Years ago, when I was doing marriage preparation classes with a colleague, he told a story about a conversation he had with his then pregnant wife about what she was looking forward to sharing with their firstborn child.  When Tom (not his real name) asked his wife Suzy (not her real name) what she was looking forward to?  She responded.

 “I am looking forward to the bedtime rituals.”

 To which Tom replied, “You mean like brushing teeth?’ 

“No,” Suzy said, “Like reading a book, singing a song and saying prayers.”

“You aren’t thinking of doing all three of those things in one night…I mean how long will this take?” Tom asked.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I am not being ridiculous. That will take like 30 minutes per kid.  We just won’t do this for every kid.”

“Of, course we will.”

And a fight ensued.  What Tom went on to explain was that he grew up on a farm and there were 13 kids in his family.  When it was time for bed, his mother would pick up the baby and put the baby to bed and go to bed herself.  His oldest sister helped put any toddler to bed and everyone else was on his or her own.  He said in the winter, he frequently fell asleep on the floor in front of the fireplace.  In Suzy’s family, she was the eldest of three daughters all born a year apart and in her family of origin there was indeed a book read, a song sung and prayers said before all three girls were tucked into bed for the night.

Tom stated that he and Suzy had several arguments like that especially when they were first married.  That is when Tom and I introduced the concept of The Family EchoThe Family Echo is when the way something was done in the family of origin produces expectations, assumptions and interpretations of behavior in current family dynamics. It can also produce judgements about our partners because they behave a certain way.  

     Here is another example of a Family Echo.  Let’s say, in my husband’s family of origin his mother worked outside the home and dinner was catch as catch can but 11:30 am every Sunday morning his mother would fix a huge breakfast.  In my family of origin, my Mom cooked every meal except Sunday morning when my Dad would cook a big breakfast.   One Saturday night, my husband says how about a cooked Sunday breakfast tomorrow? Great, I say.   We are both excited and imagining that the other will get up and cook that Sunday brunch just as our parents had done. Sunday morning comes, and we are both on the couch at 11:15 and neither has moved and instead of talking about what we were expecting we are both getting angry.  Finally, my husband sighs and says, “Aren’t you going to get up and make breakfast?” 

“Me, really. Fine.  I’ll just go make breakfast.”

The assumption is that the other one will be cooking because the expectation is if we say cooked Sunday breakfast it will happen like it did at our family of origin. The interpretation of behavior could be “Why is she being lazy?” or “He forgot.  Now I have to do it.  I do everything around here.” or  “I was looking forward to this and now it is ruined.” Judgements might arise such asShe is lazy.” or “He never remembers the things that mean so much to me.”

The difficulty with the Family Echo is couples don’t talk about where the assumptions and expectations originated but assign blame and fight about them anyway. We place these expectations on our partner without explanation.  Unresolved expectations can lead to resentments.  The way something is done in your family of origin is just one way of doing things and doesn’t have to be interpreted as the right way of doing things.  Even though the above example is fictitious there is truth to how tricky this can be for couples because the expectations are not just about behaviors but the expectations can have deep emotional connection.

There is a case study of a woman who when she and her husband talked before they were married, they decided that it would not matter who made more money in the family because any money that came in was their money together.  When they first were married, they were poor and then as each of them grew in their careers they both made the same amount.  This worked great until she got a tremendous job opportunity and she began to make twice as much as her husband.  After a while she grew angry and resentful when they discussed money.  Through some internal exploration, she realized that she had such an emotional connection with her father being the provider and she felt safe and protected as a child.  She was equating her husband’s love and capability with what she experienced with her father.  Intellectually she knew her husband was loving and protective, but it didn’t feel that way anymore.  She was able to utilize some CBT and to acknowledge all the ways her husband did provide, and she was able to adjust expectations and assumptions.

   Clients have asked what can I do about this? How do I know if a fight or argument is about a Family Echo? Three things help couples understand if they have experienced a Family Echo. First, is to check out expectations and assumptions around an event.  This may happen after the event became a “fail” in communications.  A fail is ok.  It happens to everyone. Ask where did that expectation come from and why was there an assumption it would turn out a certain way? 

      Second, it is important to pay attention to language.  If you find yourself saying, “you know my Mom worked every day outside the home and the house was still clean.”   Besides an unfair comparison to your mother, there is a blatant judgement on your spouse.  We equate what we experienced in our family of origin with home, love and marriage can become the emotionally measuring stick for our own family.  When it isn’t the same it can feel like we are failing.

   Third, watch for resentments that happen around your spouses or significant other’s behavior. Unspoken resentments breed interpretations about spouse’s motive and intention that may not be true at all.  When you sit down with your partner or significant other and you are sharing about this talk about the feelings behind the behavior of your family of origin.  Check out what the motivation and intent was in what happened.  Don’t assume.

     One case study revealed that a woman watched her Dad come home from work and every night and he would stop at the door and kiss his wife and hug her. When she got married her husband came home and she would rush to the door and he’d say, ‘hi” and head to a shower and then go play games on the computer for thirty minutes.  To her it felt like “he wasn’t being loving” or “wasn’t glad to see her” or “couldn’t be romantic.”  When they discussed the problem, he was baffled.  “I just need some time when I first get home to destress.”  When she began to talk about her parents, she realized this was a family echo.  His behavior wasn’t an indicator of his affection.  He realized after his destressed that it was important to check in and give attention and/or affection.  She realized that the connection she sought would be had but it wasn’t going to look like the way she had witnessed in her family of origin.      

-Michelle Goodwin, LPC