The Family That Fate Gave Us And How It Influences Our Perception of Others

by | Jan 13, 2022 | 1 comment

“All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Throughout the decades of representing clients in divorce, I’ve had the opportunity to engage psychologists to testify about family dynamics. Specifically, in custody cases where at issue is which parent is more likely to meet the physiological needs of the child or children. My goal in sharing this summary of what I’ve learned is with an eye toward helping you understand that we all have demons from unmet needs in our childhood, and there will always be times when you feel like having a gargantuan temper tantrum and howling until you get what you want. Feeling this way doesn’t mean you have a psychological disorder ‘ it means you’re human.

We are all, every one of us, regardless of gender, race, color, or creed, doomed to make mistakes in interpersonal relationships because from the moment we were evicted from that warm, cozy environment we’ve floated around in for nine months, we were completely dependent on others for our survival. Although after those nine months we may have appeared ‘ready-made’ to the world with a set of predetermined needs, unfortunately we don’t come with a handbook explaining what those needs are. Or a warning label that if they aren’t not met there’s hell to pay.

Our family as our first source of social contact teaches us how to interact with others and how to make our way in the world. Our relationship skills develop from this initial dependence on the family that fate gave us and glimpses of whether our needs were met by it are reflected throughout our life in how we deal with acquaintances, friendships, and with significant others with whom we have an intimate relationship.

Bear in mind, intimacy today does not mean the relationship is necessarily sexual, since the term has become a metaphor for emotional connection. Just as the word ‘family’ has become a metaphor for closeness, as opposed to a connection based on blood DNA. This change in large measure is due to the change in marriage and family life in the United States. Centuries ago, people entering into a union didn’t expect personal happiness or emotional fulfillment. It had more to do with inheritance, economic security and increasing the family’s labor force. However, today we live in a world of unrealistic expectations were the person we’re intimate with, the one with whom we’ve allowed ourselves to become vulnerable is expected to provide for our personal happiness. And therein lies the conundrum because no one can make another person happy. And therein lies the problem. It is this unrealistic expectation that it’s up to another person to make us happy in a relationship that causes the very discontent that inevitably occurs at some point in a relationship.

Dr. Chloe Carmichael, in her article, Ask Dr. Chloe: Do I have Unrealistic Expectations In My Relationship? lists twelve unrealistic expectations that she cautions a person to check themselves against, citing as the biggest, ‘expecting your partner to fill every void in your life at all times’. She maintains that a relationship is one of the hardest of human endeavors. It’s her opinion that those who are able to do it have something that others don’t “drum roll please” perspective. In support of this she cites new brain scanning technology which shows the area of the brain that is activated when someone perceives something, visually or emotionally, and it is the same area of the brain involved with imagination. Apparently, this is the reason the brain does not distinguish between what is an actual recorded experience and what is an internal fantasy. In other words, when you are in an intimate relationship with someone, we tend to believe what we want to believe about the person which beliefs are often based on idealized fantasies about the way we want them to be and in reality, the way they rarely are.

Maureen Werrbach, LCPC, writing for the Gottman Institute in an article titled, 3 Ways to Keep Your Relationship in the Positive Perspective, explains this concept of unrealistic expectations in a different way than Dr. Chloe, but with the same observations as to the result. Basically, unrealistic expectations are at the core of dissatisfaction in a relationship. Werrbach explains that if when you think of your partner in their absence and your thoughts are negative due to unrealistic expectations, you are in Negative Sentiment Override. On the other hand, if your expectations have been met you think of your partner positively when you’re apart, and you have Positive Sentiment Override. The word sentiment in both appears, in my opinion, to be a proxy for the word expectations.

Distilling down the hundreds, maybe thousands, of articles and books I’ve read on the subject of the impact of family of origin on our behavior, it would seem that if your family of origin’s method of conflict resolution was to argue over an issue and not resolve it you probably are more likely than not to wind up in a place where you just drop the issue and use the fight to prove that your partner is an asshole and enjoy experiencing Negative Sentiment Override. On the other hand, if your family modeled dealing with problems in a constructive way so that you didn’t feel judged and attacked, you are more likely to see your partner as your soul mate and someone to whom you feel profoundly connected. In this scenario you are experiencing Positive Sentiment Override. This is, of course, despite the occasional desire you may have from time to time to want to kill them.

In nursing school, I learned that in order to help a patient you had to identify their needs. In law school I learned that you had to identify the issue in the client’s case in order to address it. In life I’ve learned through good relationships and bad ones that you have to be honest with yourself and identify the unrealistic expectations in the relationship if you’re experiencing Negative Sentiment Override.

After thirty years of practicing divorce law the old adage, “You don’t marry someone you can live with, you marry someone you can’t live without,” hits the nail on the head. So, if you find yourself thinking that you’d rather live without your partner than live with the irritation you feel when your expectations are not met, your choices are clear. Either work on the relationship to eliminate or reduce your dissatisfaction with your partner, accept things as they are and continue to be miserable, or leave the relationship. Whether you seek counseling, relationship workshops or work through on-line resources and self-help books, I’d caution you to be realistic about your expectation of getting your groove back quickly. It took time for you and your partner to get into this negative place and it will take time and effort for your relationship to become what you hope it to be. The long and the short of it is, if you ignore feelings of Negative Sentiment Override your relationship will eventually blow up and you’ll find yourself in Crazyville. * And if children are involved, they may forever be traumatized by the blast.

*Crawling Out of Crazyville is the novel I’m currently working on.

1 Comment

  1. When I was reading this blog two things came to mind one with my mother, and one with my husband, maybe both are relevant so I thought I would share.
    1. When I was growing up I was very close with my mother, who passed away when I was 13. I didn’t realize what she was doing, but she would often say something and ask me to repeat it and from time to time she would say… Remember what I said Gaby? And then we would both repeat it together. There are two that are literally the staples of my being. The first one is “Gaby as you get older it’s not always easy to be happy, but it is worth fighting for!” and the other is “You may not always feel you are on God’s side, but he is always on yours!” I have many more, but those two are my favorites. Actually one more… “Gaby, you don’t need a partner to dance, only to dip!”
    2. My husband is a very charismatic Gemini, and me being a Capricorn goat, we both had a lot to learn about each other. One evening, when we were newly married, after returning from a social event, I was confused about something he said during the evening. I don’t remember specifically what it was, I just remember I kept after him about it even as we got into bed I brought it up for the 11th time. When I did he rolled over, looked me in the eyes, and said to me, “Gabrielle, don’t you understand it’s not what I said, it’s how I felt”. I realized at that time how little I knew about him, but how much I wanted to know. Since then that statement cycles throughout conversations with a sentimental fondness for each other’s fragility.


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Legal Disclaimer

The information in this article is for educational purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice or establish an attorney-client relationship. I am a writer who is also a lawyer, helping lay people learn about law-related issues. Consult a qualified lawyer in your jurisdiction for all legal opinions for your specific situation.

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