The Healing of Negative Parental Legacies

The unconscious repetition of a negative parental emotional, behavioral and cognitive weakness is one of the most common causes of marital stress. The most frequent negative parental legacies we encounter in our work are in men who repeat their father's emotional distant or angry behaviors and in women who repeat their mother's controlling behaviors. We believe that much marital conflict and stress could be prevented if premarital programs were more psychologically sophisticated and encouraged the engaged couple to identify and address parental weaknesses prior to marriage.

The process of modeling after the parent of the same sex is so powerful that a difficulty can arise even if the spouse had decided previously not to repeat an identified parental weakness.  Current neuroscience has raised the possibility that this modeling may be mediated via a mirror neuron system in the brain.

Someone might have thought, "I will not repeat my father's temper or his tendency to be distant or I will not repeat my mother's tendency to control or not respect my spouse, " only to discover this negative parental pattern emerging in the marriage.

Here's important information to consider from psychological research which is that 80% of adult psychological conflicts begin during childhood and adolescence (Kim-Cohen, J., 2003) and continue into adult life. Some of these conflicts are buried and only emerge later for the first time in marriage.  These weaknesses often arise from unresolved issues with a parent, but also can be the result of hurts with siblings, peers or significant others from the past.

Fortunately, parental weaknesses which influence oneís character, emotional life, behaviors , thinking and spiritual life can be identified and resolved. At the same time, parental gifts and talents can be identified and embraced.

Please review the form below on parents' gifts and weaknesses and total your scores.

Did/do your parents exhibit the following gifts/positive personality traits?

Emotional Traits

  • Emotionally giving and affectionate
  • Able to receive love and affection
  • Hopeful
  • Cheerful
  • Forgiving/controlled temper
  • Trusting
  • Confident in God-given gifts
  • Encouraged others
  • Praised and complimented
  • Was able to take correction
  • Not obsessed with appearance
  • Able to receive affection
  • Avoided rehashing past hurts
  • Open to face emotional weaknesses
  • Did not place unreasonable expectations upon your spouse or children

Behavioral Traits

  • Good communicator
  • Hardworking
  • Spent quality time with spouse and children
  • Sought balance in life
  • Placed spouse and children ahead of work or other activities
  • Cared for your spouse, children and the home
  • Gave to your children and other relatives
  • Worked on friendships
  • Prudence in spending/good financial manager
  • Temperate with food, drink, exercise, work
  • Honesty about finances
  • Neither neglected nor spoiled spouse or children
  • Self control with TV, computer, hobbies, etc.
  • Avoided controlling or being controlled by spouse
  • Kept in contact with family members
  • Invited family and friends into the home
  • Dependent upon spouse and others in an appropriate manner
  • Good listener


  • Tried to grow in virtues
  • Generous/not selfish
  • Kind
  • Compassionate
  • Patient
  • Humble
  • Strong and courageous
  • Prudent
  • Cheerful
  • Concern for justice and the poor
  • Temperate
  • Modest
  • Thankful
  • Sincere/truthful
  • Solidarity with others
  • Detached
  • Gentle

Intellectual Life

  • Enjoyed reading
  • Encouraged intellectual development in spouse and children

Spiritual Life

  • Strong faith
  • Love
  • Hope
  • Prayerful
  • Placed God first
  • Dependent on God
  • Tried to be another Christ to spouse and children
  • Went to Church with spouse
  • Shared faith with others
  • Prayed with spouse
  • Tried to seed Godís will
  • Depended on the love of God
  • Opened to Godís plan for number of children
  • Tried to form and lead the children spiritually
  • Went to the sacrament of reconciliation regularly
  • Trusted the Lord with all concerns: marriage, children, finances, work, etc.
  • Supported and communicate the teaching of the Church on sexual morality
  • Not obsessed with material possessions


Gifts Total:


What are the most important gifts/strengths which you have acquired from your parents, particularly in the parent of the same sex?

Which parent have you modeled after the most?


Weaknesses in Parents

Emotional Traits

  • Sad
  • Unable to communicate love or praise
  • Irritable, bad temper
  • Insecure
  • Anxious
  • Controlling/mistrustful
  • Emotionally distant
  • Difficulty receiving love
  • Negative
  • Critical, unable to praise
  • Unable to accept correction
  • Obsessed with appearance
  • Unwilling to address emotional weaknesses
  • Unreasonable expectations placed upon spouse and others
  • Self-centered
  • Rebellious
  • Rude

Behavioral Traits

  • Didnít spend quality time with spouse and children
  • Unbalanced life
  • Resentful of giving in the home or at work
  • Outside interest more important than spouse and children
  • Failure to care properly about needs of spouse, children and the home
  • Unwilling to set aside time for spouse and children
  • Lacked enjoyment in giving to children, relatives or friends
  • Unwilling to work on friendships
  • Poor judgment in spending / not good with finances
  • Lack of temperance with food, drink, exercise, work
  • Not honest about finances
  • Tendency to spoil spouse and children
  • Isolation with the TV, computer, books, hobbies, etc.
  • Controlling
  • Allowed oneself to be controlled by spouse
  • Lack of contact with family members
  • Acted independently of spouse
  • Lazy


  • Rude/harsh
  • Selfish
  • Lack of compassion or empathy
  • Tendency to gossip
  • Impatient
  • Unkind
  • Proud
  • Weak
  • Imprudent, lack of discretion
  • Negative
  • Lack of concern for justice and the poor
  • Intemperate
  • Lack of modesty
  • Ungrateful
  • Insincere/untruthful
  • Lack commitment to others
  • Obsessed with possession

Intellectual Life

  • Avoided reading
  • Discouraged intellectual development of spouse

Spiritual Life

  • Weak faith
  • Not hopeful/presumptuous
  • Limited charity
  • Not prayerful
  • Placed self first
  • Act as though there were no need for God
  • Embarrassed by faith
  • Did not go to Church with spouse or children
  • Not concerned about Godís will
  • Not open to Godís plan for number of children
  • Did not try to form and lead the children spiritually
  • Did not go to the sacraments regularly
  • Did not trust the Lord with marriage, children, finances, worries, work, etc.
  • Did not communicate the teaching of the Church on sexual morality


Weaknesses Total:


What do you think are the major weaknesses which you have acquired as a result of modeling unconsciously after your parents?

