Updated: Feb 27
No dog ever said thank you. Or ever expressed gratitude in any way. I’ve had dogs most of my life, and I love dogs, and I’ve given my dogs bits of beef or bacon loads of times. Now they’ve always been wildly appreciative, no doubt about that! Coming back for seconds only seconds later. But if you could put words in a dog’s head—and you can’t—the only words in my dog’s head at the time would be “Wow!” and “More!”
Welcome to the idea of repertoire, and it’s central to the question that’s bothered so many of us for so long: how much and in what way are our parents responsible for the problems we have in our marriage now? And if we hadn’t been wondering about this, our partners might well have set us down this path during an argument: “Boy, your parents did a really good job on you, didn’t they?”
Repertoire is the things we can do. Armpit farts are not in my repertoire. Put a gun to my head, and even then I cannot produce an armpit fart. Nor can I walk on my hands. Nor can I make puff pastry or speak Iroquois. Then there are the things I can do. We all have those too. I can make scrambled eggs. And if I can’t unscramble an egg, I have it on good authority that no one else can either.
Now here’s where our parents come in. The most important, impactful thing we take away from our families growing up is a repertoire of marital and child-rearing behaviors:
Ways to behave, things to do that we see work and are helpful
Ways to behave, things to do that we see don’t work and aren’t helpful
Ignorance (not learning) ways to behave, things to do that would work and would be helpful if we knew them. We don’t see these at all
In other words, our family of origin is like a school. Our parents show us the things that are in their repertoire, and that becomes our repertoire. So, for example, in my family growing up, when my mother found my stepfather uncooperative, she’d start yelling and hurling insults. And he’d do the same thing back. Now interestingly—and all too normally—that became something for me that was BOTH a way to behave that worked—because it got short-term results sometimes—and a way to behave that didn’t work—because it made a mess and I hated the way it made me feel. It was the only bit of relationship repertoire I took away from my growing up years—it was all I had—and at the same time it was the one thing I didn’t want to do.
So, yes, our families growing up are like a school. But it’s an informal, not thought out, not deliberate, not planned, not effectiveness-based school. Neither my uneducated parents nor most even highly educated parents have a repertoire of behaviors they use in front of their children for the express purpose of teaching them skills that will be useful when those children grow up, form relationships, and have children of their own.
So where do our parents’ repertoires come from? Mostly family habits that have been passed down through the generations, plus family ideologies and cultural norms that support those habits. That’s IT. Think sociology, not psychology. I used to think my mom was a nut. It was only as I entered middle age that I had the scholarship and life experience to see that this woman—a Polish, Jewish, peasant, farm woman with a fourth-grade education who was sent to work as a servant at another family at the age of ten, who married and had her first child at sixteen, who managed to survive the Holocaust by her wits—was JUST LIKE all the other women of her background. They were all as much alike as supermarket gingerbread men. And they all had pretty much the same repertoire.
How could I blame her? It would be like blaming an entire world.
And of course for parents of a certain level of education, their repertoire comes from the parenting books they read. A lot of kids today are brought up less by their parents than by their parents’ parenting books. But as we all know, or should know, the advice in those books achieves its popularity based on its appeal to parents, not necessarily on its effectiveness. And the reason parents of a certain generation find certain kinds of advice appealing brings us right back to the ideologies and culture of the moment.
Yes, of course, things aren’t always that simple. The school of our parents is for sure one whose effectiveness is shaped by the degree to which the parents share the same vision and cultural background or not. If their visions and backgrounds vary, then who knows what the combination will add up to. A more varied repertoire to be sure, but also one with more mixed messages.
And I have to say, lower down on the list of things that affect us will be each parent’s degree of neuroticism. Now of course if one or both of your parents had a serious mental illness, then this changes things. But most of the time this isn’t the case, even when we think it is. As with my mother, most of the time, what we think of as our parents’ insanity is really just where they came from.
So, okay. We grow up, and a repertoire is handed on to us. “This is how I was brought up.” Now what do we do with that?
The story of our marriages, the fate of our efforts as parents all depends on what we do with the repertoire we were given.
And for that, you must wait. More insights and answers in the next post.
It should be clear that Why Couples Fight is so needed because the understanding in it, and the tools it offers is not in the repertoire of most families. We’re bad at resolving conflict because we didn’t know how to avoid power struggles any more than our parents did. And their parents didn’t know how to avoid power struggles either. And on and on, way, way back. But this all can change, starting here and now with you.
And now you, by what you learn in Why Couple Fight, have a chance to pass on a repertoire of things to do to resolve conflict that’ll make your kids champs when they grow up and have relationships of their own.