Why Do We Marry People Like Our Parents

Published August 19 Role/Reboot

Our early childhood plays a major role in our choice of romantic partners. Dr. Harville Hendrix theorizes that “We marry the emotional image of our caregivers—both positive and negative.”

Sometimes, in an effort to resolve troublesome issues with a parent, we choose a partner with the same personality flaw that left us feeling unsatisfied as a child. That choice is a desperate, last-gasp attempt to get the love or attention we longed for.

If that sounds preposterous, let me illustrate the hypothesis by describing my four husbands.

My first husband was 14 years older and, by the standards of my small, blue-collar hometown, well-educated and sophisticated. What parental gap was I trying to fill? I was replacing my alcoholic father who left school in seventh grade to work in a textile mill.

This pairing might have succeeded but for its hidden flaw: My husband was gay and married me as a cover-up. I only learned of his gender preference seven years later when he was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer.

Several years passed and I married husband number two. This was my first attempt at trying to get love from a narcissist—the love I’d never gotten from my mother.

Before the hate mail starts flying, let me say I loved my mother. I understand many of the events and personalities in her background that made her a narcissist. I’m sorry she was so besieged as a child.

When I use the term “narcissist,” I don’t mean selfish. I mean someone who struggles with underlying profound insecurity by inflating her own importance. A hallmark of narcissists is their inability to feel empathy or give love. They have other harmful traits such as being manipulative and willing to do whatever it takes to get what they want.

Also, they have little or no regard for personal boundaries. They may view their child or partner as part of themselves. If the other doesn’t exist, their feelings and needs don’t exist in the narcissist’s mind. The child may come to feel lost unless coupled with another, especially a narcissistic other.

Marrying a narcissist to get the love your narcissistic parent didn’t give you is, of course, futile. By definition, a narcissist cannot love.

Back to husband number two. Before we married, we discussed my desire to have children. Because he had two children by his first marriage, he wasn’t as enthusiastic as I was, but he readily agreed. When I first brought up stopping contraception so I might conceive, he declined, saying “I lied to get you to marry me.”

I stayed in the marriage for years because I’d been trained by my mother not to expect my needs to be met. Finally, after a separation, he agreed to have a child on the condition that he could quit his job as a nuclear engineer and go to photography school.

We succeeded in adopting, but we weren’t a happy family. He complained that the baby was number one in my life and work was number two. He was only number three and wasn’t receiving enough attention. (Psychologists call this narcissistic supply.)

That takes us to marriages three and four. I married the same personalities and hoped for a different result. I’ll spare you (and them) examples.

Samuel Johnson, a prominent 18th century poet and essayist, observed, “Remarriage is the triumph of hope over experience.” After four marriages, I no longer hope to get love from a narcissist.