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When parents pass on bad lessons

Updated: July 19, 2013 3:26PM

Divorce runs in Sally’s family. And it’s a big family. She’s one of 11 siblings.

Her maternal grandmother was married three times. Her mother was married three times. She’s been married three times.

“If you never had a good marriage in front of you, it’s extremely difficult to know what to look for,” says Sally. “Those of us who’ve been married three times seem to have chosen someone dysfunctional who felt familiar, like a family member, for the first spouse, someone who is a polar opposite for the second spouse, and many of us finally got it right the third time around. I’m in a great marriage, at long last.”

Sally’s father, her mother’s second husband, abandoned the family when she was a baby and her mother was pregnant with her sister. At the time, her mother had two boys from her first marriage.

Her mother’s third husband, Sally’s stepfather who adopted her, was physically and verbally abusive to the children.

“My mother spent a lot of time crying helplessly when he worked us over. I often had visible fingerprint bruises on my arms and can still remember what it feels like to be whipped with a belt.”

Sally’s mother had seven children with this man.

“When your mother is weak and doesn’t protect you, you see your abusive father as strong and powerful. So we all tended to marry someone like Dad the first time. There’s also an expectation that as an adult you’ll be able to conquer the bully who scared you when you were small and powerless.

“Children who are abused love their parents, but the love is mixed up with fear and insecurity which later causes relationship problems.”

Among other things, Sally’s stepfather was a shouter. “My first husband was also a shouter, and he liked to do it in public because he knew I would be too embarrassed to respond. I’d shrink into myself and wish I was invisible.

“The problem was, I never knew what would set him off, so the longer we were married — almost 10 years — the less I actually said to him. It felt so familiar. Men shout. Women are silent.

“And, since Dad was an alcoholic, my siblings and I have been drawn to alcoholics. A counselor told me my first husband had an alcoholic personality, which was when I found out you don’t have to drink to be an alcoholic.”

Her first husband also had problems keeping a job. He couldn’t get along with anyone. “My stepfather didn’t get along with anyone either. Family parties often ended with Dad verbally sparring with his sister and in a fistfight with one of his brothers.”

And her parents continue to influence Sally and her siblings.

Did you re-create in your relationships the patterns you saw at home? Send your tale, along with your questions, problems and rants, to cheryl

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