To Leave: Advice from the Ancients Part II
Genesis 2:24 states, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one.” This ancient advice has something helpful to say to modern readers that could have come from a contemporary therapist or relationship expert.
The first action Genesis 2:24 instructs is for a person to “leave” their family of origin when making a romantic relationship commitment. It seems simple enough, but entails more than moving out of your childhood bedroom. A family of origin is where we first learn about social dynamics, and in that space we experiment and grow. The family ideally gives us a safe space in which to learn who we are and grapple with what place in the world we wish to inhabit. This space can only nurture us to develop to a point. To continue our growth, we necessarily have to meet ourselves as people out in the world, interacting with others who don’t have a familial connection to us.
Part of human development is a degree of rebellion against home and family. That process starts when we are about two years old, and act out against our parents for the first time. It continues through our childhood development and spikes again as we are teens who test and question the foundation our parents have provided. It’s common for children in their early-twenties to start valuing parents and family members with a newfound gratitude for their love and guidance once this maturation process is completed. While humans experience this space of re-valuing their family of origin, we continue to develop our potential as we strike out to create important relationships and begin the process of creating our own family. We began leaving our parents by testing boundaries and rebelling, we continue it by becoming self-sufficient and physically moving away from them. This “leaving” is a long developmental process.
Physical separation is more difficult for some families than others. Some parents instill in their children an expectation of independence, and see successful separation as a sign that their kids developed the skills to exist without needing them. On one side of a family separation spectrum, some kids are encouraged to attend boarding school, study abroad, or get a job and start paying their own expenses. On the other side, codependent parents foster a relationship with their children in which the child feels she cannot be successful in life without her parents constant presence and the parent feels no one can ever make him feel as necessary and loved as the presence of his child. Either side of the spectrum can lead to challenges in romantic partner relationships. “Leaving” parents is as much (or more) about maturing past a certain dynamic as it is about moving beyond a physical space, so it’s important to consider what side of the spectrum you grew up thinking was the common sense way a family works.
A healthy relationship between parents and their children is one that helps children to grow into self-sufficient, interdependent people. Interdependence means that a person is self-sufficient and capable, yet is able to trust and be vulnerable with others. Parents who do not actively encourage their kids to develop past the family dynamic of childhood not only stifle growth and development, but sabotage their future relationships. Daughters who overly rely on their fathers and continue to hold him as the most important and trusted man in her life cannot be ultimately successful in a partner relationship. Sons whose mothers run to their side every time there is a setback or illness instead of allowing him space to struggle and grow restrict his potential to be fully available to a potential spouse. Women who grew up learning that they don’t need a man for anything, and men who were raised to think that they shouldn’t rely on anyone for support have difficulty in a close partnership as well.
On the one side, there must exist some space for a partner to step in and fill. Where there is no space, we either have no desire to have a true partnership relationship because many of our needs are being met, or we feel so guilty about our existing relationships possibly being let down that we sabotage the new possibility in the name of respect. On the other side, it’s useful to consider the difference between what we want and what we need. We most likely don’t need to be with someone, let alone have someone open the car door or do our laundry occasionally. It’s not bad to want those things, though. Having someone who shows us small actions of affection feels good, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to feel loved.
Ideally, parents model a strong couple relationship for us as children, and we grow up with the goal of having that sort of relationship for ourselves one day. We anticipate a partner. We leave room to have one in our lives. Not everyone holds this space. When the primary couple relationship we witness as a child is tumultuous, we grow up with a fear of commitment. We don’t want to start a relationship that further exposes us to the chaos, anger, and noise we’ve already experienced. This is the common problem called fear of commitment. We aren’t actually afraid of committing, we are afraid of having whatever we have learned comes after the commitment. We are familiar with our family dynamic. Even if it is flawed, it is comfortable. We know how to navigate it. As adults, we seek out romantic relationships that provide that same dynamic. Kids who grow up with the goal of not falling into the relationship trap their parents are in usually date people who perpetuate that fear. In this way, they are able to tell themselves: see, I tried to have a relationship, and sure enough it didn’t work out. People on either side of the separation family dynamic fear commitment. Fear of commitment, often coupled with fear of change (even good change is uncomfortable) team up to be destructive to any real form of significant bonding with a potential partner.
