work to support all us children. I remember they used to fight all the time, and the children would take sides, climbing all over dad and battering him to protect mom. But throughout all this, even with all his faults, I still loved him, and forgave all his indiscretions. Looking back now, it's like I mentally blocked all his wrongs, and highlighted all my mom's faults. Counselling was what made me see how I had internalised this, and would choose to be with men who were jealous, abusive and flawed. It's like I'm allergic to healthy relationships, and I'm always seeking to stir up drama, always wanting men to prove themselves, and I know it's all linked to my parents' toxicity.
Kayon P, 23, architect:
My parents separated before I was born, because my father got another woman pregnant. Because my mother dumped him, he hated her, and initiated years of court and visitation issues. Each parent would spend time criticising the other when I was with them — my dad was worse though, he would gaslight me, tell me hateful things about my mother, and force me to get close to my stepmother and half-siblings, who he claimed were better people than my mother could ever be. Whenever I would try to make him see another position, he would say that I was just like my mother and cut me off, until I apologised. I had, and still have, a difficult time with relationships — I still can never get close to anyone to share any of my true feelings. I'm as aloof and unfeeling now as I was forced to be as a child, when I was there questioning myself, fighting for my father's affection, and crying out to be valued and noticed.
Opal B, 27, student:
My father was killed when I was a teenager, but before that my parents had a marriage that was typically Jamaican — they would cuss and fight, make up, cheat on each other, fight again, make up again, and the cycle continued. Much of my childhood was spent playing referee. When he died my mother transformed his memory into that of a saint — if I didn't know the man before, or the details of their relationship, I would think that he was the love of her life and they couldn't get enough of each other. What did that teach me? That relationships are built on lies, and though I hate to admit it, in relationships I'm willing to put up with things many other women wouldn't, because I believe that every man I meet is my soulmate, and we have to build with each other and accept each other, faults and all.
Tameka W, 31, paralegal:
My father had quite a few children outside, and each time he confessed to a new child, my mother would pray about it and forgive him. I have probably five siblings outside that he admitted to — that's how bad it is. My mother was always meek — the perfect, subservient wife — and I think my father abused her trust. She stood by him till his dying day, and never allowed anyone to criticise him. I saw that and decided that my life would be the opposite. My husband knows that I will leave at the first sign of cheating, and that I don't value his happiness and satisfaction over my own. I will never be the kind of woman who will be sitting by the door waiting for my man to come home from another woman's house, just because the Bible or the church tell me that I have to stick it out.