How The First Relationships You Observed As A Child Shape Your Life As An Adult

Photo: DisobeyArt / 
family hugging on a beach

What main memories of the first important relationships you observed come to mind? If they weren’t your parents, they could have been from other family members and adults you noticed. 

Conscious or not, imprints of such early relationships remain and echo in aspects of imagination and expectations, hopes and dreams, issues to avoid and opportunities to seek in your own life. They can permeate and shape your future choices.

Since such memories stir up layers and associations, I hope some of my main memories will give you ideas and insights for focusing on your own, now and later. 

In retrospect, I know the nature of my parent’s relationship, along with others I’ve observed, have influenced my major choices.  

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Memories may shape who you are today

As you consider aspects of my following memories, what associations do they muster in your mind? What leads you to dismiss them as irrelevant or uninteresting? 

If they mean something to you, what main memories or experiences come to mind?

Early family sequencing and dynamics

First, I’m lucky to even be here since my parents were not planning on having children. I was an accident born when they were older.

Their maturity no doubt benefited me and possibly them as they managed my independent-mindedness. I must have gotten their nonconforming genes!  

They eloped in spite of their family’s opposition to their marriage. Both the youngest in related families of four children each, I know at least Mom was a surprise. Laden with other psychological issues, her mother resented Mom’s natural beauty, intelligence and charm. 

My Pop’s sisters also resented her since his mother favored my Mom in their eyes.

This early observation of jealousies and competition within families was an introduction to other families’ realities. You may imagine the intensity of my family of three with parents determined that I would not be a spoiled singleton.  No doubt the simplicity and focus of their original twosome never entirely recovered.

A curious creature, I had continuing opportunities to observe how my parents related to one another. Although all this happened some decades ago, they mirrored many mores and norms persisting now, as you’ll see in the following themes.

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Division of labor

An electrical engineer and teacher, my father was also happy doing physical labor in our small apartment and house in the country where we went during long holidays and the summer. Always the builder, maintainer and protector, he used his rifle for target shooting and eventually to kill a rabid fox that attacked my outside cat.  

Mom entertained with activities, meals and charm, managing programs for the parade of visitors to the country house. That included constantly cooking delicious meals and finding myriad uses for the berries we picked in the woods. 

All year, she continued as the putative leader of the family system, leaving little time for expressing her significant talents beyond the routines and needs of Pop and myself. 

So, Pop was the breadwinner and Mom the “breadmaker” and “social worker” who kept stitching the family together situations changed, symbolically and actually. I sensed her constant attention to and talk about the next meal was part of her unspoken contract fulfilling Pop’s interest in good food.  

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Establishing lifelong interests

Rituals of shared meals were more than the sensual filling of the body, though. I remember the fun of bringing a new word to the table to discuss — no doubt contributing to my hunting the “right” words and interest in writing now.  

Mom’s leadership capacities emerged in her work in community activities from PTA work to initiating the first city school crossing guard program. Later she demonstrated her management capacities, working full-time as a school secretary while attending school at night to complete her bachelor’s degree (with honors!).  

One occasion I remember was when Mom was being considered for PTA president; my father said, “it’s me or the PTA.”  The message to me was “family first" and possibly “only,” given what was involved. 

Yet, while Mom was working full time, taking 17 college credits at night to complete her degree, Pop relented somewhat. An example: He vacuumed the apartment while Mom did her university homework.  

And I had the adventure of “going to school” with Mom at night, becoming entranced with the brilliant lecturing of one English teacher in particular. That was a precursor to becoming deeply engaged in doing better at learning things that interested me. 

I also delighted in opportunities for speaking up and playing roles in literature in class, encouraged by my high school English teacher.

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School, school, school … but there was another theme

Was it surprising, then, that I would spend decades going to school for advanced degrees (juggling full-time work and light course loads) becoming a professor, doing training and consulting?  

You’ll notice the presence of a hierarchy in all of this, whether at school or in the family. Though my father was formally at the top, my mother smoothly and effectively made it all cohere at the expense of other ways she could have expressed her range of talents in leadership and organizing.   

My implicit and later explicit lessons from observing these primary relationships? Would I ever find a partner as decent and capable as my father who would also be comfortable with my own powers and nonconformity? 

What do you think?

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Questions for your own situation

  • What division of labor and responsibilities did you notice in primary early adult relationships?  What effect do you think that had on your own expectations and choices later in life?
  • What were the underlying values that the adults expressed in their relationships? How did you carry them forward?  Did you integrate, reject, or adjust them in your own relationships?  
  • How did the models of those relationships permeate your hopes and expectations for your own adult situations? Did you accept or want to depart from the patterns and values you observed?
  • How did the demands, accommodations and compromises of the work of adults you observed influence your own choices in relationships, education and work?
  • Given your insights from your impressions and memories about your own imprints, what would you modify in your situation now or vision for your future?

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Ruth Schimel, Ph.D., is a career and life management consultant and author of the Choose Courage series on Amazon. She guides clients in accessing their strengths and making viable visions for current and future work. Request the first chapter of her seventh book Happiness and Joy in Work: Preparing for Your Future and benefit from your invitation to a free consultation on her website.