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How Parents Affect Our Adult Relationships

Our earliest relational experiences, usual parent-child ones, program whom we are drawn to and how we act within relationships. Idealized images of caretakers form in our childhood psyches. Jung termed this over-valued, emotionally laden and deified view of mother and father the ‘parental imago.’ 

Our parents, for the most part, accepted these idealized images. The task of our parents, however, was to reflect back and restore in us these idealized images through the fulfillment of our needs. In this way, we develop self-esteem, learn self-governance and most importantly, learn to fulfill our needs. The imago or projection comes off our parents and onto us.

In most cases, our needs were not fully met, and thus, the parental imago remains energized within our psyches. We continue to carry and project this idealized image onto others, in hopes of receiving our unmet childhood needs.

When we fall in love, the parental imago is reanimated. James Hollis, author of “The Eden Project: In Search of the Magical Other,” suggests that the “unconscious image is projected onto potential partners until someone comes along who can catch it and hold it.” Similarly, we catch and hold onto the image potential partners place onto us.

The roles, expectations and familiar scripts that were imprinted into our childhood psyches compel us to repeat maladaptive patterns of relating with others. We regress and return to childhood relationship behaviour. 

We often think that once we are out of the relationship or once our parents are deceased, everything will be all right. Unfortunately, we still have the parental imago regardless of the geographically proximity or living status of our parents.

The theory that there are at least six people in every marital bed – the couple and both sets of parents – often rings true. As writer William Faulkner stated, “The past is not dead, it is not even past.” 

We may choose contrary to this template, picking a partner who is the opposite of a parent. However, even in this seemingly differing choice, we are still selecting a partner based upon the early parental imago. There has been no conscious discernment. 

Jung advised, “So long as a positive or negative resemblance to the parents is the deciding factor in a love choice, the release from the parental imago, and hence from childhood, is not complete.”

Until childhood wounds from ‘not good enough’ parenting are acknowledged and until you stop projecting your parental imagos, you, as Jung noted, are bound to be “a slave of what you need in your soul.” A good place to start is to ask, what unmet childhood needs are you still hoping to receive from other people and outer situations?

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.