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Can the Past Define Our Future? – Family of Origin and Relationships

November 1, 2010 · 5 Comments

The family that we grow up with (called the family of origin), as opposed to the family that we create after marriage, is where we develop into the people we are now. Our family of origin shapes who we are, determines the thoughts that we have about ourselves and provides us with examples of how to behave as well as what to expect from other people in our lives.

Take the example of Sagar. He grew up in a family where his mother seemed less involved in his life and seemed to prioritize her tasks and emotions over his. He observed that his mother’s undivided attention was toward only his uncle and that was because he yelled at her when she wouldn’t listen. This taught Sagar that yelling is a normal and effective mode of communication. Thus, when he needs to tell Purvi something important, he often resorts to yelling because that is what he learned growing up as being normal and effective. Because she did not grow up with these expectations, she becomes upset when he yells at her and reacts strongly when he won’t calm down.

In addition, having a mother who was not as attentive toward him made him grow up feeling like he was not very important and that unless he made a scene, he was almost forgettable. Growing up with feelings like this often result in depression, anxiety and a lack of trust in other people. 

For example, when Purvi pushes him aside to cook the food faster, Sagar is much more likely to interpret that as Purvi thinking the food is more important than him trying something new. This is because of how he grew up and his relationship with his mother, who used to do similar things. However, there may be times when they are running late and there is a good reason why the food needs to be prepared faster. Because of the message that Sagar grew up with, it is unlikely that he will stop and think that there is another reason for Purvi to take over. He is very likely to stick to what he knows from growing up with his mother and will react accordingly even if that is not Purvi’ s reason for her behavior.

Such misunderstandings and assumptions that the partner is always acting like the parent leads to perpetual conflict between married couples. Because Sagar pushed himself to increase his self-awareness, he was able to draw a parallel between his relationship with his mother and the problems that he is having with Purvi. Conflict resolution will go much more smoothly now that he understands that his perceptions of certain situations are tainted by problems he had growing up with his mother. Had he not done this, they would have continued their patterns of conflict without understanding what the true problem is and thus without resolution.

Accepting the negative influences of one’s family of origin is a very difficult task as we feel loyal to our families. For many South Asians, addressing any negativity about your family can feel like you are betraying them or are being unappreciative of everything they have done for you. However, many issues between significant others are caused by negative messages and unrealistic expectations that are set by growing up with your family of origin.

Here are some common issues with regards to family of origin and how they translate into problems in adulthood and adult relationships. While this is not a diagnostic tool, these are simply common reactions to family of origin issues that may help unlock and help shed light on perpetual, seemingly never-ending arguments between partners. Reactions to similar family of origin problems may differ from person to person:

  • Witnessing a high-conflict, volatile relationship between your parents

This often results in the child believing constant yelling and bickering are normal forms of communication and may also use this style of communication regularly when trying to talk to his partner, which sets the stage for an unhealthy relationship. In addition, growing up in a house where both parents are regularly upset with each other and yelling at each other creates a high level of anxiety in the child. Family life seems less stable and the child can grow up with trust issues, believing that all relationships are shaky and cannot be fully trusted. Thus, emotional vulnerability is difficult for the child as he reaches adulthood and enters into his own marriage.

  • Parents reject or are dismissive of child

Someone like Purvi who grows up with a parent who has a different view and understanding of the child than the child has of himself can grow up with a lot of confusion. If the child is shy but the parent keeps putting him/her in social situations, the child never truly learns to embrace who they are and learn to work around his strengths and weaknesses. Instead, he/she grows up with a conflicted sense of self, often thinking to himself, “I am this way, but I really should be the other way.” These children can often grow up depressed and with low self-confidence, learning to rely on others to provide information about who they are, what they like or what they should do. These children also often grow up with a sense of incompletion and that they are not good enough. Sometimes these children grow up to be perfectionist adults. They do not settle for anything less, which becomes a problem when they hold their partners to the same standard.

  • Childhood trauma (physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse)

Abuse is a complicated issue that affects children in a wide variety of ways. This topic will be addressed in detail in future articles. However, common problems from abuse include: low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, trust issues, low self-image, aggressive tendencies, and/or sexual and intimacy problems, etc.

  • Experiencing a lack of love (often due to parent’s own issues that trump relationship development with the child)

A child who grows up in a home where he is fed, clothed and sheltered but does not feel the warmth of love grows up believing that there is something inherent about him that is creating the distance between his parent and him. In fact, the issue is most often that the parent(s) has his/her own problems that are so big that prevent him/her from expressing the warmth and love to the child. This child grows up believing that if he can be the “good child” or the “perfect child” he can earn his parent’s love and change the dynamic between the two of them. This child grows up to be a perfectionist usually and holds himself, as well as his partner sometimes, to an unreasonably high standard. This child also grows up believing that he is unlovable and may have a difficult time opening up to his partner and sharing his feelings and thoughts. On the flip side, the child may become very clingy with his partner, wanting his partner to provide an incessant amount of love almost to make up for what his parent could not give him.


While looking back at problems from our families can be very difficult, doing so in conjunction with increasing your awareness about your communication styles can truly make for a much healthier relationship. Both you and your partner will learn significantly more about yourselves and each other. This increased compassion and empathy is key to  creating and maintaining a healthy relationship.

We would love to hear your response to this article! Please feel free to leave a comment.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • Anonymouse // November 1, 2010 at 9:19 pm | Reply

    Wow, this is a huge WEALTH of knowledge in this article. Very interesting stuff, probably relevant to most people in one way or another.

    • Parijat Deshpande // November 3, 2010 at 7:10 pm | Reply

      Definitely! Since we all grew up with some family and since no one is perfect, it is natural that we all will have some tendencies or communication habits that need improvement. Such self-awareness is unbelievably eye-opening and can significantly improve marriages.

  • KR // March 2, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Reply

    I found your website to be very insightful and helpful. I am not Asian – I am a Caucasian American – but I found this page while surfing the Internet for articles on how our families of origin can impact our own family-building (or lack thereof). This article confirmed some things for me and I appreciate your writing it/publishing it.

    KR

  • dawdaw // June 18, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Reply

    This article is relevant to all Nationalities not just Asians. The last para brought me to tears as this was my life. However it has left me with a lot of resentment how do i deal with it?
    Thank you for your wisdom

  • Monica // July 11, 2014 at 5:02 am | Reply

    This article struck a cord deep in my soul because I am beginning to finally unveil the truth about my reasons for how my family molded me into who I am today. After so much conflict and suffering I can begin to replace all the bad habits I developed with more wholesome ones. Thanks for the enlightenment I am eager to learn more.

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