How can growing up in a dysfunctional family impact your way of relating to men ? (Part 1)

“The great teachers understand that where we come from affects where we go and that what sits unresolved in our past influences our present. They know that our parents are important, regardless of whether they are good at parenting or not. There is no way around it. The family story is our story. Like it or not, it resides within us.” It didn’t start with you, Mark Wolynn

Do you find yourself repeating the same relationship pattern, over and over again?

Do you experience de same overwhelming emotions every time you try to explore a deeper level of intimacy?

You know that something is going on, because you feel like you are prey to emotions you cannot control and rationally explain. It is as if you were forced by something inside you, something that is out of your control.

You know there is a problem but you can’t put a finger on it.


      You look for answers in the usual places.

      You focus on what you think has not been given to you during your childhood,

      You try to comfort yourself with food, sex, shopping or mindless activities.

But dealing with the problem this way rarely makes things better. Without knowing the origin of the issue, you keep having the same thoughts, the same reactions over and over again.

It is not so much the repetition of the pattern that is problematic, because if it was a pattern of satisfying relationships, you probably wouldn’t want to change. The problem comes from your projections at the root of these repetitions, and more precisely from the image that you project.

Our relationships are the result of our projections

We spend 95 % of our day in an unconscious state*, projecting onto others images that have been set early on in our lives. 

The way we have been parented,

our parents’ relationship,

the relationship we had with our parents …

…create a blueprint for managing our emotions, thoughts and behaviours.

As we are not aware that we are projecting, the only thing we perceive is the result of our actions, that is to say how we experience men.

If our relationships are fulfilling, 

If we feel good around them,

If we have a genuine feeling of respect and admiration for them,

It means that the image we are projecting onto them is supporting us in our relationship goals. 

But if we keep attracting men who abuse us in some way or another,

If we see them as adversaries,

If we have difficulties letting our guards down around them,

Then, this situation could be our unconscious drive to become aware of a trauma we endured during our childhood. 

Stephanie, a journalist in her early thirties, is attractive, stylish, and poised. She doesn’t have any problem getting men’s attention, but she keeps falling into the same relationship pattern with each of her partners.

Here is how her pattern looks like:

Stephanie systematically falls in love with powerful and unconventional men, who appear to be romantic and deeply in love with her, but who, with time, prove to be quite self-absorbed. Her most recent relationship was with Nicolas, her ex-husband. 

The first time Stephanie met Nicolas, a successful politician, she felt right away a strong attraction toward him. For her, Nicolas had all the qualities that she wanted in a man. She found him full of surprises; very attractive and sophisticated at the same time. In the beginning of their relationship, Nicolas showered Stephanie with attention, offering her gifts and spending time with her. But as months went by, Nicolas became more and more distant and Stephanie more and more obsessed and consumed with him. A number of people who knew Nicolas and cared about Stephanie warned her about his sexual promiscuity. But she didn’t give them so much attention. Behaviours that would have been perceived as red flags by other women were charming quirks for her. She thought she was the one to change him. For her, he was the one and she would’ve done anything to push the relationship forward. After all I’ve done for him, she thought, he has got to ask me to marry him.

After one year of dating, S & N finally got married and Stephanie progressively started to see him for who he really was. Nicolas quickly got back to his old ways. He couldn’t give her the attention she desperately craved. He was too busy having relationships with other women. Stephanie realized that she would never be able to satisfy his deep need for other women. Her illusions shattered. Nicolas was not as romantic as he appeared to be. He was not as strong and masculine as she imagined him to be. He would never change for her. 

Totally devastated, Stephanie ended filing for divorce. 

Stephanie’s emotional roller-coaster ride of romantic fantasy followed by disillusionment is the consequence of the image she projects onto men.  

If our relationship with our parents was healthy, if our emotional needs were met, we normally project onto men the positive experiences that we had with our parents.

However, if for one reason or another our emotional needs were not met, we will project our negative experiences, in order to recreate the situation and this time, get it right. This way, we can get from the man we are in a relationship with what our parents didn’t give us and prove to ourselves that we are enough.

