Are Healthy Family Relationships Essential to Finding Love?

a family spending time together

Hi Evan,
I am a 34-year-old German girl living in Munich. I’ve read two of your books and I’ve been following your blog. Yes, you could call me a fan. Your advice has helped me a lot and I feel lucky that a friend has send me a link to one of your articles about one year ago.

I’d love to hear your opinion on the following: You often mention that you consider it important that a guy is on good terms with his family and has a good relationship with his parents. I personally don’t have a good relationship with my parents and I am very sad about this. But during my childhood and early adult life I suffered a lot from my depressive mother and my (verbally) abusive father until I decided a couple of years ago to limit our contact to a minimum since there was too much damage done already. I understand that my family history is far from ideal, but this doesn’t mean that I am not a family person or that I am a bad partner. Of course I am in no position to turn down a man for this reason, and I also hope that I am not judged by a man who thinks that a healthy family background is vital for a good relationship. Although I normally find the fact that a man is close with his family very attractive I often connect better with men who can relate to what it’s been like for me.

So here’s the question: “How important is a healthy family background for a healthy relationship?” Am I doomed because I come from a broken family?

Your history does cause complications. You are undoubtedly aware of some of them; you are undoubtedly oblivious to others. This is why therapists have jobs.

No, Jenny, you’re not “doomed” because you come from a broken family.

That would doom far too many people and I’m kind of an optimist about love.

But your history does cause complications. You are undoubtedly aware of some of them; you are undoubtedly oblivious to others.

This is why therapists have jobs.

In general, are people who come from highly functional, loving, intact families more likely to try and successfully emulate their parents? Sure. I knew I wanted to be like my Dad by the time I was 10 years old.

In general, are people who come from divorce, neglect, trauma, physical and emotional abuse more likely to have issues. Absolutely. It would be next to impossible to have a depressed mother and an abusive father and not internalize any of those imprints from your youth.

But all people are different and process things in their own ways.

There are men who got beaten by their dads who, as grown-ups, see physical abuse as something that’s been normalized. And there are men who got beaten by their dads who vowed to be NOTHING like their dads.

You don’t need a guy who is just like you. You need a man who treats you well, treats you consistently, and accepts you for all that you are.

There are women who, from early in their childhoods, see men as selfish, inconsistent, and unavailable — and they often live this out as adults by choosing men who are just like their fathers. And then there are women who instinctively avoid such men at first glance.

I don’t know you, Jenny. I don’t know what work you’ve done on yourself.

I will say that, between choosing a man with healthy secure attachments and choosing a man who “connects” with you over your shared childhood abuses, I’d stick with the former. You don’t need a guy who is just like you. You need a man who treats you well, treats you consistently, and accepts you for all that you are.

Find the guy who does that — regardless of his background — and you’re well on your way to building a superior existence than the one you had growing up.

Good luck.

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  1. 1
    Jackie H.

    Totally agree…no one is doomed because of their history, but if you do have a challenged history, you cannot ignore it…on the other hand, just because you have a healthy history does not mean you can act on autopilot…if you strive to be whole no matter your background and then focus on attracting the right partner, I think that’s the way to go…at least that is my experience…

  2. 2

    I’m not on speaking terms with most of my family. It took many years of therapy to be able to get to that point of being able to do that. in my case the cutting off of family was a sign of healing vs a sign of being damaged. I have absolutely amazing friends that know my history and are my “family”-they tell me I’m the most earth to earth, kind, forgiving person they know because of what I’ve been through.  
    I think the big thing is being able to say you’ve worked through your issues vs accepting them as normal. That’s a big part of being able to maintain a health relationship.

  3. 3

    You’re not doomed. My therapist described my experiences as   “the worst I’ve ever heard.” I’ve been in a lovely relationship for ten months now. However, I will say that my boyfriend – unlike some of my exes – is not borderline alcholic, a recovering alcoholic, depressive or ” complicated”.   He has emotional depth without being a basket case.   He’s stable and consistent. He’s sympathetic but  doesn’t really understand what I’ve been through. I don’t need him to, I just need him to be a consistent person now. Not his job to right the past.
    You’re doomed if you think you’re doomed.   If you continue to find difficult men attractive, consider counselling. Other than that, you are no more or less likely than anyone else to find a good relationship.

