How often do you hug or kiss your partner in front of your children? Now think about how your parents behaved when you were growing up. Were they openly tactile and affectionate? Or was there a distinct froideur in the air?
For most of us, thinking about our parents’ sex lives feels deeply uncomfortable, but understanding this formative relationship can be the key to unlocking insights into ourselves. The way our parents interacted profoundly affects how we perceive love, intimacy and sex for the rest of our lives.
The ways they demonstrated affection and expressed their sexuality (were they at ease with their bodies? Or prudish and full of self-loathing?) seeped into your subconscious.
Therapist Dr Erika Schwartz has spent more than 30 years working with couples and says that looking at your parent’s relationship will help you to understand any issues that you may be having with your partner
Your ‘sexual spring’, as I call it — you might also term it your sexual DNA — is the set of instincts handed down through generations that govern how you connect with others and how you feel and understand intimacy.
My advice, honed over more than 30 years spent working with couples, individuals and teens, will enable you to understand the preconceptions you have internalised.
If you’re not happy with the level of intimacy and connectedness in your own relationship, I will help you work on these issues by looking at your family history.
So, let’s get started. I want to share a few stories you may find useful, which exemplify the connection between upbringing and your future relationships in adulthood.
Take one of my male patients, who comes from a family with four boys. He recalls that, in his early teens, his mother would walk around in her underwear and ask for help hooking her bra from any son who walked by. She talked openly about sex a lot, too.
When the boys started to bring girlfriends round, the mother behaved flirtatiously, talking to them in baby language in front of their new partners. Many young women left after witnessing this odd mother–son relationship.
She treated her adult sons like children because she had no idea how to interact with grown men as her sons got older. She missed the chance to help them grow into independent adults.
Your ‘sexual spring’, as I call it — you might also term it your sexual DNA — is the set of instincts handed down through generations that govern how you connect with others and how you feel and understand intimacy
The father, meanwhile, was equally emotionally stunted and never seemed to take notice of the strange relationship between the mother and their sons. He was judgmental of the boys and competitive with them.
This is a familiar and damaging pattern. If a father repeatedly competes with his son, while having no input in his upbringing, the son will suffer with low self-esteem and feel competitive with other men. It’s likely no matter how successful he becomes, he will never feel good enough.
As they grew up, the boys — now men — became withdrawn and unable to connect with women. It took decades of therapy for some of them to realise their problems might stem from their mother.
To this day, even though the mother has reached her 90s, she still focuses primarily on her sons, ignoring their wives and adult children. This is an extreme case, but my advice for parents is that it is all about balance.
She revealed that, although thinking about our parents’ sex lives feels deeply uncomfortable, understanding this formative relationship can be the key to unlocking insights into ourselves
Showing affection is important — but being overtly sexual is damaging. Teaching children to do well is important; competing with them is excessive.
If this example rings a bell regarding your own parents, now is the time to explore further, to understand how you are being affected. If you are having difficulty finding a loving partner, or seem unable to stay in a relationship, try addressing what you want with a therapist or life coach. With the right guide, you can cut short many years of misery.
Of course, the other extreme — not seeing any intimacy between your parents as a child — can be equally damaging. A male friend of mine is the only child of a couple who met in a war-torn European country after World War II.
Their son was their pride and joy and, while they had little formal education, they wanted him to be an educated man. To that end, the father spent long hours working far from home, while the son was coddled by his lonely mother. At 12, the boy was sent to boarding school. The separation was hard on both mother and son and he barely graduated. But, as an adult, he made his life as far away as he could from his parents.
Showing affection is important — but being overtly sexual is damaging. Teaching children to do well is important; competing with them is excessive
He married a cold woman and had four children, but rarely saw them because his job kept him away from home. When he was there, he never hugged them or felt able to share warmth and love.
He was missing the tools to express affection in a healthy way. He was unfaithful, and to this day he doesn’t understand the distinction or connection between sex and intimacy.
If you recognise some of these traits in your own husband, tell him how you feel. Don’t tell him what he’s doing wrong all the time and don’t nag him — he won’t hear you. Instead, tell him what he is doing right and reinforce that.
Don’t engage in arguments, as they don’t accomplish anything.
A cold war isn’t useful, either. Silent treatment only serves to create a larger dead space between you. Make sure your own actions are truthful, loving and kind. If he isn’t following your lead, insist on therapy — or, if all else fails, consider whether the marriage might have run its course.
Dr Schwartz says that the way our parents interacted profoundly affects how we perceive love, intimacy and sex for the rest of our lives
Unsurprisingly, the fallout from extra-marital affairs can have a lasting impact on children, too.
Another of my patients, Claire, is almost 40 and has never married, despite a long line of boyfriends. She is desperate to find a life partner and start a family, but her parents set a really tough example she can’t get out of her head.
When she was a teenager, she saw her father in a restaurant holding hands with a woman who wasn’t her mother. She told her mother, who calmly said she knew the father was having an affair.
The mother went on as if nothing happened and never mentioned the affair again. Her parents are now in their 80s and still married.
Her mother still acts as though they have a perfect marriage. Every time Claire tries to speak to her, she hits a brick wall.
Claire has visited a therapist for decades. Loyalty, trust, intimacy and sex are confused in her mind and fear rules her relationships. She doesn’t trust her own judgment and keeps choosing boyfriends who are unfaithful or unreliable.
Unsurprisingly, the fallout from extra-marital affairs can have a lasting impact on children, too
I hope that Claire finds her self-confidence and, along with it, the right man — one who does not resemble her father, so she doesn’t have to continue living in fear of becoming her mother.
I firmly believe that unless you are honest in your marriage, you are causing lasting damage to your children. Only by breaking the mould of abuse, dishonesty and lack of confidence can you begin to reset the legacy of your relationship history. Children need to see that healthy relationships make us feel happy and fulfilled.
This might be a good time to tell you about the positive impact for those children who have grown up with parents in a healthy marriage.
Looking after your relationship is the best thing you can do to help them make positive emotional choices in their future.
My friend and her brother were exposed to love, connection and good communication from the moment they woke up until they went to sleep at night.
She said it isn’t too late to make a change and you should think about how you want to feel in your intimate relationships and what message you want to hand down to your children and even grandchildren
She has been married to a wonderful man for more than 30 years and they have two children. She and her husband still have a passionate love affair. They are so close that her daughter once said she would only marry a man like her father. In due time, she did.
It is excellent if you are lucky enough to be in the position of enjoying a healthy, happy marriage and able to hand this emotional road map to your children.
But if you are reading this article and wondering how you can unpick the issues of your past before you pass on any damaging patterns, let me reassure you by saying it’s never too late.
First, think about how you want to feel in your intimate relationships and what message you want to hand down to your children and even grandchildren — as it’s likely their subconscious perception will be passed to future generations.
Make it a positive legacy, not a negative one.
Adapted from The Intimacy Solution: Life Lessons In Sex And Love by Dr Erika Schwartz, published by Permuted Press at £12.99. © Erika Schwartz 2018. To buy this book for £10.39 (20 per cent discount), call 0844 571 0640 or go to mailshop.co.uk/books. Offer valid until September 27, 2018. P&P is free on orders over £15.