Myth or Fact - We marry a version of our mother or father.

Jan 02, 2024


The question as to whether our parents feature in our decision-making when we are choosing our partners is an interesting yet complex one.

I think it’s fair to say that most of us don't even consider how or why we are attracted to certain people; we just think it's written in the stars. Let’s explore how much is in the stars and how much is linked to our genes and environment.

Genes and environment

We carry 50% of both our mother's and father's genes. So we are inclined to accept that we are gifted with our parents' hair and eye colours, but what about their personalities and quirky ways? Are these elements that can also be passed down to us?

Historically, it has been assumed that we develop autonomously with traits passed down through our genes. Statements like ’He’s just like his dad’ or ‘She’s just like her mum’ ring in households worldwide. But behaving like our parents is much more than just genes.

Research has found that we are not only biologically predisposed to certain physical illnesses, strengths and weaknesses but also psychologically.

With the ever-evolving research on epigenetics, it is being found that trauma can affect us in more ways than one. Trauma does not directly affect our DNA. However, it can impact gene expression; for example, a person may become more anxious as a result of their traumatic experience and therefore, a predisposition to anxiety may then be transferred down the generational line. Mark Wolynn’s book, “It Didn’t Start With You,”** explores further how this happens.

I think it is fair to say that we cannot deny that our genes play a part in why we are the way we are, but as it stands, research has not been able to uncover exactly how much our genes play a role in our personality development.  What we do know is that our environments can change everything.

How do the people I live with affect who I am?

In an era of diverse family structures, assumptions about children living with both parents and the gender of those parents are becoming outdated. Extended family and grandparents - often play a significant role in our upbringing. But for simplicity's sake, I will refer to Mum and Dad for this article.

Our environments play a significant role in how we evolve. In those first 18 months of development, we are wired to discern safety from danger*; this is intrinsically linked to our caregivers meeting our primal needs. We spend much of our infancy and childhood observing the people around us, mainly our parents, and absorbing what it is to be a woman and what it is to be a man and social constructs such as how we relate to and treat others and how people treat themselves. This is all learned by watching others and a subconscious upload from our parents.

So, for example, if both parents are kind and respectful to each other, voila, the child learns that's the bedrock of a relationship. Conversely, if there is combativeness, this will likely be the blueprint children will repeat in their future relationships. Furthermore, if a parent is hyper-critical about their weight or looks, children will likely pick up on this self-conscious behaviour and repeat it.

We subconsciously absorb our parents' habits, behaviours, mannerisms and attitudes, and we mirror them. 

Across the globe, we see intergenerational patterns playing out within family dynamics, for instance, domestic abuse. Suppose a child has been raised in an environment where physical, verbal or emotional abuse features in relationships. In that case, the belief is that this is how relationships are, and they can bounce down the generations, from grandparents to parents to them. Rarely does one find themselves in an abusive relationship without a dark thread of abuse or neglect in their programming.

I describe how our parents influence us to my clients in the following way: when we are born, it's like we are blank computers. We have the basic hardware (DNA, Genes), but for the computer to run smoothly, we need to upload appropriate software and anti-virus protection. 

As parents, we are the software. We are constantly uploading our data (morals, values, beliefs, behaviours and attitudes) 24/7 without always being consciously aware of it. Now, this may seem scary as I see so many parents petrified of causing their child harm because they shouted once. We have to acknowledge that the world is far from an easy place to evolve in, and although children should not be exposed to repeated episodes of unpredictable behaviour, we have to recognise that, as parents, we are humans too, and as a result, we have emotions that need to be expressed. How our emotions are expressed hugely influences how our children express or suppress their emotions.

How we choose our partners

Once we have grown and started exploring the world of relationships and dating, people often ask, ‘Why is it that I always choose the bad guys?’ or ‘My wife treats me like I’m one of the children’. Before we go any further, neurologically, evidence suggests that many people subconsciously gravitate towards emotionally unavailable partners. As a result, the chase is on, and once the Bad Boy or Bad Girl gives them the time of day, this releases dopamine in the brain, which is the happy chemical, and it feels like we have had a win.

However, bad boys and bad girls have a tendency to come forward and pull back at their will, so as soon as they pull back, the dance starts again. Largely, people get stuck in this cycle because they are constantly chasing the dopamine hit. 

