Giving and Receiving of Love: Your Childhood Relationship with Your Parents and the Impact on Your Marriage
In the last blog post we talked about the multigenerational family process and how this relates to the giving and receiving of love in the marital relationship. How we experienced our parents will impact how we give love today in our marriages.
In this post we look at how a family’s wholeness can be broken down into a system of relationships between parents and children. We then look at the giving and receiving of love between parents and children. The main discussion will be about the seven characteristics of the functioning two-tiered family system and the seven functions of the parental-executive system. Although seeming academic, this provide background for you to consider your upbringing and how this relates to your marital experience. Although individual psychology and relationships between sibling and marital partners is equally important in considering the family system, in this post we will focus on the parent-child relationship.
Our family of origin is the first place we learn about the giving and receiving of love. These earliest experiences provides a imprint for what we expect in a loving relationship and inform what we are seeking and expecting in marriage.
‘Wholeness’ of the Family
When we see a family together (parent(s) and children) we might not see the multi-generational process at work. What we do see are individual characteristics and ways of beings that connects all family members into a collective identity. We get a sense of who they are and their essential character that describes their way of being together. When people hear “the Brown family” or “the Smiths,” for people who are familiar with the family, a felt sense of the collective identity and “wholeness” of the family comes to mind.
The wholeness of a family describes how they are a unit to outsiders. A closer look into each family tells the nuances of how this family unit operates as family system. A family system meaning the connection of its parts through its relationships within the family structure.
The Browns and the Smiths have typical ways of relating to one another that constitute their feeling tone and also the emotional climate of the family. Family structure illustrates how how all families function as a system that create this collective identity and feeling tone of a family.
Salvador Minuchin, MD was one of the first to write about families as a structural system. A family structure divides the family into two sub-systems: Marital partners/parents and children. Family structure becomes visible in the transactions between family members. These two sub-systems are separated by a boundary.
Boundaries in the Family System
Within each family there is boundary that separates the adults and children. This boundary is defined by how the two sub-system interact. The classic three boundaries are clear, diffuse and rigid can illustrated in what is called a Structural Map. They are as follows.
A functional family system with a clear boundary:
In the above diagram, a dotted line delineates a clear boundary. A clear boundary indicates that both parents and children have access to each other AND are within their respective hierarchal places.
A diffuse boundary would indicate that the boundary between the adults and children is less clear. Parents may be in the children sub-system and children in parental sub-system. Parents may be over involved with their children. The variations are numerous and all have implications for the family emotional climate and function.
A rigid boundary illustrated by a straight line between parents and children. A family with a rigid boundary is rigid in their inability to adapt to the changing needs of its members. This includes the rigidity of power and control within the hierarchy of the parents despite the growing children.
Now we will take a look at a functional two-tiered family with a clear boundary.
The Parental Executive Sub-System
My late mentor, Barbara Lynch, stated the following are the seven characteristics of a functioning two-tiered family system and the seven functions of the parental executive system. Taken together, the seven characteristics and seven functions are ways in which in parents provide love and nurturance that creates a warm context for growth of the child.
Functional two-tiered systems have these characteristics:
- Adults (only) in executive system, hierarchically appropriate
- Adult system is one of peers
- Child is a respected subordinate
- Communication is clear and direct
- Child’s input is considered
- Purpose of system is to provide for child’s needs (see below)
- Executive system works cooperatively in child’s best interest in interaction with other systems such as school, religious, health, etc.
An additional function of the executive system is to keep any dysfunction in the marital sub-system from spilling over into the child sub-system, or at least be mindful of it and capable of appropriately addressing it.
For instance, the marital partners are able to contain any conflict within the marital system by keeping adult discussions about their relationship between the two of them. The contrary might express itself with the spouses becoming emotionally disconnected and the conflict remains unresolved. Chronic emotional disconnection and unresolved conflict between spouses has an impact on the family system which may express itself as symptom development in the children. In extreme cases, children may become entangled in parents’ violence and abuse and be neglected and/or abused themselves.
Families are living systems. That means that how these seven characteristics are in the life of a family change with time and developmental needs of its members.
