You can dominate a competent partner

The influence of the families of origin on the partnership

Genetic inheritance of the families of origin

Families of origin pass on their genetic inheritance to the next generation. This relates to many predispositions to physical traits, but also to the neuropsychic foundations of personality traits and other psychological traits1 and also applies when parents and children do not know each other, as is the rule with sperm or egg donation, for example2. It should be noted that genetic predispositions rarely have clear consequences for specific behavior. Genes control how nerve cells develop and "interconnect" with one another. It does not matter whether the synapses that are decisive for the interconnections in the brain are influenced by genes or the environment3. Some people, for example with a short allele of the serotonin transporter gene, are more excitable and harder to calm down. The serotonin transporter gene can through Sensory experiences such as switching stress on or off (gene expression); the nerve endings then produce less serotonin, which means that its balancing, calming effect is lost. "Screaming children" affected by this are annoying to deal with and therefore often receive less and less attentive attention, which is why their bond with their parents usually develops worse4.

Some are also genetically determined Partner selection criteriawho should help one
to find reproductive healthy partners. For example, regardless of culture, men pay attention to a favorable waist-to-hip ratio or pronounced breasts in women as external signs of fertility. Women, especially in their fertile cycle phase, unconsciously attract potential partners through the imperceptible odor of their pheromones (especially oxytocin, which acts as a hormone as well as a neurotransmitter).

Men have a sexually provocative effect through broad shoulders and distinctive facial features, their pheromones and dominant appearance, which indicates a high testosterone level, which in turn stands for a well-functioning immune system. For both sexes, indications for health and "good genes" are provided by pure skin, an even body structure, shiny eyes and hair, etc. Such characteristics of attractiveness activate erotic interest in the brain. When potential reproductive partners meet, an unconscious check is carried out within seconds to determine whether the other person is suitable for mating. During their fertile phase, women react particularly to masculine, dominant men who promise potency and "good genes" and are therefore sexually attractive5. Outside of the fertile phase or when taking the “pill”, they prefer friendly, reliable men who are good fathers and companions. Physical attractiveness is less important.

According to some studies, partnerships run differently depending on the cycle conditions when choosing a partner. With the good companions chosen under the effect of the "pill" is that sexual Satisfaction lower that general However, couple satisfaction is higher and the separation rate is lower6.
Predisposition does not necessarily lead to special determinations, since many genes can be switched on or off through experience. Early experience is particularly important.

Early experiences

Sensory impressions trigger specific neuronal reactions that can combine to form complex neuropsychic networks. If these are activated repeatedly, the respective neural connections are opened up more and more and more and more stable schemes emerge. These are combined with corresponding model ideas about the relevant situation or relationship (see below) and the resulting expectations and behaviors, which are increasingly differentiated in the course of development. This creates ever more complex brain structures. Development begins in the womb and is influenced by diet, hormonal and sensory framework conditions, which affects gene expression and brain development7.

How Experiences are processed, largely determine the psychological ones that are anchored in the brain in its own neural circuits and networked with one another basic needs8. One differentiates the needs according to Orientation and control, to Pleasure / avoidance of pain, to binding and after Self-affirmation. They activate each other when one of them is threatened. Unpleasant surprises, for example, activate the need for control and lead to the inhibition of dopamine neurons, which makes learning new connections more difficult9. Basic psychological needs have different effects in the individual development phases. If an infant can gain control over displeasure, fear, cold, etc. with the help of their caregivers, for example, a feeling of coherence develops10 of clarity, meaningfulness and control, the child feels taken seriously and important; otherwise there is a feeling of loss of control and helplessness. In order to protect themselves as well as possible, the child learns to include previously neutral cues in their early warning system and, after a short time, also reacts to stimuli from the vicinity of sources of danger. Here one speaks of conditioned reflexes. In threatening or disappointing contexts, people become suspicious and ignore new experiences. The resulting unconsciously effective avoidance schemes develop into an insecure attachment style in around a third of the population (which, however, can be modified over time through positive experience). According to the scheme, those affected tend to avoid relationships even where there is no threat of impairment in order to adapt reality to their model ideas (transference11). Couples have a higher risk of conflict, especially if both partners have an insecure attachment style12.

To prefer securely bound Strategies that integrate conflicts in order to achieve solutions that are as constructive as possible tend to be anxious-ambivalent to give in too quickly, anxious-avoidant against dominating. Indifferent-avoiders prefer to avoid the conflict. Long-term negative attachment and relationship experiences increase the risk of psychological disorders, which - if tough criteria are used - affect around a third of the total population13 . Mental disorders put stress on dealing with oneself and others and increase the susceptibility to conflict.

The direct interconnection of the basic needs with the alarm or reward system in the brain stem without detour via the cerebrum helps survival: In the event of a threat, it is possible to react at lightning speed with automatically activated reflexes that make the organism ready to flee or fight by using all the energy required for this Muscle groups is supplied. At the same time, less important areas of the body, such as parts of the cerebrum, are currently deactivated, which impairs the ability to remember and think. You “lose your mind” under stress. At the same time, the amygdala is further activated by feedback loops, so that the stress builds up. The more often and more intensely a child has such experiences, the stronger the corresponding neural pathways and a special sensitivity and a specialized "stress brain" develop. Extreme or permanent stress during pregnancy or in early childhood can damage the sensitive brain tissue due to the associated glutamate release. Pregnancy complications, premature birth or critical situations such as death, unemployment or accidents in the family also harbor development risks for increased excitability and difficult calming due to the associated stress levels. The neural interconnections described are stored in implicit memory systems and are in principle neither perceptible nor rememberable. This limits the possibilities for self-reflection and thus for willful change14. Since the brain is remarkably flexible, even traumatized people with well-established avoidance schemes have a chance: If they later make enough satisfactory experiences in good relationships or therapy, they can build up new neuropsychic schemes and alternative brain structures. The stress genes are / remain switched off and an increased willingness to be excited is avoided, the gene switches are set more robustly so that those affected are more balanced15.

