Do We Really Marry Our Fathers or Mothers?

Are you looking for a partner who reminds you of your father or your mother? As a matter of fact, in reality, the opposite is often true. We prefer people who are nothing like our caregivers.
Do We Really Marry Our Fathers or Mothers?

Written by Valeria Sabater

Last update: 25 September, 2022

There’s a psychological urban legend that claims many of us ‘marry’ our fathers or mothers. In other words, we look for attributes in our partners that remind us of our parents. In fact, there are two well-known theories that explain this phenomenon; the Electra complex and the Oedipus complex.

However, to what extent is this idea true? Do we really have a filter that guides us toward one profile and not another based on internal childhood schemas? One undeniable truth is that, as children, we develop unconscious narratives about what affection and relationships are. We do this based on how our caregivers treat us.

This can condition us in many ways. For example, it can make us repeat the same pattern in the future. That’s because it’s the one we know the most, the one that gives us reinforcements and confidence. For instance, if your father or mother was supportive and made you feel validated, understood, and protected, you’ll obviously look for the same in a partner.

On the other hand, what happens if the bonds with your caregivers were traumatic? Does it make you look for the same kinds of harmful figures in emotional relationships when you’re an adult? Let’s find out.

The type of attachment experienced in your childhood has a direct influence on the type of partner you seek.

Angry couple in the living room thinking that we "married" our fathers or mothers
Your fears and needs in the affective field are often conditioned by the relationship you had with your parents.

Is it true that we ‘marry’ our fathers or mothers?

We usually tend to reject the idea that we ‘marry’ our mothers or fathers. That said, if we break down our psychological reasoning and go behind the scenes, we discover that evidence exists to support it.

To begin with, your early relationship with your parents created a script or a model for how your future relationships would work. You believed what you saw and the kind of love that your first caregivers offered you. In fact, these childhood dynamics marked, shaped, and conditioned you in a profound way.

Psychoanalytic theory validated the idea that people choose romantic partners with traits similar to their parents. The State University of New York (USA) conducted a study that affirmed this proposal. They claimed that, rather than staying with the Oedipus or Electra syndromes, we must focus our attention on the types of attachment.

We don’t look for partners who physically resemble our fathers or mothers. We’re looking for people who give us the same emotional security that our parents or partners gave us, who offer us the love that they didn’t know how or didn’t want to give us.

The attachment you received determines the kind of love you think you need

If you grew up in a home with an emotionally cold or absent father, you probably seek relationships that give you constant validation, affection, and security. Therefore, we don’t always ‘marry’ our fathers or mothers. Sometimes, we look for partners who fulfill the emotional tasks that our parents never did.

The attachment you received in your childhood created a model of love which is what you think you need. For example, children who grew up with loving mothers and fathers and who were in constant harmony with them, become adults with good self-esteem and self-confidence. Indeed, secure attachments allow us to build satisfying relationships without constant fear of rejection or loneliness.

In these cases, we don’t necessarily seek absolutely identical figures to our parents. In fact, if we were loved and respected when we were children, we’ll simply seek the kinds of emotional territories that provide the same relational dynamics as we had in our childhood.

As human beings, we’re unconsciously drawn to what’s familiar and known to us.

Sometimes, you look for the opposite of your parents, and yet still suffer

Maybe one of your parents has died. Or perhaps one or even both of them neglected you. If so, you may have developed an anxious attachment. This means you need figures that fill your huge gaps in emotional matters. However, far from achieving it, you fail and experience the same pain and sense that you’re lacking something. Why is this?

Once again, you’re not looking to ‘marry’ your parents. You look for substitutes for them that you never had. Nevertheless, what you don’t realize is that your anxious attachment style means you have a negative view of yourself and you look to others for validation. This is confirmed in a study conducted by Dr. Kim Bartholomew.

The problem lies, not in your failed relationships, but in your unattended childhood wounds. The problem lies in you. Low self-esteem, insecurity, and a devaluation of yourself lead you to repeatedly veer toward harmful people. Figures as harmful as your parents were.

Sometimes, when we look for partners that are as different from our fathers or mothers as possible, our choice to go against them is still, in effect, a decision conditioned by them.

girl thinking that we "married" our fathers or mothers
If you want to have a more fulfilling relationship than the one you grew up with, you need to be aware of your mental models about relationships.

You don’t ‘marry’ your father or mother, you marry the mental models that they transmitted to you

We all look for what’s familiar to us. However, what’s familiar to us isn’t always the most appropriate. For instance, maybe you’re attracted to that self-confident and somewhat dominant man or woman who’s amusing, but with a tendency to emotional manipulation. This is because, sometimes, those mental scripts that your parents transmitted to you continue to condition you in adulthood. Sadly, not always for the good.

You should carry out an awareness exercise to detect your defective narratives about relationships and affection that your parents may have transmitted to you. In fact, if you find you always end up with harmful people, ask yourself why. Perhaps there’s something in your past that you need to reformulate and clean up.

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  • Bartholomew, Kim and Leonard M. Horowitz. “Attachment Styles Among Young Adults: A Test of a Four-Category Model,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1991), vol.101 (2): 226-244.
  • Brumbaugh, Claudia Chloe and R. Chris Fraley, “Adult Attachment and Dating Strategies: How Do Insecure People Attract Mates?” Personal Relationships (2010), 17, 599-614.
  • Geher, Glenn. “Perceived and Actual Characteristics of Parents and Partners: A Test of a Freudian Model of Mate Selection,” Current Psychology (Fall, 2000), vol. 19, no.3, 194-214.