The seven functions of the parental executive system:
- Limits – for both mental and physical safety
- Protection – of ego, body, mind and emotions
- Support – both emotional and physical – for achievement, growth and development
- Nurturance – physical, emotional, and of potential
- Place – appropriate hierarchical structure
- Respect – acknowledging developmental levels, child’s personal talents.
- Permission –
- To challenge constructively
- To make mistakes and to learn from them
- To take appropriate risks
- To make choices based on responsible input
- To be male, female, sexual, successful, creative
When parents provide these functions, it allows children to fulfill their functions: to receive the love and support of their parents and to grow, develop and mature.
How parents take to the task of these seven functions is dependent on variables to each family. Are the parents married, divorced, separated and how does the quality of the relationship between the parents allow them to enact these functions? Are both partners capable or willing to provide these functions? Answers to these questions impact the experience between parent and child.
The intention behind considering the parent-child relationship is to consider what you are bringing from your child-parent relationship into your marriage. There are many different types of parents. Some loving, some are mixed and some are abusive and neglectful.
The deficiencies that you may see when looking at the seven characteristics of a functioning family and seven functions of the parental system may have wounded you in some way. Consider the impact: emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually. As we grow up into adults, this inner child stays with us.
As children, what we experience is the presence or absence of these characteristics and functions and not able to see the bigger picture as to why. Children will blame themselves for the deficiencies in their parent-child relationships. That speaks to the significance that as adults identifying what was missing and how did it happen that way (what was the bigger story) so that as adults we do not have to carry the emotional baggage.
A great deal of marital conflicts derives from leftover emotional baggage from childhood. Being able to see the wounds with clarity allows you as adult to do the healing work. If we do not do the healing work, we expect our marital partners or children to fill the void where we were not able to do the healing work on our own.
Marriage will bring to the surface what was not given to us. It becomes incumbent upon us to do the healing work to become whole. A supportive marriage partner can provide a safe container for us to do the necessary healing work. Otherwise, love becomes a trap for our partner to fill the void with regard to the parts of ourselves that we refuse to heal and grow. When both partners can acknowledge the inner child in each other – the wounds that they have experienced, and that the marital relationship is the place to heal these wounds – love in the marital relationship becomes a powerful healing force that unites the marriage partners and brings wholeness to each individual and between them.
The description of the family as system and family structure can seem mechanical and dry. However, as you look at these processes within your own family, the structure becomes more fluid and organic as it highlights your family’s unique dynamics.
Without awareness of family dynamics and families as a system, people tend to replicate their family of origin patterns in their marriages and new families unconsciously. Looking at your family as a system and your experience of being a child in that system gives you some clues as to what you are carrying into your marriage.
Becoming aware of our childhood wounds and how they are present in your marriage can offer new opportunities for intimacy and healing in your marriage. Marriage becomes the container for true healing and love when both partners are conscious of the other and their childhood experience. When marriage partners do so, together they create a pathway for lasting connection and intimacy.
Your family of origin:
- Who was in charge in your family? Describe how your parent(s) did or did not make decisions for your family?
- How would you describe the boundaries (clear, diffuse, rigid) in your family between parent(s) and children? What type of interactions would make the boundaries visible
- Consider the each of the seven characteristics and seven functions of the parental executive system. What comes to mind when you consider your family of origin and your parents?
- Was your parent(s) discipline harsh, soft or appropriate, late or timely, inconsistent or consistent, clear or not clear.
- Did your parents see each other as equals? Did one parent have higher functioning than other? Why and when did this begin? What impact did this have on the family?
- How did your parents deal with conflict between them? Were children included in adult conflict?
- Consider the above questions and how they relate to your marriage. In what way are dynamics in your family of origin being replicated in your marriage?
- Consider each of the seven characteristics of the functional two-tiered family system and think about what is like in your family of origin and how this relates to your marriage today.
- Consider each of the seven functions of the parental system and what is was like in your family of origin. In following, consider each of these in in relationship to your spouse. See if there are any similarities between the two.
- What wounds are you carrying from your family of origin into your marriage? How do they impact you, your spouse and your connection with one another?
© Joshua Watson
Photo Credits in order of appearance: Public Domain Pictures, Photo Curry, Lisa Runnels, Lisa Runnels, Public Domain Pictures, Tania Dimas