  4. 4

    Depends if someone is choosing to stay in a unhealthy damaging harmful abusive controlling co-dependent family environment or have minimal contact heal and get help away from it. We can’t chose our family of origin when we are children but we can chose if we stay around and how much contact we have as adults.
    It appears to me that the OP is more than aware and has made a conscious choice to not be around family members who treat her badly or are harmful to her. So is making NOW making healthy loving choices for herself. She has taken healthy steps by getting away,to break the cycle of abuse and minimizing the risk of not repeating it for herself and future children.
    Brave woman. Not an easy thing to do.

  5. 5

    What a brave question from the OP!   I have often reflected on this question due to my own home life experiences, as well as having worked with people from such backgrounds.  
    I’m pretty grateful I despised my childhood situation so much that I vowed NEVER AGAIN. I could see that there were only two choices: to continue emulating and seeking what I knew, or to nip that cycle in the bud.  
    When I look around to the lives of others who chose to continue with what they knew, it’s not a pretty picture, and it’s evident it becomes harder to break, the longer it goes on. Particularly if there are children involved. It really is an unfortunate cycle.
    I don’t think there’s any added value in finding a man who’s had a similar experience to you. If he’s a good man, he will have compassion towards your situation, even though he’s never lived it. If he’s a good man, he will take an interest in understanding your limitations, and where you need encouragement and support. It’s an awfully good feeling when your partner does things naturally, that were never naturally offered before.
    If you do choose someone with a similar background, you will both need to be very self-aware and on the same page, in not wanting to emulate the past. The last thing you want is to trigger each other off. You’ll both likely need to provide each other with a sense of warmth, calm and safety, and be careful to steer clear of destructive behaviors.
    In any case, the most important thing is to find a man who treats you right and makes you feel safe, as well as for you to be at your best and truly believe you deserve it.

  6. 6

    I am that partner that is on the other side…in a relationship with someone who came from highly dysfunctional relationships with mental illness involved. I have been dating a divorced man who was verbally and physically abused by his parents, is somewhat estranged from his parents and siblings and whose ex-wife is mentally ill and an alcoholic. He has just realized that he is still emotionally attached to his ex, and by that I mean he has not healed all the pain and wounds she caused (abuse, infidelity, lying, control, manipulating, etc…all the MO’s of her mental illness). She is still doing these things, after them being separated for 4 years and divorced almost a year. He is constantly having to battle her phycho behavior and has three children he needs to protect. He was in counseling while dealing with her alcoholism and trying to keep the kids safe (she had a DUI with kids in car) and just last week realized he needed to see a therapist again and did so. The impact on me is huge. He takes his emotional anger and pain out on me by getting angry if something I do triggers him. My behavior is normal and I’ve done nothing wrong or inappropriate, but it reminds him of his ex and he’s fearful I’ll turn out like her, even if rationally he knows my behavior is normal and I’m different. He has come to this realization and hates when it happens and knows he needs a therapist’s help, but he is so conditioned that it is an automatic response. The toll it takes on me is huge. I have helped him move on towards the kind of life he needs and wants and helped him see things he couldn’t because I’ve been through it before him and have experience he doesn’t. But I also know he needs to deal with his ex on his own. I need my boundaries. I have my own relationship baggage (unavailable people and a sister that committed unintentional suicide because of her borderline personality disorder) and I have experience with the mentally ill. As much as he needs to detach from his ex, so do I if this relationship is going to work. He needs to also stay in therapy until the triggers no longer affect me. He’ll still have his feelings and will have to deal with the ex until the children are grown, but he needs to switch out his old dysfunctional beliefs and behaviors in order to have a healthy relationship with me or anyone else. You are not doomed, but you need to realize that past issues, if not healed will put a strain on your new relationships.

