The tendency that people have to replicate the themes of early life or of previous generations in the context of later, intimate relationships has long been commented upon many marital theorists and therapists. As the social worker Lily Pincus, founder of the Tavistock Institute for Marital Studies, and the family therapist Dr. Christopher Dare have observed:
All of us have a tendency to get into repetitive patterns that are motivated by the persistence of wishes in unconscious fantasy form and derived from the way earlier needs were satisfied. Sometimes, in marriage, the repetitive aspect of sequences of partnership is remarkably literal, as when a woman whose childhood was damaged by her father's alcoholism finds herself marrying a man who turns out to be an alcoholic, divorces him and then gets herself into the same situation once more. Or, a man whose childhood was dominated by his mother's heart disease may marry a woman with congenital heart trouble.
The partners in such repetitive sequences, usually unaware that their problem is a resurrection of one that exists earlier and elsewhere in the extended system, are startled when they come to see that particular charged issue standing out in high relief. I will cite two such examples—situations in which a family problem had been resurrected and worked upon in a blatant and dramatic way, while the partners involved were oblivious of any connection between patterns of the past and the present.
In the first instance, the couple were, at the time of our interviews, in the midst of a full-blown marital crisis and were maintaining their emotionally fragile connection for reasons that seemed to have more to do with mutual hostile dependence than with anything relating to love, satisfaction, or caring. They behaved toward each other, by and large, like an angry mother and a truculent child. He was her incorrigibly bad boy of a spouse.
The wife had had a father whom she loved very much but who had made his family's life insecure and difficult. He was a man who kept shifting jobs, changing careers, owing either to restlessness and dissatisfaction on his part or to dissatisfaction on that of his employers. He had been a musician at one time and a teacher of music at another. He had run a community organization (and gotten into difficulties with the board), tried to start a school, and also worked at a number of other, very different sorts of occupations. The emotional turmoil surrounding this issue—because each job that her father lost or decided to leave tended to involve a move to a new community—had been a painful part of this woman's entire growing-up experience. When we talked, she was forty-three years old; she and her husband, a business executive, had been married for eighteen years.
He had had a solid professional training when she married him: a master's degree in business administration. He was moving rapidly up the corporate ladder in a large financial institution. At a conscious level the wife had done everything possible to avoid a repetition of her earlier difficulties: she'd found a partner who was not only prepared for a stable, well-remunerated career but also interested in the things that he was doing professionally.
But, as became evident during the course of the interviews, this pair had duplicated in their own lives what had happened earlier in the wife's family. Some five years before our conversations got under way, the husband had begun feeling restless in his job, like a cog in a large industrial wheel. He'd felt, as he put it, "trapped on the company's organizational chart" and had decided to start a new business of his own. The venture wasn't working out, and recently it had become clear that this effort (in a field that had nothing to do with his former occupation) was destined for failure. He was now, as he described himself, "in the midst of a male menopause," a crisis of middle life. At a time when their oldest daughter was on the verge of entering college, he had used up much of the family's savings and had no income. Had the wife, at some level, required that the past repeat itself in this fashion?
One couldn't know. This particular wife, like her mother before her, surely knew from her past how to be a powerful and competent woman who is in a relationship with an immature, incompetent man. At the time of our conversations the family (which consisted of two adults and two adolescent children) was being supported by the wife's fairly ill paying job. This, too, was a repetition of a past set of circumstances—her own family had been supported by her mother's secretarial salary. So here she was in the middle years of her adulthood dealing with the same painful problem that had preoccupied her throughout her childhood.
This restaging of a toxic family situation, in its entirety, seems to defy rational explanation. But far eerier are the replications of problems by couples who have no knowledge of a particular problem's previous existence in their families. I encountered a replication of this sort in a set of interviews that I had with a couple in their fifties (he was fifty-five at the time, and his wife was fifty). These partners had begun their marriage, now in its thirty-second year, by running off and eloping. It was not until many years later that the husband learned that his own parents had done the same thing.
The couple that I talked with had decided to marry secretly because they were certain that her family would never give their approval. Her parents would consider her too young for marriage—she was then eighteen and a freshman in college—and they would view him as insufficiently ambitious, because he was not preparing for a lucrative profession.
It was not until after both his mother and father had died that the husband learned that his oldest sister was illegitimate: his parents had run off and gotten married because his mother was already pregnant. This information had come to him by chance; he had simply stumbled across the dates of his parents' wedding and his oldest sister's birth when he was going through some family papers. Then he had realized what had occurred.
What had been told to him, as part of the family lore, was that his mother's people had initially disapproved of her suitor; they'd viewed their daughter as too young for marriage and they had considered her suitor unambitious, not sufficiently upwardly mobile. (His father, a shopkeeper, wasn't considered to be the equal of the men in his mother's family, who were all academics and clergymen.) His suspicion, confirmed in retrospect by many odd bits of information that he'd hitherto overlooked, was that his parents had eloped without his mother's family's consent because his mother was already well along in her pregnancy. But he could not recollect having heard any such story in his childhood, and thus was puzzled that he himself had eventually done something similar.
And it is puzzling: how could it have come about that a secret marriage, made without parental blessings or consent, was repeated in a subsequent generation without the young couple's being aware that such an event had occurred before? The answers to such questions aren't obvious. Do we imbibe our families' psychological issues and concerns along with the mother's milk that we drink?