Which parents' weaknesses do you repeat most often?

Your spouseís modeling

Now to the best of your knowledge please try to complete the same exercises on identifying parental strengths and weaknesses in your spouse.

What do you think are the modeled strengths in your spouse?

What do you think are the modeled weaknesses in your spouse?

Reflection on parentsí marriage

Please reflect for a few moments about your parents ability to give love, affection, trust and praise to each other. Which of your parents do you act most like in regard to your self-giving toward your spouse?

Uncovering parental weaknesses

Couples emotional lives, behaviors and character are influenced significantly from modeling unconsciously after parents. This modeling process is more powerful than most of us realize. The knowledge of negative parental legacies is important , but is not sufficient to overcome such weaknesses. For example, a number of men and women are surprised to find themselves repeating parental weakness of anger, controlling or selfish behaviors even though they made decisions not to repeat these weaknesses in the parent of the same sex.

The most common negative legacies we see in men are those of being emotionally distant, uncommunicative or angry acquired from a father and in women are those of being controlling or mistrustful, acquired from a mother. However, spouses also repeat the weaknesses of the parent of the opposite sex.

The resistance to uncovering the parental weaknesses is not of a minor nature. The loyalty to the family of origin can be so strong that any admission of weaknesses is viewed as a betrayal of the parents and the family, Approaches to this unwillingness to face honestly parental weakness can be addressed by:

  • first, repeatedly focusing on the positive parental qualities
  • advising that parents would want one to be loyal to their gifts but not their weaknesses
  • recommending that the first loyalty should be to the marriage and family
  • suggesting that from a Catholic perspective there was only one perfect family
  • recommending the other spouse share a parental weakness
  • providing encouragement that these weaknesses can be resolved

After the spouse accepts that a parental weakness is being repeated, the next step in the healing process is to make a decision to on the work on the conflict. This process can be facilitated by thinking about repeating first the good qualities or virtues of a parent, and then deciding not to repeat weaknesses. Then anger is regularly uncovered with a parent and an attempt is made to understand and forgive for how one was hurt by the parental conflict. Past forgiveness exercises are effective in removing this anger (see marital anger chapter).  

The Role of Virtues

While the spouse is employing forgiveness as a virtue in the healing process, other virtues are presented which can help diminish acquired parental weaknesses. For example, here are virtues for specific conflicts:

  • generosity and responsibility for selfishness
  • trust for anxiety
  • humility for controlling behavior
  • hope for sadness
  • forgiveness for anger
  • confidence for insecurity
  • friendship/love for emotional distance
  • gratitude for negativity/pessimism
  • self-giving for uncommunicative behaviors
  • cheerfulness for discouragement

The process of resolving acquired parental weaknesses by growth in virtues requires a great deal of hard work, patience and courage. Fortunately, the character conflicts, emotional pain and negative behaviors acquired from parents can be overcome, while acknowledging at the same time parental love and gifts, particularly if there is a faith component in the healing process.

What virtues would you like to see your spouse develop?

What virtues would you like to develop?



The Role of Faith

Many couples report their faith can help them to deal with their character weaknesses. For Catholics the following actions have been beneficial:

  • examining their conscience on the identified weakness
  • admitting powerlessness over the weakness daily and then turning it over to the Lord
  • praying for growth in specific virtues
  • going to the sacrament of reconciliation
  • receiving the Eucharist regularly
  • meditating upon being more Christ like
  • looking to St. Joseph as another role model for men
  • looking to Our Lady as another role model for women
  • trusting their marriage and family to the Lord and Our Lady daily
  • saying the chaplet of Divine Mercy

Other sections of describe in greater depth overcoming negative parental legacies of angry, selfish, controlling and emotionally distant behaviors.

We relate to couples that there is no need to be discouraged about the healing of spousal weaknesses because the Lordís first miracle was for a marriage through the intercession of Our Lady.   Also reflecting upon God's word from Genesis can be encouraging,“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife,” Genesis 2:24.

Helping a Spouse with Father or Mother Conflicts

After spending a weekend with in-laws or a holiday a light may go on and a spouse may notice for the first time how their partner is repeating an annoying parental behavior.   Fortunately, such experiences can also help one appreciate the many good qualities of the in-laws which are also present in oneís spouse.

When one becomes aware of a parental weakness in a spouse which is creating stress in the marriage, a plan needs to be developed to protect the marital relationship. Unfortunately, many spouses fear honestly discussing issues of concern for numerous reasons, including the fear that such a discussion would not help or even could harm the marriage. We are aware of the view of the director of a Catholic Marriage Tribunal that he considered two of the major reasons for divorce to be the failure of the couple to honestly discuss difficulties in their marriage and selfishness.

The first step we recommend,if the spouse has an active faith life, is to pray for oneís spouse for the healing of specific weaknesses in self-giving, anger, selfishness,controlling tendencies, lack of confidence, and excessive fears. Then, the conflicts can be gently uncovered and discussed. If the spouse is unwilling to work on the conflicts, consideration should be given to pursuing marital therapy.