Ending the Legacy (Part 1)

Posted on October 12, 2013


One of the things I appreciate about many of my clients is their commitment to ensure that their children have it better than they did.  In this context, we are not talking about material wealth, but physical and emotional safety.  Couples coping with marital distress may have come from healthy families.  The negative cycle is not inherently a generational pattern repeating itself.  The cycle is fueled by our attachment needs (our need to feel loved, valued, supported, and connected with our partner) and our emotional experience when we feel those needs are not being met.  Having said that, it is also common that childhood emotional wounds (childhood attachment injuries) brought into the relationship can be a big contributing factor to how those negative cycles continue and escalate.  Those past experiences have powerful influence on how we interpret and assign meaning to things that our partner does and says.  Sometimes those experiences were not even situations in which we were direct participants.  Many is the time a client has wept in session over childhood memories of intense conflict between their parents.  The marriage that one witnessed growing up profoundly affects our adult relationships.

Back in the 1960’s, Murray Bowen, one of the early theorists of marriage and family therapy, had noted a “family projection process” and a “multigenerational transmission process” by which the anxiety in the nuclear family is transmitted (passed down) from one generation to the next (Nichols & Schwartz, 2008).  Bowen had suggested that “differentiation of self” (i.e. ego strength) was the key to overcoming this process.  This is the ability to balance thinking and feeling, to be able to experience strong emotion but also exercising self-restraint (we might also call this the ability to regulate emotional experience or self-soothe).

Brene Brown (2012, p. 153) has suggested that “who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.”  Brown suggests that our focus should be on “daring to be the adults we want our children to be.”  I would make the natural extension to that of suggesting that we should strive to model the kind of marriage we would like our children to have.  “Am I the husband I would want for my daughter?”  If your reaction to that question is that the problem is that my wife is not the wife I would want for my son, we need to talk about that.  First, you cannot “fix” your partner.  You can only work on you.  Second, probably neither of you needs to be “fixed.”  The negative cycle that leaves you both feeling disconnected is the enemy of the relationship.  Together you need to learn to exit the negative cycle, heal the emotional wounds from the relationship, and develop a healthy close connection (that you probably had when the relationship first started).

In raising our kids, so much more is caught than taught.  Patterns in marital interactions and family relationships will continue down the generations unless you are intentional that the legacy is going to stop with you.  Pass on to your kids the positive things that you learned in life.  Model for them a healthy marriage.  If that seems impossible right now, gets some counseling.  You have the capacity to be the adult you would want your child to become.  Where they will witness that the most is in your marriage.


Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Penguin: New York.

Nichols, M. P., & Schwartz, R. C. (2008). Family therapy: concepts and methods (8th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.