Look, listen and try not to learn

Wonder why your relationships keep breaking down? Take a good look at how your parents got on, says Annabelle Thorpe

The recently deceased Marquess of Bristol, before squandering the bulk of his inheritance, had all the superficial trappings of a luxurious life: a country estate, Savile Row suits, priceless antiques and his own considerable fortune. But all the money in the world couldn't buy Frederick William John Augustus Hervey love - his mother left soon after he was born and he was made a ward of court. "My father had no emotions at all really," he said once, and the stepmother he grew close to obviously felt the same, for she left his father too.

Although it seems likely that the Marquess died last week because of his long-term drug habit, the truth is that any long-term substance abuse is usually only the manifestation of other problems. Hervey appears to have suffered a loveless and unstable childhood, and replayed the failure of his father's relationship with his own short, unhappy marriage.

The life and death of the Marquess of Bristol may be an extreme example of the damage an unhappy childhood can do, but there are very few of us who escape being affected by our parents' marriage in some way or another. The interaction between parents is our first glimpse of the relationship we will have in the future and, for the first 10 years or so of our lives at least, it is assumed that what happens in the family home is the norm.

"The state of the parental marriage is one of the factors that forms a basis of the work we do with couples," says Judy Cunnington, director of operations at London Marriage Guidance. "When counselling couples, we generally ask for a description of their parents' relationship and help each partner to examine whether the problems they are having may be related to their perception of their parents' marriage. In many ways it is impossible not to be affected by your parents - obviously with something like a divorce there can be serious, long-term effects - but even a relationship that was generally fairly stable can produce problems."

David Mills, a 28-year-old solicitor, knows all too well that re-enacting a parental relationship can cause strife. It wasn't until his girlfriend threatened to leave him that he looked closely at his behaviour in their relationship and realised it mirrored the attitudes of his father. "I always thought Mum and Dad had a good marriage, but looking back now I can see they were never exactly close. They both had full-time jobs, and lived very independent lives. As a child I never saw them hug or kiss - and there was little open affection towards me or my brother. There was no hostility between them, but no warmth either."

Although the lack of affection upset David, he maintained a similar coldness in his own relationship - without even realising it. "In the evenings my girlfriend and I never curled up in front of the television and I'd never touch her or kiss in public. I'd hug her if she was upset, but I never really knew how to comfort her. I simply didn't know how to be close. I'd had no example from my parents - their relationship seemed to work without openly displaying affection, so I suppose subconsciously I didn't see any need to be different."

"The family is the first social group we ever belong to," says Dr Christopher Clulow, director of the Tavistock Marital Studies Institute, "and many of the assumptions and preconceptions we have about relationships have their roots in infancy and childhood, when we learn from the people in that group. From interaction with our parents we learn whether people are reliable, whether we can confide in them, whether they are interested in us - and countless other observations which then form a blueprint which we tend to rely on to help negotiate relationships later in life."

In terms of genetics, it is impossible not to reproduce some aspects of our parental relationship, but often problems can arise if there was a perceived imbalance in the interaction between parents, an unresolved problem that is carried over into the new relationship. All too often this is where relationships stumble, where women are denounced as irrational and men as unfeeling. In our own minds we are ensuring that we do not undergo the same humiliation or embarrassment that we watched one parent go through at the hands of the other; in reality the situation is unlikely to recur, as both partners are different people.

"I have destroyed relationships by being unable to deal with criticism or any form of mockery - however jokey," admits Alice Carlisle, who almost split up with her boyfriend after a series of huge rows.

"It took me years before I realised that I was determined not to fall into the same role as my mum. Dad always had the upper hand in their relationship, always putting her down a bit in public, or making jokes at her expense. When Jon, my boyfriend, made a quip about me, I'd go ballistic and hurl all sorts of dreadful insults at him. Any form of criticism, or joke at my expense, and I would completely lose my temper."

"Whatever children have become sensitised to in their parents' marriage will instantly be inflammatory in their own relationship," says Dr Clulow, "and this is a particular problem when people reinvent the parental relationship with their own partner. In this way, the anger and resentment felt towards the parent are actually directed towards the innocent partner - and this can cause serious problems."

"After a particularly bad row we sat and talked for hours and I realised that most of the anger I was venting at John was actually anger at my dad for being so mean to my mum," says Alice. "But I also felt let down by Jon. When I first met him he seemed incredibly kind and gentle and I was very attracted to that. Discovering that he could also be a bit sarcastic was a real shock to the system."

"Often people are attracted to others who seem to offer what was missing from the parental relationship - in this case, kindness," says Judy Cunnington. "For the first few months - the honeymoon period - all the focus is on the positive characteristics that will insure there is no repeat of the troubles perceived in the parental relationship. But when it becomes apparent that there are sides to this new person that aren't all positive, unresolved differences can appear again and start to cause trouble."

The inherent problem with a relationship is that both people come from a different background - a particular culture - and as such the relationship we enter into is cross-cultural. The problems and struggles we experience are of those two cultures fighting for supremacy - whose "normal" is the right "normal"? Only by forming an autonomous, history-free third culture can a new relationship hope to be free of parental influence.

So, are there any parents who escape being blamed for their children's woes? Even the happiest and most balanced of parental relationships can leave their children with problems. "My parents have been married for 35 years and they still get on brilliantly," says Juliette Walker. "They work together as well and seem totally contented. My problem is worrying that I will never have a relationship that good - I end up feeling inadequate. I look at my boyfriend and think: will we be that happy in 35 years? It's like, if I can't have a marriage that successful, I'd rather not have one at all."

"No one can really escape their parental influences," says Dr Clulow, "and people shouldn't try. They make us who we are. But for most people, the influence does lessen as they get older. All of us need to realise that our parents have feet of clay - that no marriage is perfect, that parents are just people like us, only older."

Perhaps Philip Larkin had it right; perhaps they do f*** you up, your mum and dad. But then, having someone else to blame means never having to admit it's your own fault, or take responsibility for your own failures, as those in celebworld constantly prove.

Time and again, the fetishes and the failings of the rich and famous are blamed on parental neglect. From Prince Charles to the Marquess of Bristol, fathers have been wheeled out to explain everything from emotional coldness to the need to obliterate the senses chemically. My mother regularly told me and my siblings, when we blamed her and Dad for some shortcoming of our own, that a parent's place is in the wrong. As usual, it seems, she was right.

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