Add to this fear a fairytale. As an adult, childhood can seem like a wonderful fantasy. When we have a long day at work, come home to a messy kitchen and bills to pay, we may wish in vain that our lives could be as uncomplicated as a child. We wish dad would make us dinner and do our dishes while mom pays our bills. Too often we forget that as children we fantasized about being an adult, in charge of our own schedule and free to make our own choices. In a fantasy childhood mindset, we become angry that our partner doesn’t take care of all of our needs like our fantasy parent would. We don’t stop to consider that the childhood we fetishize never existed in reality.
The over-idealized view of childhood some people have is similar to how some guys fetishize porn. Women in porn are fantasies—part of their occupation is to spend hours at the gym, under the knife of a plastic surgeon, and in the chair of a make-up artist. These women act out stories using a script, and are employed to be believable and beautiful. Even armature porn is scripted, more fantasy than reality. In real life, the ladies who star in porn videos change out of their skimpy school girl outfits, put back on their jeans and sweaters, wipe off the make-up, go grocery shopping and walk their dogs and take out the trash like a women with any other occupation. They might have woken up with bad breath and grumpy attitude, but for a few hours they are professional actresses, pretending to be a fantasy woman they are not, and will never be. These women provide a break from reality to the men who use porn, but they do not offer a relationship like the one his partner can give to him, even if they are in his life daily. They create an unrealistic expectation of how women look and how their bodies behave. This can lead to dissatisfaction with a loving, loyal partner.
In a similar way, a mother may show up from out-of-town and offer an adult man the things he sometimes enjoyed in childhood—a clean house and an endless supply of hot meals—but having those things daily is a fantasy as well. The reality of childhood was likely a mother who sometimes was too tired to make dinner, let alone keep the house spotless or even a largely absent and neglectful mother. A romantic partner cannot compete with the fantasy of the perfect childhood mother, nor should she want to. A partner is not a parent, and a healthy romantic relationship dynamic, while caring, shouldn’t be caregiving (except in special circumstances). Yet, when a parent comes to visit, it is common to regress, and in this regression it often happens that we see our partner in the light or shadow of our opposite-sexed parent. If an adult child hasn’t made progress in “leaving,” all too often this type of parent visits leads to anger and distancing on both sides of a romantic relationship.
Parents and their adult children must be keenly aware of their actions, and their consequences. It is likely not the intension of a parent to disrupt the child and cause strife, but “leaving” is a choice of priority that needs to be constantly upheld. Parents who go beyond the healthy bounds of a parent/child relationship by leaving their kids no room to comfortably develop and sustain a primary relationship with a partner. Sure, kids leave home and move far away—and long visits replace frequent in-person interactions. Parents age, and we don’t want them to be alone, or they aren’t able to be. Leaving doesn’t mean deserting or disrespecting. Leaving is a shift in primary relationships. Parents and grandparents are a wonderful part of family life, but everyone should be clear about what each family member can do to create a more harmonious family in which adult children are given (and also claim) healthy space for evolving family structures.
Sometimes we can’t see our own patterns, and it is hard to hear them from our partner. Family dynamic is something that affects every couple and is likely a source of contention even in the closest of relationships. Sometimes it helps to talk to a sibling or in-law about the dynamic your family of origin has in their relationship. A brother’s situation might not directly translate to your own, but you will hear some themes that sound familiar. Consider the dynamic and set a time to talk to your partner about the issues it brings up for you both.
 Adult children of ill or aging parents are faced with being the parent to their children, and also possibly the caregiver to their parents. Even though both members of a couple probably agree that family is important, and the wellbeing of both sets of parents is a top priority, it is common for partners to struggle with what this care means in practice. I see the most upset between couples from different cultures. A WASP from the Midwest whose parents visit yearly for four days over Thanksgiving struggles when the parents of his Indian wife expect to move in with them for good. The husband’s experience of family time and proximity are very different from his wife’s, who grew up with her grandparents living in her childhood home and sees her parents’ move as a wonderful addition to the household for her own children. In this case, neither cultural expectation is right or wrong; one is just more familiar to each person. For the relationship to be as harmonious as possible, it is necessary for the partners in the couple to be open and honest about their needs and wants. Set a time to talk, and a time limit. Expect such a weighty conversation to take several sessions. In between sessions talking about the issue, don’t withdraw physically or emotionally. These conversations are scary and hard for everyone involved, and are made worse when one person becomes less present in the relationship as a result. Keep in mind that at the base of most relationship discussions there is the question: do you really love me? Be present with this question and bear in mind that you love the person you are trying to discuss things with no matter what the topic.