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For Your Marriage

Family of Origin

The term “Family of Origin” refers to the family that you grew up in – your parents and siblings. It may also include a grandparent, other relative, or divorced parents who lived with you during part of your childhood. These people strongly influence who we become.

Men and women who grew up in relatively healthy, functional families make adjustments in a marriage relationship. They learn to accommodate each other. At times you may smile (or cringe) when your spouse has a different way of doing something, i.e. the wrong way. You might complain, but then adjust.

For example, perhaps your mother was a fanatic about keeping a clean, neat house. You might swear that you’ll never be a slave to such a compulsion. But then you notice that your spouse is a “relaxed” housekeeper and the clutter he or she finds tolerable is starting to get on your nerves. You find comfort in returning to your own “relatively organized” space.

In marriage, of course, there are a million of these differences, many minor, some big. You can and will argue about some of them, insisting that your way is the right way. It helps to take a breath and remember that unless the health department is threatening to evict you for health/safety violations, probably neither of you is completely wrong. There is room for compromise.

If your family of origin had serious problems such as alcoholism, abuse, infidelity, or mental illness, the unlearning and relearning can be more complicated. Adult awareness will help you not to repeat negative patterns modeled during the formative years. Once you become aware of the patterns of your family of origin, you can change them. It’s not easy, but individual and couple counseling can free a spouse from repeating destructive behaviors.

Be sure to exercise caution if either of you comes from a family with divorced parents. Many couples, observing the heartache caused by their parents’ break-up, resolve to do everything possible to avoid divorce. Since commitment is a strong predictor of marital success, this is an important strength. On the other hand, since the child of divorce may not have witnessed healthy conflict resolution or values in the family of origin, there may be underlying skill or attitude gaps.

Take the time to explore what you learned about life, love, and conflict in your family of origin so that you can understand how this influences your current relationship – for better and for worse.

Questions for Discussion:

  • What aspects of your parents’ relationship do you admire? What aspects do you hope not to imitate? Note: For couples with experience of divorce in one or both families of origin, you may want to read the Must Have Conversations: Commitment page to explore potential effects of your parents’ divorce on your future marriage.
  • How did your family communicate? How did you resolve conflicts? How did you make decisions? Are there communication patterns that you hope either to follow or to change in your own family?
  • What was your family of origin’s approach to money and finances?
  • What are some family traditions that you value and hope to bring into your future family? Have you discussed initial ideas about how, and with whom, you will celebrate holiday times such as Thanksgiving and Christmas?
  • Did your family spend time together? What pastimes or recreational activities did they enjoy? Are these experiences you hope to have in your family one day?
  • What role did faith play in your family life?
  • What role did technology and media play in your family?
  • Do you have any concerns about becoming a member of your significant other’s family when you marry? Have you discussed appropriate boundaries to have with your future in-laws, for example communication pathways, what to do if a conflict arises, and how to decide when and how often to visit each other’s family?

Further Reading from For Your Marriage: