Parental Legacies

 
Humility for Strengths and Weaknesses

 “So have no fear of them; for nothing that is covered will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.”[1]  

 

The goal of this chapter is greater self-knowledge of the lifelong psychological influence from the most important relationships that influence a person’s personality strengths and weaknesses prior to and during one’s marriage – those from parents. 

The good habits acquired from unconsciously modeling after parents are a positive influence on healthy self-giving in one’s vocation.  However, the unconscious modeling after a parental weakness can significantly interfere with maintaining a healthy personality and with mature, loving and sacrificial giving to spouses and children.

In fact, research has shown that approximately 70% of adult psychological conflicts have their origin in childhood and adolescence.

From a Christian perspective the role model for a healthy personality is the Lord.  Growth in becoming more like Him requires both gratitude for one’s gifts and a commitment to uncover and overcome personality weaknesses through an increase in virtues and in grace.

 

This process is difficult as spouses are inclined to identify weaknesses in spouses and others but not in ourselves.

The virtue of humility is essential both in the process of identifying and being grateful for the good habits acquired from one’s parents and in resolving weaknesses acquired from them, particularly a tendency to control, excessive anger, anxiety or mistrust.  The process described in this chapter is essential for the health of marriages and for the prevention from being a psychological prisoner of one’s past or of one’s character weaknesses, especially selfishness.

 

Cesar and Francesca’s Marriage

Cesar and Francesca were each people of deep faith who were extremely frustrated about the difficulties in their marriage.  Cesar had even wondered if marital separation might be needed because of his strong belief that his wife was solely responsible for their problems.  His major complaint was that she had given into selfishness that interfered with her being responsible and loving.  He claimed this character weakness led her to being too permissive with their two children.

Francesca on the other hand felt that she had been treated in a very disrespectful and controlling manner by Cesar over the twenty years of their marriage.  She disagreed completely with Cesar’s analysis of their problems and thought she had been a loyal and responsible wife and mother.

 

Self-Knowledge

This process of growth in self-knowledge of psychological parental legacies and healing can assist engaged singles in their Pre-Cana program, couples in marital enrichment programs and candidates for priesthood and religious life in their evaluation process and in ongoing formation of seminarians, priests and religious.

John Paul II correctly notes at the beginning of his encyclical, Fides et Ratio, 

“The admonition Know yourself was carved on the temple portal at Delphi, as testimony to a basic truth to be adopted as a minimal norm by those who seek to set themselves apart from the rest of creation as ‘human beings’, that is as those who ‘know themselves.’”[2]

Acquiring self-knowledge however is challenging because of the psychological defense mechanism of denial of hurts and need for healing, especially with parents.  Particularly challenging is the uncovering process that can reveal one’s repetition of emotional and personality weaknesses of a parent toward one’s spouse and children.  

 

Modeling

Modeling after parents goes on from early in everyone’s life, most often outside of one’s conscious awareness. Modeling is a powerful psychological mechanism that influences personality development and all relationships, particularly the one is most vulnerable – one’s spouse.  

Unconsciously, we will often repeat our parents’ good qualities, (Deo gratias!), but also their weaknesses.  The identification of both parental goodness and weaknesses can protect marital friendship and love. The latter would include emotional and responses and behaviors such as angry, mistrustful, controlling, selfish, emotionally distant, depressed and anxious thinking.

We are all familiar with the phrase “monkey see, monkey do.” Over the last two decades, neuroscience research has been investigating whether this popular saying has a real basis in human behavior.  One view proposed in current neuroscience is that the process of modeling after a parent is possibly mediated via the mirror neuron system in the brain. While the final word is not in yet, clinical experience indicates a powerful unconscious modeling process of one’s parents is at work.

The process of modeling after the parents is so powerful that this difficulty can arise even if the spouse had previously decided to not repeat a parental weakness.  We have treated large numbers of spouses who made a decision not to repeat a parent’s temper or controlling behaviors, only to later relate difficulties in overreacting these weaknesses in self-giving at a spouse and children.

 

Fortunately, parental weaknesses acquired through modeling can be resolved through the hard work of understanding and forgiving the parent who disappointed or hurt one the most.  Only then can one make a commitment to grow in the good habits that can conquer those weaknesses. 

Self-Knowledge Survey from the Parent’s Marriage

An effective way to appreciate the gifts and goodness in each parent is to reflect upon one’s youth and be grateful for those gifts.  As one works on this process, different ways of expressing are usually identified and appreciated.  

