Why Do We Marry Our Mothers (or Fathers)? Part 1

A Marriage That’s Struggling

I have a friend (we’ll call her Sherri) whose marriage is in trouble. For years, Sherri’s husband (we’ll call him Ed) has done whatever he wants. Ed regularly leaves Sherri and their young daughter on the weekends to go hiking, skiing, white water rafting, etc. Sherri is finally fed up and demanding that Ed share more of the load. (I imagine that Sherri also yearns for Ed to want to be with her, but she’s too vulnerable to ask for that, so is starting with the issue of him pulling his weight). Like Ed, Sherri works full-time. She also takes care of the grocery shopping, cooking, and almost all of the needs of their little girl.

Sherri feels abandoned by Ed. She has succeeded, however, in getting Ed to go to marriage counseling. In the sessions, Ed says a lot of good things. He says that he wants the marriage. He says he will stay home more. He says he’ll help out.

Last week in the marriage counseling session, Ed promised to ski only on Saturday, and then to come home Saturday night so that Sherri could do something on Sunday. On his way out the door on Friday night, Ed changed his tune. He said he couldn’t come back Saturday night, after all, as there were going to be people up there, counting on him.

An argument ensued. Ed got his way. Sherri stayed home alone, with the kiddo, once again.

She Tried Not to Marry Her Father

Sherri is a smart cookie. She has a challenging job and she does it well. She is a great mom. She’s a great friend. Sherri’s even aware of how tough it was for her to grow up in her dysfunctional household. Her father drank and was abusive. Sherri consciously made sure that she didn’t marry someone like her father. Ed was the opposite of her dad. Ed was gentle. Ed didn’t drink too much. Ed was soft-spoken.


The other day, Sherri had a realization. In the depths of her despair, she felt her overwhelming sense of abandonment. She realized it was familiar. It was the same feeling she’d had when she tried to make things better in her childhood home. No one stood by her. Not even her mom.

Sherri had married her mother. The one who couldn’t stand by her when her father was drunk. The one who abandoned her, just like Ed. The one who refused to take any accountability for what was going on.

Why Do We Marry Our Parents?

Theories abound as to why we are drawn to mates who share characteristics of our parents. Even a google search will lead you to references on “Preference Transmission” where researchers found that men raised by working mothers are more likely to marry women who also have professional aspirations. But, being drawn to a mate with professional drive is the least of our problems. What about being drawn to an alcoholic? Or to a guy with the Peter Pan syndrome who never grows up (if you believe that exists)? Or to a woman incapable of intimacy?

According to psychologist, Ayala Malach Pines in her book Failling in Love: Why We Choose the Lovers We Choose, there are both conscious and unconscious factors at play in choosing our mates. (Though this book focuses exclusively on romantic love, my guess is that many of these same factors would contribute to our choice of friends, as well).

Pines gives us a good understanding of why we seem to make “errors in judgment” when choosing our mates. She does perhaps too thorough of a job covering Freud’s psycho-sexual stages of development including the highly controversial Oedipus and Electra complexes, almost convincing me that she buys it. But she redeems herself, in the end by sharing a more open view in a chapter called The Internal Romantic Image which provides much more flexibility and makes a lot more sense to me, both in my personal and clinical experiences.

Imago Theory

This “image”, based on Object Relations theory, has been elsewhere referred to as “the Imago” and was popularized by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D. in his classic book called Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples. Imago Therapy, an couple’s therapy approach developed by Hendirx, has been around since the late 80’s and is quite accessible as there are thousands of Imago-trained therapists in the U.S. Even though the book was first published in 1988, it hit the best seller’s list again in May of 2006 because Oprah listed Imago Theory in her list of “Unforgettable! Oprah’s Top 20 Shows”. In reminiscing, Oprah said, “That show changed me. I saw relationships not solely as the kind of romantic pursuit our society celebrates but as a spiritual partnership that’s meant to change how you see yourself and the world.”

The potential for spiritual development and self-growth presented by Hendrix is what excites me. We can take something the might appear to be “a mistake” and use it as a vehicle for growth and transformation. This applies to both people in the relationship. More about the Imago — what it’s made of and how you work with it — is covered in Part 2 of this post. If you want to find more information on your own, go to http://gettingtheloveyouwant.com.

In relationship,



2 responses to “Why Do We Marry Our Mothers (or Fathers)? Part 1

  1. Copied from comment at relationships501.typepad.com before blogging provider was changed.

    Sounds like a great blog! I’m looking forward to what’s to come!



  2. Pingback: Why Do We Marry Our Mothers (or Fathers)? - Part 2 and What Do We Do Then? « Relationships 501: Deep Discourse on Relating

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