In many ways, your parents are supposed to serve as a model for how to behave and what to expect from others — but what if their relationship was toxic or destructive? How can you ensure that their dynamic doesn't affect your own relationships in a negative way? If your parents had an abusive relationship, experts say there are certain things you'll want to keep in mind to maintain a healthy perspective on dating.
The first thing to know is that observing an abusive partnership, particularly from a young age, can have an impact on who you choose to date. That's definitely not to say you're doomed to get entangled in an abusive situation yourself, but experts agree that sometimes, you're subconsciously drawn to people who remind you of your parents — and there's research to back this up.
"Quite often, a chosen partner is an interesting mix of both [parents'] qualities — some of them desirable and some of them not," says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of Joy from Fear.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Joshua Klapow, Ph.D. points out that your parents are a symbol of love, nurturance, and security, so it makes sense that you might seek out partners who remind you of those caregivers. "It brings a sense of familiarity," he adds.
According to Dr. Manly, there's a valid reason why you might be choosing partners who resemble either or both of your parents, too — because deep down, you may believe it'll help you heal from the trauma that comes with witnessing an abusive relationship.
"It's the psyche’s positive way of allowing the individual an opportunity to address and resolve hurtful or toxic childhood issues," she tells Elite Daily.
However, Dr. Manly points out that both partners must be aware of the negative dynamics and jointly choose to address them as a team — staying in a relationship hoping to "fix" the other person doesn't typically work out well. If you think you're in an abusive relationship, or one that shows signs of becoming abusive, it's better to get help immediately (more guidance on that below) rather than try to improve the dynamic on your own and potentially expose yourself to further harm.
How To Avoid Replicating Unhealthy Patterns
Experts say it's crucial to be able to identify what about your parents' dynamic was abusive or unhealthy — because raising your awareness increases the likelihood that you'll be able to identify those same issues in your own relationships.
"As Robert Frost said, 'The only way out is through.' There is no way to avoid our past and the only way through is by digging in," explains Kate Deibler, a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with trauma.
Working with a licensed therapist can be an excellent way to unravel how the abuse you observed may have impacted you, and gain some new perspective on what about your parents' relationship was unhealthy or destructive. But you can also do some work on your own, too — specifically, Deibler recommends assessing your attachment style. There are three general types: secure, anxious and avoidant (of which there are two subtypes: dismissive and fearful), and you can do some online research about them or even try taking a free quiz to see which category you fall under. Understanding your own bond with each individual parent may offer some insight into which kinds of relationships and partners you gravitate toward.
Keep in mind, too, that just because you can recognize your parents' dysfunctional or harmful behaviors doesn't necessarily mean they won't still affect you. Witnessing abuse can be a traumatic experience in itself, and can impact people in different ways.
"You were subject to the modeling of those behaviors during your developmental years," says Dr. Klapow. "What this means is that there is a possibility that you may engage in similar behaviors or psychological defense mechanisms to protect you as you witnessed those behaviors."
For example, Dr. Klapow notes that if your parents were physically aggressive, you may either replicate that tendency yourself, or have a heightened reaction to any physical demonstrations of frustration or anger (like slamming a door or throwing something).
"On a neurobiological level, the patterns learned during childhood — even during pre-verbal years — become hardwired in the brain," adds Dr. Manly. "As a result, an adult will often unconsciously default to those patterns even when there is a conscious desire to do otherwise. When an individual is under stress, that automatic default is even more likely to occur."
In order to break free from those patterns, Dr. Manly and Dr. Klapow agree that it's crucial to become aware of them first. When your subconscious tendencies become conscious, you're in a much better position to make changes — such as by rewiring problematic thought patterns or responding to stress in a healthier way. According to Dr. Manly, this can be a slow and nuanced process, so be patient with yourself — and if possible, seek support from a therapist.
"It takes a great deal of self-reflection, mindfulness, and concerted effort to become aware of the patterns, and even more awareness and dedication to effectively change the patterns in the long term," she explains.
What To Look Out For While Dating
While dating, it's important to stay alert to any "pink flags" in your partner's behavior or your general dynamic. That way, you can nip the situation in the bud before it actually becomes abusive.
For example, Dr. Manly says to keep a lookout for any controlling behavior or domineering attitudes, as well as constant sarcasm or passive-aggressiveness. Dr. Klapow advises taking note if you feel there's a lack of trust in your partner around anything in particular (for example, intimacy or money), if you feel that you're constantly making compromises that feel coerced, or if you don't feel safe to express your true thoughts or feelings in the relationship. If you consistently feel invalidated by your partner, your partner makes you feel like their love is conditional, or you actively avoid sharing certain stories about your partner with loved ones for fear of their judgment, Deibler notes that those are all factors worth paying attention to.
Dr. Manly suggests keeping a journal of any pink or red flags, so you can track these issues and talk about them with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist — as well as potentially confront your partner about them.
If you've noticed that you keep dating people who exhibit these same warning signs, or who evoke some of a parent's negative traits — such as possessiveness, constant criticism, or a hot temper — then it's time to consider why you might be drawn to those types of individuals.
"Another way of thinking about this is to try dating someone who is not your 'type' or a person who does not feel so familiar," explains Deibler.
What To Do If You're Experiencing Abuse
If you ever do find yourself in an abusive relationship, experts say there are several crucial steps you should take to protect yourself from any further harm.
"When abuse is caught early on, the abusers lose their power to control and humiliate the victim, explains Dr. Manly. "As a result, self-esteem is far less likely to suffer if the abusive situation is left quickly."
In the event of an emergency, Dr. Manly says you should always call 911. Otherwise, Dr. Klapow recommends calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-7233). You can also reach out to an advocate via the online chat feature on the website. Dr. Klapow notes that if you happen to have a mental health provider, you can also talk to them about your options if you believe your relationship is toxic but you're not in any danger.
The most important thing to keep in mind if you find yourself in an abusive relationship is that that it’s not your fault.
"You are not to blame," says Dr. Manly. "You are not broken or defective. Although you need support to recover and heal, you deserve to be in a relationship where you are respected, honored, and loved."
While witnessing an abusive situation from a young age can shape your perspective on relationships, it definitely doesn't have to sabotage your dating life. Experts agree that it's totally possible to have happy, healthy relationships that don't replicate your parents' dynamic whatsoever — so long as you're aware of what patterns you may be predisposed to. Doing the work to dig into your past and identify your tendencies may not be easy — but it's well worth it on the quest for the kind of love you deserve.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org. You can also text "loveis" to 866-331-9474, or call LoveisRespect at 1-866-331-9474.
Dr. Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist
Dr. Joshua Klapow, clinical psychologist
Kate Deibler, licensed psychotherapist