Listed below are personality strengths in the left column that are essential to a healthy marriage and in the right column weaknesses that harm self-giving love.  There is every reasons to be hopeful that with hard work the weaknesses can be markedly reduce and even resolved.

Your Father

Please rate your father regarding how he related to your mother with the good habits in the left hand column and the weaknesses in the right hand column.

Rate 1 for rarely, 2 for periodically and 3 for often:

Generous/Sacrificial Giving ___                 or Selfish ___

Forgiving ___                                                 or Angry ___

Respectful ___                                               or Controlling ___

Responsible & Affectionate ___                 or Emotionally Distant ___

Trusting & Calm ___                                     or Anxious/Irritable ___

Hopeful & Cheerful ___                               or Sad/Negative ___

Confident & Positive ___                             or Insecure/Withdrawn ___

Verbally Supportive & Upbeat ___             or Perfectionistic & Critical ___

Mature & Strong ___                                    or Overly Self-Indulgent ___

Healthy Priorities (see below) ___              or Lack of Prudence or Balance in Life ___

(God first, spouse second and children third)  

Now please identify good habits you may have acquired from your father 

1.

2.

3.

Please identify weaknesses you may have acquired from your father 

1.

2.

3.

 

Do you think your mother could please your father?

Your Mother

Please rate your mother regarding how she related to your father with the good habits in the left column and the weaknesses in the right column.

Please rate 1 for rarely, 2 for periodically and 3 for often:

Generous/Sacrificial Giving ___                or Selfish ___

Forgiving ___                                                or Angry ___

Respectful ___                                              or Controlling ___

Responsible & Affectionate ___                or Emotionally Distant ___

Trusting & Calm ___                                    or Anxious/Irritable ___

Hopeful & Cheerful ___                              or Sad/Negative ___

Confident & Positive ___                            or Insecure/Withdrawn ___

Verbally Supportive & Upbeat ___            or Perfectionistic & Critical __

Mature & Strong ___                                    or Overly Self-Indulgent ___

Healthy Priorities (see below) ___             or Lack of Prudence or Balance in Life ___

(God first, spouse second and children third)  

Now please identify good habits you may have acquired from your mother 

1.

2.

3.

Please identify weaknesses you may have acquired from your mother 

1.

2.

3.

 

Do you think your father felt he could please your mother?

Spouses in marriage with low levels of conflict report the benefit of reviewing this self-knowledge survey and together, if possible, reviewing the strengths and the weaknesses they have brought into their marriage.  In those with higher levels of conflict, the focus needs to be on the core goodness of each spouse and then limited discussion about one or two acquired parental weaknesses.

Catholic spouses often relate that his survey helps them identify weaknesses that they can commit to overcome by growth in virtues and in grace.  

 

Humility Needed to Uncover and Address Parental Weaknesses

From a psychological perspective, humility is accepting the truth about ourselves. This means recognizing strengths, as well as limitations and weaknesses. In married life, we find that a major psychological weakness that harms spousal friendship and love often is the result of unconsciously modeling after and then later repeating serious weaknesses in self-giving of a parent.

Humility is the habit or virtue that is essential to growth in self-knowledge by overcoming the pride and defense mechanisms that lead to a denial of how one repeats parental weaknesses in married life.  

This process is very difficult for most people because of the tendency to blame one’s spouse for the marital conflicts. Powerful defense mechanisms surround acquired parental weaknesses that lead no small number of spouses to leave marital therapy, and sometimes their marriages, rather than admitting and working to overcome their weaknesses.  

The identification and appreciation of the good habits acquired from each parent often strengthens confidence in spouses and facilitates exploring weaknesses.

St. Thomas Aquinas defines humility spiritually as:

Humility means seeing ourselves as God sees us, knowing that every good we have comes from Him as pure gift.[3]

He described how one could grow in humility in two ways:

 

Man arrives at humility in two ways. First and chiefly by a gift of grace, and in this way the inner man precedes the outward man.  The other way is by human  effort, whereby he first of all restrains the outward man and afterwards succeeds in plucking out the inward root.[4]

 

A faith inspired reflection that there was only one perfect family, the Holy Family, also facilitates growth in the humility necessary to face one’s family or origin weaknesses.

The following scripture has helped couples grow in humility:

“My son, perform your tasks in meekness; then you will be loved more than a giver of gifts. The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself; so you will find favor with God.”[5]

 

“…and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”[6]

 

A commitment of spouses to be more loyal and more responsible to their Sacrament of Marriage, to each other and to their children motivates them to work on being more humble and to admit their own contribution to the marital stress.  

