Do we marry our parents?

When couples get into heated arguments, accusatory phrases such as “You’re turning into your mother” and “You are just as bad as your father” can sting. But are you truly criticizing each other for some annoying attribute that calls a parent to mind — or are you recognizing an underlying similarity that drew you together in the first place? Do couples enter into marriage or lifelong loving relationships with people who remind them of their parents? Let us take a look at this phenomenon and discuss what it might say about the nature of mutual attraction and marriage prospects.

The Science of Selecting a Mate

Science would seem to offer at least some support for this notion:

  • Hungarian study on sexual imprinting showed test subjects 300 photographs of married couples and the couples’ in-laws. When asked to identify the relationships between these individuals, the test subjects matched the wives to the wives’ mothers-in-law with uncanny accuracy. This finding indicated that the husbands had chosen wives who bore a strong physical resemblance to the husbands’ mothers. The study offered the theory that sexual imprinting occurs in childhood, with the mother imprinted on the child’s psyche as a kind of feminine ideal.
  • New Scientist article reports that the same phenomenon seems to apply to the opposite sex. According to Glen Weisfeld of Wayne State University, a similar study using photographs revealed that women tended to marry men who resembled their fathers — even adoptive fathers.
  • Another study has found that men also select women who remind them of their mothers for reasons beyond mere appearance. Christine Whelan of the University of Iowa conducted research for a book on the subject and found that men who hold advanced degrees and earn in the top percentile bracket for their age tend to marry women of high educational and intellectual standards — standards the men first encountered in their own mothers. Four-fifths of the men in the study whose mothers held college degrees married women with college degrees. The resemblance, it would seem, applies to behaviors and achievement levels as well as looks.

The Emotions Behind Attraction

What are the larger implications behind our attraction to partners that resemble our parents? You’ll be relieved to know that it doesn’t seem to imply any kind of incestuous or “Oedipus complex” component. It’s much more likely to mean that we seek comfort in the familiar. On an emotional level, we may always feel more at ease with members of the opposite sex who behave as we’ve been conditioned to believe they “should.” Some people marry partners who resemble their parents out of a desire to address problems in the parent-child relationship, or simply to recreate the feelings of safety and security from their childhood.

The fly in the ointment is the possibility that negative parent-child interactions might bleed into the marriage. You might be seeing or even judging your spouse, not for who he or she really is, but against an unfair or unrealistic ideal. As you can imagine, it is impossible for a couple to feel satisfied with their marriage or truly understand each other when they are essentially shadow-boxing with proxies. Get to know the person you married — wonderful discoveries may await you!



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