This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Getting the Love You Want" by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are the effects of imperfect parenting? How does parenting affect our romantic relationships?

How your parents raised you will define you for the rest of your life, especially in romantic relationships. In Getting the Love You Want, Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt say that imperfect parenting can cause you to seek out romantic partners that resemble your parents.

Read below for the effects of imperfect parenting on your adult relationships.

Effects of Imperfect Parents

Many people are survivors of traumatic childhoods, having suffered abuse, physical hardships, or the loss of parents or siblings. However, the events that warped your childhood need not be dramatic or overt to have lasting effects. All childhoods are imperfect, because parents are human, with unmet needs and flaws of their own. Usually, when a parent says or does something that inadvertently hurts their child, the emotional wound will heal over time. But if the hurting is repeated and persistent, there will be damaging effects of imperfect parenting that are carried into adulthood.

The purpose of exploring your childhood wounds is not to assign blame to your parents, but to understand your unconscious drives. Since people in relationships are often parents themselves, it’s valuable to acknowledge your shortcomings in the way you interact with your children. 

In Imperfect Parenting, child development expert Dona Matthews explains that parenting is a “learned skill” that must be developed on the fly. In The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting, Brené Brown suggests that embracing your flaws as a parent can be a teachable experience for you and your children.

There are many ways parents can have a negative impact. Hendrix and Hunt focus on two broad categories of imperfect parenting:

  • Parents who are intrusive and controlling raise children who learn to isolate themselves to preserve their sense of identity.
  • Parents who are absent or neglectful raise children who learn to cling hard to their loved ones, desperate to be seen and acknowledged.

Hendrix and Hunt state that in seeking out romantic partners, your unconscious mind is searching for someone who closely resembles the traits of your parents. For example, a person whose father prioritized work over family may be drawn to someone who’s career-driven. They have an unspoken agenda of getting their partner to make them their life’s focus, and not their job instead. In other words, your subconscious wants to recreate your childhood, with the intention that “this time, you’re going to get it right.”

How Closely Are You Attached to Your Partner?

In their book Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel Heller identify three “attachment styles” that we carry forward from childhood:

  • Secure, in which a person is comfortable with intimacy and acts in a nurturing manner 
  • Anxious, in which a person fears for their relationship and needs reassurance from their partner
  • Avoidant, in which a person views an intimate relationship as a threat to their independence

Finding a partner who meets the needs of our attachment style will increase our feelings of fulfillment and safety. On the other hand, Hendrix and Hunt argue that we unconsciously choose mates whose attachment needs are opposite our own, repeating the cycle that shaped us in childhood.

Do We Really “Marry Our Parents”?

In psychology, this is referred to as the psychoanalytic theory of mate selection, introduced by Sigmund Freud in 1927. Studies have shown that not only do people often select partners with traits similar to their parents’ but that people may perceive their partners to have a stronger parental likeness than they do. In a more recent study involving online dating profiles, people who reported having “unfinished childhood business” were even more likely to find potential mates attractive if they shared characteristics with their parents.

Critics of psychoanalytic theory have argued that its claims about the unconscious are not scientifically testable and rely too heavily on anecdotal evidence. Its opponents also state that it takes an overly simplistic view of the human mind, ignoring the effects of biological, cultural, and economic factors on mental and emotional development.

Effects of Imperfect Parenting in Romantic Relationships

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Here's what you'll find in our full Getting the Love You Want summary :

  • Why rifts often open between your romantic partner and yourself
  • How your childhood defines your future relationships
  • How a struggling couple can learn to talk to each other, heal, and grow

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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