Strengths and Weaknesses from Parents

In addressing the questions in this next section, please consider reflecting on being loyal to your parent’s strengths and gifts, but not to his/her weaknesses. Please reflect upon the benefits of not being limited in your relationship with your spouse and your children due to unresolved hurts with a parent.

Much marital conflict and stress could be prevented if spouses and engaged couples had knowledge of the major weaknesses in self-giving in their parents and understood how they could avoid repeating them. In fact, we think efforts at such self-knowledge should be an important part of Pre-Cana programs and would be consistent with the thinking of St. John Paul II who wrote,

 

"The Church must therefore promote better and more intensive programs of marriage preparation, in order to           eliminate as far as possible the difficulties that many married couples find themselves in, and even more in order to favor positively the establishing and maturing of successful marriages.[7]"

Since most adult psychological conflicts and disorders begin in childhood and can emerge unconsciously under different types of marital stress, self-knowledge is vital to the protection of marital and family love.

Please complete the questions below on yourself and, then later, on your spouse to the best of your ability.

 

Which parent helped you the most?

 

Which parent disappointed you the most?

 

Your Father

Please rate your father regarding how he related to you with the good habits in the right column and the weaknesses in the left column.  You might be helped in identifying his weaknesses by reflecting that you want to be loyal to his good habits, not to his weaknesses.  

Thinking about and praying for humility can also be beneficial.

Please rate 1 for rarely, 2 for periodically and 3 for often:

Generous/sacrificially giving___               or Selfish  ___

Forgiving  ___                                               or Angry ___                      

Respectful ___                                             or Controlling ___                        

Responsible & affectionate ___                or Emotional distant___                 

Trusting & calm ___                                    or Anxious/irritable __                      

Hopeful & cheerful ___                              or Sad/negative ___                       

Confident & positive                                  or Insecure/critical ___     

Verbally supportive & upbeat                  or Perfectionistic & difficult to please  ___              

Mature and strong ___                               or Overly self-indulgent ___     

Healthy priorities  (see below)                  or  Lack of prudence or balance in life.

(God first, spouse second and you and other siblings third)    

   

Do you think your father may have acquired some of these weaknesses in relating to you from 

__ his father?

__ his mother?

__ life stresses?

__his relationship with your mother?

Do you think you are repeating unconsciously in your marriage some of your father’s good habits and weaknesses toward you?  If so, please identify: 

  1. Strengths

  2. Weaknesses

 

Did you think you could please your father?

 

How do you think your grandfather treated your father when he was young?  

  • Do you think your father could please his father?

 

How do you think your grandmother treated your father when he was young? 

  • Do you think your mother could please her mother?

 

How do you think your spouse’s relationship with her/his father has an influence upon your marriage?

  1. Positive ways

  2. Challenging ways

 

 

What is your impression of your father’s faith life?

 

Please consider that if you do not work on forgiving your father for ways he disappointed you when you were young, you will probably misdirect that anger at your spouse or children without realizing it.   Such unresolved hurts could lead you to be an emotional prisoner of your past and to be controlled by past hurts.

Also, consider that if you had difficulty in feeling safe with and close to your father when young that you may experience great difficulty in maintaining trust/a safe feeling with your spouse now.  

Also, if you did not have a close relationship with your father, please consider that your spouse’s love cannot resolve the resultant loneliness, anxiety, insecurity and anger.  The good news is that working on forgiving him with decrease all this emotional pain in your present life as described in chapter 2.

Your Mother

Now please rate your mother regarding how she related to you with the good habits in the left column and the weaknesses in the right column.  Again, you might be helped in identifying her weaknesses by reflecting that you want to be loyal to her good habits, not to her weaknesses.  

Please rate 1 for rarely, 2 for periodically and 3 for often:

Generous/Sacrificial Giving ___                  or Selfish ___

Forgiving ___                                                 or Angry ___

Respectful ___                                               or Controlling ___

Responsible & Affectionate ___                 or Emotionally Distant ___

Trusting & Calm ___                                     or Anxious/Irritable ___

Hopeful & Cheerful ___                               or Sad/Negative ___

Confident & Positive ___                             or Insecure/Critical ___

Verbally Supportive & Upbeat ___             or Perfectionistic and Difficult to please___

Mature & Strong ___                                    or Overly Self-Indulgent ___

Healthy Priorities (see below) ___              or Lack of Prudence or Balance in Life ___

(God first, spouse second and you and other siblings third)      

 

Was your mother emotionally giving and affirming to you? (yes or no)

Do you think she may have acquired some of these weaknesses from

__ her father?

__ her mother?

__ life stresses?

__ stresses with your father?

Do you think you may be repeating some of your mother’s strengths and weaknesses in your marriage? 

