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Part 8 in Relationship Series

Updated: May 24, 2023

Psychological Considerations: Family of Origin

The first and often deepest lessons we learn about relationships come from our family of origin--specifically watching how the adults in our family related to one another. If there was an abundance of physical affection, we are more likely to show physical affection in our relationships. If communication was indirect with frequent occurrences of passive aggression, we will be more likely to behave in similar ways in our relationships, particularly our most intimate ones. In addition to our perception of how the adults who cared for us related to one another, how they related to us plays a big role in shaping our relational behavior as well.

Understanding these early relational learnings is important, as we can then be on the lookout for them, and begin to transform the ones that are not helpful while feeding the ones that are. It’s important to understand that the question isn’t whether we learned anything about relationships in our early years, but what we learned.

For better or worse, how the closest adults in our lives behaved toward one another, and toward us, deeply imprinted on us what being relational was. We had nothing to compare the behaviors we were seeing to, and therefore didn’t question them. It’s just what was so. Of course, this was all happening on a subconscious level, which made its impact even deeper.

On our Dharma path we pay attention to understand, not to judge. This arena of understanding our relational patterns is no exception. We want to understand our early childhood conditioning around relationships, not so we can judge those adults or ourselves for displaying those same relational qualities. Instead, we want to understand what we learned relationally from our family of origin for two reasons.

One is so that we can be aware of them when they come up and have agency over whether we want to keep feeding them or not. The other reason is to let go of identifying with them. They are not us. It’s just something we learned when we were young. We don’t need to take those behaviors to be who we are. When we don’t identify with the behaviors, it’s much easier to see them clearly, and we are much less likely to give ourselves a hard time when they're present.

Some people question why psychological considerations are brought into a Dharma-informed discussion on relationships. Doesn’t talking about our psychological traits just strengthen the delusion of a solid separate self? The reason for one to become informed about psychological traits that play out in relationships is so they can be observed. We cannot be mindful of what we don’t know. We first have to be aware that something exists before we can remember it (Sati: to remember). Unless these traits are made conscious to ourselves, they will continue to play out in our relationships--for better or for worse. Once we are aware of their existence, and can be mindful of them as they arise, we can then decide which ones are worthy of cultivation and which ones are not.

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