Many people are not aware that they come from a dysfunctional family. They discover it later in life, sometimes accidentally, when they have to deal with their relationships issues and addictions. This is the case for Stephanie : 

On the outside, Stephanie seems to have a very positive, even fusional relationship with her father, who she describes as fun, handsome and very charismatic. He in return adores her and if he loves both Stephanie and her sister, Stephanie is clearly his favourite. However, her relationship with her mother is not as positive. For her, if her father is the fun one, her mother is the frustrated one. For Stephanie, her mother is always complaining about something, always stressed and way more demanding than her father. She can’t stand her mother.  She even remembers that one day, she went so far as to tell her that she hated her. 

Stephanie was 11 when her parents divorced. Since then, she and her sister had lived with their mother and stepfather, and visited their father during WE and holidays. 

Stephanie grew up with parents who were constantly fighting in front of her. As we can imagine, not only being in the middle of their frequent fights was incredibly painful for her. Stephanie needed to feel loved and taken care of by herparents. She needed to feel emotionally safe but both of them were not emotionally available for her. They were here, but not here. 

For a child, this situation is so devastating that in order to move through it, he needs to distort the reality. 

In the midst of this chaos, Stephanie needed to feel at least supported and taken care by one of her parents. She had in front of her a father who appeared to be calm and laid back and a mother who was constantly angry and frustrated. So, for her, her father was the winner.

Stephanie’s father was a womanizer. She knew about the affairs that he had while he was with her mother but for her, her father could do no wrong. She took pride on his popularity with women and even talked very openly about it with him. 

But her idealized relationship with her father was not rooted in reality. The strong, intense relationship they had was not healthy. He was actually self-absorbed, preoccupied with his image and the pursuit of the women he wanted to bed. 

In order to boost their ego and get the validation that their wives cannot give them, men like Stephanie’s father turn to their playful and innocent daughter. They give extra attention to their daughter, who becomes addicted to this relationship, so much that she sees her father like a god. In this relationship, the daughter is more treated like a playmate or a mistress than a daughter.

As Jung famously stated it, “What remains unconscious doesn’t dissolve but, rather, resurfaces in our lives as fate or fortune” .

It is quite easy to make the link between the distorted reality that Stephanie had about her parents (the image) and her desperate and illusory relationships (the result of her projections).

As a child, she wasn’t mature enough to understand what was really going on. She wasn’t able to reflect and understand that her mother was actually reacting to her father’s behaviour. 

When her mother divorced him and before she remarried, she was the only one to provide for her daughters while their father filed for bankruptcy. When Stephanie and her sister spent WE with their father, it was easy for him to have the fun parent role, as their mother was on surviving mode, doing everything she could to give her daughters a bright future.

Stephanie has not been protected by her mother either. Despite the fact that she remarried, Stephanie’s mother remained invested in the war against her ex-husband, including her daughter in her frequent fights with him.

 As a woman, Stephanie turned her attention to men with whom she could recreate the relationship she had with her father. This way, she could succeed with them as her mother had failed with her father. But she was continually disappointed in them. Because the relationship she was looking for doesn’t exist.

Also, by refusing to see men for who they really were, Stephanie could keep her father inappropriate behaviour hidden from her awareness. This way, she didn’t have to face the deep, profound pain associated to reality. 

Stephanie’s relationship pattern is only one among an infinite number.

The image we project onto men depends on several parameters, according to : 

  • Our gender,
  • Our birth order,
  • Our personality,
  • Our parents’ relationship dynamics,
  • Our parents’ personalities,
  • Our circumstances,
  • Etc…

An unresolved trauma will manifest itself differently in our relationships, depending on the image we hold.

A girl in the same situation as Stephanie may take her mother’s side and reject her father. She may be drawn to men who are the polar opposite to her father (at least on the surface). 

Another girl may fear that she will be controlled by a man and never marry.  

Projecting is not a bad thing in itself, and as we do it automatically, it is useless to try to stop our projections onto others. 

The only way,

  • to stop our destructive relationship patterns,
  • to experience smoother relationships…

…is to change the image we project onto men.

And that’s what we are going to focus on the next post, which I will try to publish later this week 🙂


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