Dopamine is a central character in this dance. And we can all be a little addicted to its charms. Personally, I think people get addicted to the desire for a dopamine hit and then create external opportunities so that their brain responds. For example, Gambling produces dopamine; looking forward to that glass of wine after work, dopamine; buying that thing off of Amazon, dopamine; looking forward to that chocolate bar, dopamine. Anything we crave results in us having a dopamine hit if we get it, have it or achieve it. 

However, the more pressing question is, why do we find ourselves in the bad boy or bad girl dance in the first place?

This is where our parents come in. 

Remember what I said at the beginning: our parents teach us what it is to be a woman, what it is to be a man and what a partner relationship looks like. Therefore, it only takes one parent who is emotionally unavailable or highly critical, and the child has spent many years vying for their attention, only to be disappointed, for this to play out in partner relationships. So, the dance begins in childhood and continues in adulthood.

We often recognise that we are more like one of our parents. You will have traits and behaviours from both parents, but often, depending on how we have viewed our parents in our childhoods, it can depict which traits we pick up more. This is not an exact science as often we find ourselves behaving or thinking in a way that we may not have appreciated from our parents, yet we exhibit those traits anyway. This is all to do with programming.

Subconsciously, whilst we are scouring the world for Mr or Mrs Right, we will be drawn to familiarity. So, our brains search for familiar morals, values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviours in a new partner; this is even the case if we don't really like or value some of our parents' software. This is not gender specific; for example, if a woman is more like her father, she will likely seek somebody like her mother, and vice versa.

This is why we tend to be drawn to people who exhibit traits similar to our parents, simply because it is all we know, and at some level, it feels safe, comfortable and familiar, even if it may be destructive and unfulfilling.

How does this translate into our parenting?

Fast forward again, and now we’re parents ourselves. The cycle continues. Our children are watching us - observing how we navigate relationships. We, in turn, subconsciously mirror our parents' parenting styles. Yes, there are things we choose not to repeat, experiences from our childhoods that we would rather not pass down. But amidst our conscious decisions, there is a sea of data buzzing around, the stuff we picked up without even realising it. 

Our parents and their parents before them had limited sources of information about raising children. Today, we are armed with knowledge, science and technology that illuminate the path to conscious parenting. Our children need us to be super conscious about how we raise them if we want them to thrive in this complex world.

So what can I do about this?

Let’s revisit the guy who feels his wife ‘treats him like one of the children’. This is a common dynamic that occurs, one that women also grapple with. But before we criticise each other, the key here is WHY did this couple get together in the first place?

Undoubtedly, there will be a subconscious familiarity for both of the couple. She may have seen her mum hold everything together and run around after Dad, and he may have seen the same. Therefore, it's not a huge leap to see that if she is more like her mum, she is likely to be drawn to somebody like her dad, who has little desire to engage in the domesticity of life. Conversely, his mum may have met his every need, which has simply translated into his subconscious choosing of his wife.

Eighty years ago, neither men nor women really grumbled about their role. They married for life, and they just got on with it. But equally, the previous generations didn't evolve at the speed of the most recent generations; therefore, they only desired or expected what they had. If they wanted or desired more, often they were restrained by societal expectations that ‘you made your bed now lie in it’. However, today, expectations have skyrocketed for both genders. We’re no longer content to accept unfulfilling relationships; we question and seek more from each other. This is often not born out of boredom but as a result of two human beings evolving in differing directions. But therein lies the challenge.


So, it's not a myth; we do marry versions of our mothers or fathers. But the catch is that it happens when we are unaware of the intergenerational pattern silently dictating our choices.  

If you find yourself pondering why you chose your partner, consider these questions:

  • What was/is the dynamic like between my parents?
  • What was/is the dynamic like between my partner's parents?
  • Can I see the pattern repeating?
  • If so, am I happy with that dynamic?
  • Is my partner happy with that dynamic? 
  • Would I be happy if my adult child were in a similar relationship to me? (there may be some future thinking needed here.)

Remember, at some point in the relationship, this dynamic served you both.

If you are not content with the dynamic in your relationship, consider what needs to change. Are you BOTH open to implementing that change?

Clarity and communication are the keys to a path to a happier, healthier relationship. By exploring how your relationship is evolving, you're not only securing your own happiness but also breaking any unhelpful intergenerational patterns for your children. 


Nicola Saunders PGDip MBACP (Accred) Integrative Counsellor


*Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton
**Mark Wolynn’s book (2017), “It Didn’t Start With You. New York, New York: Penguin Books