A picture of the four steps to emotional regulation.

How Intergenerational Trauma Impacts Romantic Relationships

After a series of on-off relationships, the last one resulted in a beating so bad that her former lover broke one of her ribs and she had to be hospitalized, Terry hit a breaking point. She said in a soft whisper, ‘There is clearly something wrong with me.’

Have you ever met someone who has a track record of abusive romantic relationships? You may not have had Terry’s experience, but you may have found yourself repeating destructive patterns.

As a life and business coach, I want to support you and help you navigate self-destructive tendencies. In this article, we will discuss how intergenerational trauma can impact romantic relationships and provide you with tools to heal from past pain.

It all started before you were even born.

To give you context on how Terry developed a taste for painful relationships, you need to understand her childhood. Below is a brief summary of what life was like before she was born, according to Terry’s older brother.

A tale of two emotionally disabled parents

Dad, who had come home after working a long shift at an unsatisfying job, returned home. 

Mom, feeling lonely and sad, frequently reached out to Dad for comfort when he returned home from work. However, Dad, who was already feeling dejected and unappreciated, only wanted to drown his sorrows in booze. 

In moments of desperation, Mom would try to force a conversation with Dad, but he only responded by trying to avoid talking and then erupted in an angry tirade. 

When Dad did talk, he complained about the uncleanliness of the home and mentioned that Mom appeared to be gaining weight, and her food was often unpleasant to eat. 

Meanwhile, in the far distance, Terry’s older brother Ron tried to ignore all of this while playing with his toys. Mom was pregnant with Terry as Ron saw their parents’ marriage slowly dissolving.

How violence becomes normalized to a child

Both of Terry’s parents did not have the proper communication skills to share their feelings with themselves, let alone each other. As a consequence, increasing amounts of tension brewed between them, and violence (first verbal, then periodic physical) ensued.

Research supports the idea that children like Terry and Ron, who were exposed to violence in their family context, could learn that violence is a feature of intimate relationships. As children, they learned from their violent family environment that harsh parenting, violence, and aggression are normal aspects of intimate relationships, leading to relationships in adulthood that could be characterized by violence.

It is common to see multiple cycles of intergenerational trauma in romantic relationships. For example, a daughter sees her mom get beat up by her father. Then, as an adult, her daughter unconsciously seeks to find the turbulent yet familiar relationship with a new partner.

In the next section, we will discuss another form of intergenerational trauma.

Fear-based intergenerational trauma

Maybe you didn’t grow up in a family where there was overt emotional or physical abuse, but you still don’t feel able to connect and keep a long-term romantic relationship. 

Perhaps you are or were trying to obtain a doctorate, become a lawyer, or had some ambitious goals that took away a lot of your free time. 

Or perhaps unconsciously, you fear a romantic relationship with a partner that resembles one or both of your parents. Let’s delve into this.

Isn't it ironic that when we try to over-control and be everything to everyone, striving for perfection and forcing outcomes, we actually end up feeling worse and getting less of what we desire?

My mom ran our home with an iron fist

Fear can have a significant impact on anyone’s mind, especially mothers. If a mother does not feel secure in herself and the world around her, she may feel compelled to take steps to ensure that she and the people around her are safe and protected. 

To complicate matters, some parents may experience emotional imbalances such as generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, and depression, which can cause one or both parents to make decisions based on fear.

I warn single mothers that this fear, which is rooted in past unresolved trauma, can cause dire consequences for herself and her children, especially her male children. 

Controlling Moms. Passive-Aggressive Sons.

To be frank, the worst damage one can inflict on a man-in-training is to disincentivize his ability to think for himself. If a man is over-dominated, he will rely on strong, dominating women to make decisions for him while unconsciously seeking attention through self-sabotaging behavior. This is a vicious setup as women become anxious, worried, and stressed when they try to constantly take care of a boy over the age of ten.

Both men and women raised in this type of relationship with a controlling mother will want to replicate this dynamic with their own carefully selected romantic relationship. 

In a relationship, when a woman tries to force her opinions on a man and tries to control how he manages certain tasks, it is not about assisting him but instead about feeling secure in her ability to control things. Both the man and woman are just creating another generation of insecurities within a romantic relationship.

Ending intergenerational trauma starts with you

It is perfectly understandable if you find the topic we are discussing today uncomfortable. It is never easy to admit that our fears and anxieties may be affecting our children in negative ways. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that children raised by emotionally healthy parents often grow up to be confident adults. 

In order to achieve emotional health, it is important to be honest with yourself about how your own childhood experiences have shaped your views on safety and security. 

You may have been subconsciously sending fear-based messages to your children, which could prevent them from reaching their full potential. 

To ensure your child’s emotional development, it is critical to allow them to learn how to take responsibility for their emotions and not let past fears dictate their present and future. 

Remember, acknowledging this is the first step towards making a change and positively impacting your child’s life. 

In the next section, we will discuss some ways you can identify how your childhood has influenced your past or present romantic relationships.

Uncle Sam style Smokey Bear Only You

How to stop intergenerational trauma in romantic relationships

I grew up in the 80s and 90s and I remember watching Smokey Bear warn people that the best defense to prevent forest fires was through intentional action. While I never went camping much as a child, the message stuck with me. Preventing fires or any type of disaster starts with oneself. 

Below are some questions that will help you to understand how to minimize painful childhood messages from impacting your current relationships and prevent your child(ren) from adopting incorrect messages regarding relating to someone in a relationship.

Introspective questions that will help you understand the roots of childhood trauma 

Regarding your childhood:

  • How did your parents handle conflict?
  • Did your parents make you feel safe expressing uncomfortable emotions like sadness or fear? If so, how?
  • Were one or both of your parents abusive to each other? If so, when did these moments of violence occur?

Regarding your current romantic relationship:

  • When you are upset or scared, how do you handle those strong emotions?
  • Do you tend to attract people who struggle with regulating their emotions?
  • Are you in a relationship with someone who has an untreated addiction (this could include but is not limited to substances such as sugar, alcohol, or drugs)?
  • Do you avoid painful conversations with other people? Are you suspicious of your lover’s behavior?
The image below has more tips. Next, I will share my closing thoughts with you.
A picture of the four steps to emotional regulation.

Final Thoughts

Developing a healthy and fulfilling romantic relationship is a goal that many of us strive to achieve. However, it’s important to realize that sometimes, deeper underlying issues can hold us back from achieving this goal. Most of the time, these issues stem from painful memories of our childhood that we may not even be aware of.

The good news is that by addressing and acknowledging these painful memories, we can pave the way for a healthier romantic relationship. It’s important to recognize that as humans, we have a tendency to repeat dysfunctional patterns because on some level, we unconsciously want to heal from these issues. 

By investing in our emotional health and taking the time to answer some important questions, we can begin the journey towards a healthier and more fulfilling relationship.

If you feel like you need additional support or guidance, don’t hesitate to reach out to me for help. Together, we can delve further into these issues and find meaningful solutions. 

Additionally, I highly recommend checking out the latest episode of my podcast, where we delve deeper into the topic of healing from painful memories and achieving a healthy romantic relationship. Simply click this link or press play to listen and learn more from this podcast episode.

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