If so, please describe: 

__Strengths

__Weaknesses

 

Did you think you could please your mother?

 

How do you think your grandfather treated your mother when she was young?

  • Do you think your mother could please her father?

 

How do you think your grandmother treated your mother when she was young?

  • Do you think your mother could please her mother?

 

How do you think your spouse’s relationship with her/his mother has an influence upon your marriage?

  1. Positive ways

  2. Challenging ways

 

What is/was your impression of your mother’s faith life?

 

Please summarize the good habits and weaknesses in your parents that may influence how you relate to your spouse. 

  1. Strengths             

  1. Weaknesses

 

Please consider now that if you do not work on forgiving your mother for ways she disappointed you when you were young, you will probably misdirect that anger at your spouse without realizing it.  

Also, consider that if you had difficulty in feeling safe with and close to your mother when you were young, you may have great difficulty in maintaining trust and a safe feeling with your spouse now.  

If you did not have a close relationship with your mother, please consider that your spouse’s love cannot resolve the resulting pain of loneliness, sadness, anxiety, insecurity and anger.  Working on a forgiveness process with your mother will slowly decrease this emotional pain, which may emerge periodically in your marriage.  

From a Catholic perspective, working with a spiritual director on a relationship with Our Lady, as one’s other comforting and loving mother can help in the healing of mother wounds.  Without such healing, spouses can be mistrustful, anxious, sad, irritable and controlling.

While father wounds are the most common, the mother wounds are more difficult to resolve because the secure attachment to the mother is more essential to a child’s ability to feel safe in life and, subsequently, to give and to receive love, trust, and praise.

 

Sibling and Peer Weaknesses

While secure attachment relationships with each parent are important for healthy personality development, so too are secure relationships with siblings and peers/friends.  Some spouses bring into their marriages major weaknesses in confidence, trust and anger because of a lack of acceptance, love and affirmation in sibling and peer relationships or in a previous loving relationship.  Rejections by those of the same or opposite sex in youth or adolescence can result in significant emotional wounds of loneliness and insecurity that result in psychological conflicts decades later in one’s vocation. 

In a Harvard Medical School study of childhood sibling relationships as a predictor of major depression, 229 men revealed that poorer relationships with siblings prior to age 20 and a family history of depression independently predicted both the occurrence of major depression and the frequency of use of mood-altering drugs by age fifty.[8]

Forgiveness of offenders and gratitude for God-given gifts are essential in the resolution of such psychological conflicts.  Also, the role of faith can be helpful in resolving the loneliness, particularly from growth in the relationship with the Lord at each life stage.

If you had a best friend of the same sex in grade school, please identify him/her.   ___________

If you have a best friend of the same sex in high school, please identify him/her.  ____________.

If you did not have a best friend of the same sex in your youth, do you think that unconsciously you might have an inner struggle with loneliness and insecurity from that absence?

The Parental Divorce Weakness

Knowledge about the negative impact of divorce on the future marriages of the children of divorce is essential for the protection of their marriages.  The sad reality is that the divorce epidemic has contributed to an intergenerational cycle of divorce in young adults.  Specifically, adult children whose parents divorced are 89 percent more likely themselves to divorce, compared to adults who were raised in intact, married families. Children of divorce who marry other children of divorce have an even higher risk of ending up divorced, (Wolfinger, 2005).

The divorce prevention chapter in this book cites the numerous long-term psychological conflicts in the adult children of divorce (ACODs).  Difficulty in maintaining trust in loving relationships has been repeatedly identified as an almost universal legacy in this group.  This conflict is unconscious and may only emerge after many years of married life. 

Therefore, it is important that ACODs who are engaged or married be offered a specialized tract on protecting trust in marriages in PreCana and in marital enrichment programs.  A similar program should be established for ACODs who are discerning vocations to the priesthood or religious life.

Adult children of divorce are not meant to be prisoners of their past trauma.  The chapters of this book on the habits of trust and hope can helpful in the healing of their unconscious mistrust, sadness and associated anger in these spouses.

 

The Work Process

Growth in humility requires a great effort both on the human and the spiritual level primarily because of the powerful influence of selfishness/sense of entitlement in the culture with its attendant need to control.

