Opinion

Bad marriage? Check your feelings about Mom and Dad.

If we learn to tame the instinct to flee our parents, we can grow closer to our spouse and kids.

Many couples believe their marriage is fine because they seldom argue. Yet their love life may have dried up, or they may have "married" their kids by making them the center of their lives.

Couples who wonder why they don't talk much anymore might take a look at their relationship with their own parents. It turns out that people who distance themselves from their parents also tend to distance themselves from their spouses.

One of the best things we can do for our marriages – and our children – is to spend more time with our parents.

Americans may not realize the price we pay for today's transient lifestyle. Human beings are social animals, but couples today are more isolated than in previous generations. We move often, and can no longer drop in to say "hello" to our parents, or meet at the local watering hole with friends or relatives, as we used to.

In Europe and developing nations, where three generations of a family often live in close proximity, divorce and addictions are lower, and mental health is higher.

These nations may envy our wealth, but they don't envy our family life.

Most of us aren't aware that the "flight" part of our instinctive fight-or-flight response may cause us to avoid our parents. We mistakenly believe that distancing from our parents is evidence of our emotional maturity – that we've "out-grown our parents." But if we were truly mature, we wouldn't have to fight-or-flee our parents.

It's easy to spot our fight-response – when we argue with our parents, for example. But we don't realize that avoiding our parents could actually be our flight-response. Distancing ourselves from our parents seems mature and peaceful on the surface, but our flight instinct is just as primitive and reactive as our fight instinct.

How we leave the nest may have a bigger impact on our future happiness than we realize. Many of us begin to avoid our mom and dad because we are so emotionally enmeshed with them that being around our parents drives us crazy. We may see only two options: 1. Fighting to change our parents' behavior, or 2. Fleeing the discomfort of their presence.

The problem is, running away doesn't solve anything, and what we resist persists. As we grow older, many of us notice that, despite our determination to be different from our parents, we become more like them every day – sometimes in ways we're not proud of.

The way we act in our families of origin tends to become the way we act in our adult relationships. Couples who were already conditioned as children to "keep the peace" by avoiding unpleasant issues may end up talking to each other less, and drifting apart. That's why our flight-response can be even more costly than fighting, if it causes the slow, unconscious erosion of our relationships.

However, there is a third option besides fight or flight: mindfulness.

Even if our parents inadvertently "hard-wired" us to create distance in our relationships, we don't have to accept that as destiny. We can renew our relationships with our parents, and in the process, "rewire" those harmful tendencies.

The rewards are rich, because if we learn how to manage our flight-instinct in relation to our parents, the change will have a ripple effect through our other relationships. That's win-win for us, our spouses, and our children.

The first step on this healing path is to understand the basis of our behavior. Animals act purely on instinct. Humans, though, have a choice. We can react instinctively, or we can respond thoughtfully. Like animals, when humans feel anxious, our fight-or-flight instinct tends to take over, and we overreact.

But, unlike animals, we can use the thinking part of our brains to take back control of our behavior.

When we are with people who make us anxious, we don't realize we've left our brains on the "auto-pilot" of our base instincts.

Self-awareness can break this cycle. The recognition that we're operating on autopilot is a victory in itself. The simple act of noticing switches on our thinking mind, which turns off the autopilot of our base instincts.

Every time we observe our fight-or-flight instincts as we interact with our parents, we are re-wiring some of the hard-wiring we received as kids. So, learning to observe our instincts helps us to think before we act, which can make the difference between a knee-jerk reaction and a thoughtful response.

As a family coach, I've witnessed the power of mindfulness to restore damaged relationships.

Take James and Gail (not their real names). "It's like, before, my tombstone could have read, 'My life was my husband's fault,'" Gail says. "But then I noticed that in my relationship with my parents, I was polite but distant – often just going-through-the-motions with them. And I realized I was doing the same thing with James."

"I felt tremendous relief, because now I knew I didn't have to put my kids and myself through the hell of a divorce," Gail remembers. "Instead of focusing on what was wrong with James, I focused on noticing when I was in fight-or-flight mode. Now, we make up much more quickly after an argument, and I don't carry all that bitterness because I know it's nothing personal – just our fight-or-flight running the show. And it's a bonus that I actually look forward to time with my mom!"

Knowledge is power. And God wasn't joking when he commanded us to "Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land...."

Honoring our relationship with our parents is not just about spiritual enlightenment. It's a proven means of bettering our own lives – and the lives of our spouses and kids – right here and now.

David Code is a family coach, Episcopal priest, and author of "To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First."

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