  7. 7

    Hi Jenny,
    I was actually reading something from The Gift of Fear (by Gavin DeBecker) this weekend that really struck home for me. It was something along the lines of if you come from a home where there is no constant, people’s moods can change quickly and violent behavior is common, then you grow up and have a tendency to try and control situations in your life. You are more likely to be in tune to your partner’s varying moods and realize quickly when something is different and go on to analyze why mentally. I have to physically stop myself from doing this. I am not the all time best girlfriend (even though I try my best) and I think a lot of it has to do with my stunted emotional background. Obviously, everyone is different and I do not want to emulate my parents and I think I’ve already come a pretty far way throughout my past relationships. But I look at people who I know came from loving households and for the most part they just seem better at handling things, they don’t have as much insecurity. It took me a long time to realize that I can think I’m attractive etc, but still be insecure about my worth in relationships. If you spend 18 years being emotionally and physically abused, no matter what the severity is, it is going to leave you with some scars. And I believe you can move past that, but you have to recognize what you’re doing wrong and why you feel the way you do. I now realize that I am not just a control freak. From age 3 and on I had to monitor the people around me for my own protection. I’m more adept at reading subtle facial expressions and body language. Due to things often being out of my control when I was younger I try to control my boyfriend. I am sitting there unconsciously analyzing him and it is so ingrained that all I can do is not act on it. I am 100% certain he loves me and would never purposely hurt me, but I still feel like damaged goods half the time. Sorry if that was longwinded and overly verbose, but I would say that the answer to your question is Yes, it makes it more difficult to maintain a healthy relationship, but it is still very possible. You just have to recognize when you’re having unhealthy thoughts and where they are really stemming from. I have actually gained perspective from psychological books in understanding the way I think and behave, so that could be beneficial as well.

  8. 8

    @ Chris – I just read your post. I know you probably love this guy, but make sure you aren’t excusing unexcusable behavior. I’m a huge bitch to my BF sometimes and treat him like crap, but I feel awful afterwards and actually sit around trying to figure out what triggered that etc. I also make sure I make it up to him. I’m very lucky that he’s laid back. I know what I was doing was childish and wrong though. Is your man addressing that? And is this a constant for you? Relationships are supposed to help us grow and become better people. They are not just to have someone nearby to talk to sometimes (or yell at). You should do fun things together and laugh etc. I’m sure you know all of this and dealing with someone who is emotionally scarred is difficult. But if its making you stressed and unhappy in general I would get out of the relationship even though you love him. There’s no reason to stay in a toxic environment.

  9. 9

    I understand the need to have someone who can relate to childhood bad experiences, although I feel it is something to move past.   My own childhood was a nightmare and left  big scars.    So I decided by age 20 that I would recover no matter what  it took  or  how long it took.    For years I’ve put effort into study and meditation every day.   The baggage gradually grows smaller, and it’s a difficult but rewarding process.   Face the pain and go through it to the other  side.   
    All along there was the need to have someone who could relate and understand.   I also used to feel an affinity for people who had bad experiences of their own.   It’s like we’re from the same planet, and we understand each other.   BUT – I’ve learned that people who had bad childhoods usually aren’t working very hard to repair the damage.   Usually they’re just kind of  swimming in the bad energy they brought from those years, thinking about it a  lot  but not  doing the hard work of recovery.   Which means that they’re damaged people, and not likely to become healthy.    And sadly, you  can’t have a healthy  relationship with an unhealthy person.   It’s impossible.
    So I learned that the people who can “understand and relate” may be just the people who are bad for me!    So now,  if I meet someone who’s been through those nightmares,    I’m cautious unless I  see that they’re serious about getting  healthy.   Just like alcoholics need to avoid other drinkers and seek better company.   Also, the more I recover, the less I need  someone who ‘”gets it,” and the more I’m drawn to people with healthy spirits.   Like attracts like.   When we recover, we get to move to the other planet, the one with the people who  know how to  enjoy life!  

  10. 10

    @Chris6 I am sorry you are going through this.   It will be much harder for your bf to let go of the triggers and patterns he established with his ex while he is in a relationship that is inciting him to continue to practice them.   He needs therapy and time out of a relationship. I am with Sarah.   Cut him loose   and date other men.   Bad treatment is bad treatment, no matter the reason.     Get out.

    If you have been together for a long time and you want to ‘wait’ for him to work through it,   you are signing up for a journey of years. You have no control over whether he learns to break his toxic behavior patterns. The patterns established in your relationship might remain   once he is healed and would be able to have a healthy relationship with someone else.   That is not because of who you are, it is because you dated him during a bad time. If you stay in, insist on couples therapy to help him break down these patterns, but he has an uphill battle.

    If you find yourself significantly changing your normal behavior or boundaries to accommodate him there will be no prospect for a happy future.

  11. 11

    I’ve been reading Marsha Lucas’ Rewire Your Brian for Love – about attachment research/neuroscience and how meditation can help change the neuronal pathways damaged by a difficult background. It’s a much more serious book than it’s title suggests and I think it’s been helpful.