Time with extended family can often provide insights into needs for deeper family of origin healing.  After spending a holiday or weekend with in-laws a light may go on and a spouse may notice for the first time how their partner is repeating an annoying parental behavior.  

When one becomes aware of a parental weakness in one’s spouse that is creating stress in the marriage, this issue needs to be discussed in a loving and gentle manner.  The couple will need to develop a plan to protect the marriage from such a negative legacy.  The communication chapter of this book can be helpful in this important marital project.

Some spouses relate that only after many years in their marriage do they come to discover, often to their surprise, a negative parental weakness in their spouse, such as being critical, mistrustful, controlling or distant.  When this discovery occurs, we recommend that they communicate first how they have recognized their own parental negative legacy that they are addressing. Only then should they gently and respectfully request, “Honey, I think our friendship would be helped if you also addressed weakness X that I have come to see in your father or mother that you may be repeating in our marriage.” 

 

Abortion Trauma

As described in the second chapter, abortion trauma can later have negative consequences upon a marriage.  It can particularly harm the ability to trust a spouse and subsequently result in overreactions in excessive anger and in emotionally distant and controlling behaviors.  Although this is a most sensitive issue to address, given the extent of abortion in the culture, it is essential to determine if it occurred in the past.

 

While spouses and engaged persons often fear that admitting a past abortion may endanger the relationship, our experience has been such honesty, in fact, strengthens the relationship. An understanding response often requires forgiving for the past mistake. If the abortion occurred in the relationship of the couple, mutual requests for forgiveness are essential to healing the emotional wound.

Ideally, participation in a post-abortion healing program, such as Project Rachel, would be beneficial for spouses and engaged persons with such trauma.

 

The Role of Faith

Growth in self-knowledge is a challenging, lifelong process. Many couples report that their faith is essential for helping them to identify and to work on these character weaknesses.  Catholic spouses might find the following exercises helpful in their quest to know and love each other:

Parental weaknesses that are uncovered are not overcome easily.  Many couples report that their faith is essential in helping them work on and resolve these character weaknesses. For Catholic spouses the following have been beneficial:

•Praying, “Lord, reveal to me any weaknesses that I have acquired from my parents:”

 

•Praying daily, “Lord help me repeat the good qualities of my parents but not their weaknesses, such as _________________.” 

 

•Praying, “Lord, deepen my trust in you with our marriage and my trust in my spouse”

 

•       Examining one’s conscience

•       Admitting powerlessness over weakness daily and then turning them over to the Lord

•       Giving to the Lord any anger arising from hurts from one’s parents

•       Praying for growth in humility and other specific virtues

•       Meditating on Christ in Gospels

•       Meditating on St. Joseph and asking for his intercession or Our Lady as role models

•       Meditating on the life of the Blessed Mother, for example by praying the Rosary.

If a spouse is unwilling to grow in self-knowledge, prayer for humility can be helpful.  Since in the Sacrament of Marriage, spouses are no longer two but one, prayer offered by the open spouse is often effective in reducing the fear that might be blocking growth in self-knowledge in the other spouse.

Growth in self-knowledge can also be encouraged through participating in a marriage enrichment program, seeking guidance from a mentor couple, and receiving counsel from a mental health professional who values the Catholic Sacrament of Marriage.

 

The recognition of the importance of the Sacrament of Marriage, to both the spouses and their children, motivates Catholic husbands and wives to engage in the hard work of uncovering their conflicts, identifying their sources and overcoming them with growth in virtues and in grace.  The process is, in fact, the calling of every Christian – to grow in virtue with the help of God.  And it is worked out in the lives of married Christians in their relationships with one another. 

 

The knowledge of the good habits that spouse have acquired from parents can strengthen confidence and hope.  There is every reason to be optimistic that the work of redemption that the has begun in their lives will be brought to completion.

Copyright © 202 Richard Fitzgibbons

 

[1] NABRE, 2011, USCCB, Mt 10:26.

[2] John Paul II (1998) Fides et Ratio, n.1.

[3] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Q.161

[4] St. Thomas Aquinas.  Summa Theologiae, Secunda Secundae, Q. 161, art. 6, reply. obj. 2.

[5] NABRE, 2011, USCCB, Sirach 3:17-18.

[6] NABRE, 2011, USCCB, Micah 6:8.

[7] John Paul II (1980) Familiaris Consortio, 66

[8] Waldinger, R.J., et al. (2007) Childhood sibling relationships as a predictor of depression in adulthood: a 30 year prospective study. Am J Psychiaty, 164: 949-54.

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