  12. 12

    DEFINITELY wouldn’t say you’re doomed. One of my best friends that I grew up with had a troubled family.   Her parents were both very big potheads and never took care of her. They let her do whatever she pleased and didn’t care what she was doing as long as she wasn’t bothering them. Her mom used to hide pot in her stuffed animals, too! Her parents also tried to run each other over with a car…soooo…yea.   She’s not on good terms with either of her parents and does not communicate with them at all.
    But she’s happily married now to a really sweet guy, and they have the cutest baby boy! She’s got a girl on the way, as well! Honestly, they are the most solid family, and they are one of the few couples from my group of friends that have not gotten divorced yet.
    Strangely enough, my friends who have experienced divorce have never experienced their parents divorcing.   So you can never say with certainty that your life is going to turn out exactly as you had planned.   I think the important part about relationships is that you learn what works and what doesn’t…as my friend had done.

  13. 13

    People come together at their same level of wounds. So if we find ourselves in an unhealthy relationship, the only person we can do the   work on and heal is ourselves.

  14. 14
    Karmic Equation

    “Those who don’t learn from their past are doomed to repeat it.”

    One of my favorite sayings. I think that as long as someone acknowledges how their past has shaped them…and are committed to overcoming any negatives of that past, everyone can find love. My mom was physically abusive; my stepdad was a pedophile. Yet I’ve found love…and more importantly, I know when to let love go. Once a relationship has run it’s course, I don’t regret the relationship that was and don’t try to hang on to what will never be again.

    In contrast, my bff has parents who met in their late teens and are still happily married today, almost 50 years later. Yet while my friend has been many LTRs and has been married for over 17years, his marriage is far from the happy one of his parents. He admitted that his whole life he was looking for that same kind of love and marriage that his parents enjoy.

    I’ve told him that his healthy family relationship (loves his parents and siblings and they him) — actually skewed reality for him. I’ve told him that his parents were truly lucky. Most of us aren’t that lucky.

    “Happiness is a choice.”

    This is my other favorite saying. But it doesn’t mean to me what it means to other people. I believe that each of us have to PROACTIVELY make choices that lead us to happiness. Happiness is NOT accepting what you have and grinning and bearing it; happiness is NOT accepting “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t”; happiness is NOT settling “a bird in hand is better than two in the bush.” That kind of happiness is REACTIVE not proactive.

    Happiness is being willing to evaluate every meaningful choice you have to make on a daily basis and being willing to make the choice that leads you to happiness. Sometimes the choice that makes you happy is the harder choice. Like when you’re dieting 🙂 Fitting into the LBD will make you very happy a month from now but foregoing that hot fudge sundae now is just oh so painful!

    So if you’ve been through a lot and have been scarred, you have to decide what makes you happy. And then take proactive actions that help you achieve that happiness. Sometimes that means therapy. Sometimes that means “no relationship until I address my issues”. If happiness is the goal, sometimes you have to suffer a little in the present to ensure you get there in the future.

    And if relationship = happiness to you, the same thought process applies. Will accepting him as he is, while difficult now, lead you to happiness later? Or will leaving him, while more painful now, lead you to eventual happiness? Which is more likely? If your best friend was in your relationship, what would you advise her to do?

    Keep your eye on the prize and make decisions based on that prize, whatever that prize may be for you.

    So, no. IMO, healthy family relationships are not essential to finding love. But a healthy mindset and acceptance and understanding of yourself–and a willingness to DO something about it–are.

  15. 15

    Karmic, I think your post #14 is fantastic.
    I don’t think a healthy or wholesome family background is essential to happiness in love because I know of so many people who had very damaged childhoods and have gone on to have wonderful, lasting relationships.
    What they all have in common though is a willingness to work on and through their issues, a self-awareness and an awareness and understanding of others.   This doesn’t have to come from a perfect family background, in fact  often adversity can teach you more.

  16. 16

    I agree! We don’t have to repeat the past over and over – but only until we have learned its lessons. Just asking this question and having the courage to face the possibilities means you have already taken a huge step on the path to a healthy and long lasting relationship. People who are going to repeat the behavior they grew up with wouldn’t even be questioning it 🙂

  17. 17

    In an ideal world we would all benefit from stable family relationships. Some of us though in adult life are still in some way damaged by early childhood experiences.
    I know of several people that have carried on traits experienced from abusive and alcoholic parents. So sad.

  18. 18
    Karmic Equation

    Thanks, Clare 🙂
    “…in fact  often adversity can teach you more.”
    Well said. Not only in love, but in life, and even business, this is true. But only if you’re able to learn from that adversity and apply the lessons learned.

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