Are children rejected by their parents, e.g. because they undesirable or have undesirable characteristics (gender, appearance, etc.), they are often looked after less reliably and left alone more often and for longer or given into the hands of others. This makes an insecure bond more likely, especially if this happens in the first three years of life. Those affected are later more susceptible to self-esteem problems, emotional irritability, depression, physical complaints, aggressiveness and contact difficulties as well as unconscious orders and requests for reparations to the partner. People with unfavorable experiences in their families of origin are later more likely to be less accepting and less empathic with themselves and their partners. This increases your risk of couple problems or divorce16.

Life concepts and models

With their way of life and their lifestyle, families convey detailed model ideas to their children about themselves, the environment and living together in the individual areas of life. Become of it expectations and Evaluation criteria derived from interaction partners and situations. These model ideas, also called inner work models, scripts or life concepts, act like stage directions and become over time automated and as Schemes saved. The importance of model ideas and the associated schemes in the brain is that they, as life concepts, form the basis for shaping one's own life and for assessing people and situations and, for example, determine which emotions are triggered. Success and well-being essentially depend on their closeness to reality, freedom from contradictions and the ability to consensus. Schemas come in the Attachment and relationship style17, in Habitus18 ("how to act"), Traditions, which regulate what has to be done how and when, and Rituals19 to carry. The automated schema control20 has the advantage of being able to act fluently and reliably in everyday life without thinking and is therefore an essential element of partnership and family familiarity and stability. However, this family inheritance leads to problems if the schematic behavior no longer meets the requirements, especially if the schemas of the participants are incompatible. Since schemas are often neither consciously nor deliberately changeable, discussions or decisions to change behavior are usually not enough.

How the dowry of the families of origin actually affects couple relationships depends on the personal characteristics and interaction of the partners in their respective system context. Many research results indicate a tendency to repeat the traditional models. Our studies showed that the couple relationships of the parents, but also those of grandparents and other relatives, are important role models for the following generations. If both partners have experienced conflicting or distant relationships in their families of origin, they usually lack constructive partnership models and partnership-relevant competencies. Often they are more familiar with destructive approaches from their families of origin, which they then reproduce in the absence of alternatives. In the context of demand-withdrawal spirals, which are considered to be essential predictors of separation, women in particular make the demands, men tend to withdraw, which leads to even stronger demands from women21. The different closeness and distance needs of men and women also play a role here. In some studies it has been shown that men feel overwhelmed and emotionally flooded more quickly during conflicts due to a lack of behavioral alternatives, especially if this was already the case with their fathers. Some women already knew the male withdrawal behavior from their fathers, which on the one hand is relevant as a partner selection criterion (see below) and on the other hand can exacerbate the current partner conflict as an unpleasant memory of the family of origin. This can be seen as a transgenerationally passed on susceptibility, which is also relevant to the explanation of divorce traditions. A low level of quality in parental marriage has repeatedly shown itself to be a risk factor for separation and divorce in the next generation22.

According to our observations, such effects increase with the accumulation of conflicting or separated couple relationships in the families of origin, as these influence each other and weaken the functionality of the family system. "Mothers' sons" and "father's daughters" with overly tight ties to the opposite-sex parent have problems in their partnerships, especially if the parents themselves had conflicting relationships or were divorced. If parents cannot satisfy their needs in their relationships, they tend to become attached to keep their children and to make them substitute partners (Parentification23). The partnership tasks assigned to the children can range from emotional affection to sexual abuse. In this way, however, children become rivals of their parent of the opposite sex and compete with them for the role of partner, which affects the relationship. With such age-inappropriate tasks, children are quickly overwhelmed. Since affected children are often unable to break loose from such entangled ties with their parents of the opposite sex for a lifetime, later conflicts can easily arise between the child-in-law and the parents-in-law on the one hand and the partners on the other. In this way, another model is passed on as a social legacy to shift partnership functions to the parent-child relationship in the case of limited functionality of the couple relationship.

Such relationship traditions can be clearly seen in the family tree (genogram; see Fig. 1; see Kaiser, 1989; 2008, 2015) of the Erich family: distant couple relationships go hand in hand with closely entangled relationships between mothers and children as well as conflicting relationships between fathers and Sons who win the competition for their mother. In this family, sons cannot separate themselves in order to be free for their own couple relationship. The close relationship with the sons leads the mothers to reject their daughters-in-law. The couple relationships are therefore insufficiently demarcated and prone to disruption.












Fig. 1: Genogram of the Erich family

Many couples from poorly functioning families of origin resolve not to make the same mistakes again and to do everything better. Such projects often fail because conscious decisions are not enough to override the schemes that have been established over the decades (see below).

Divorce of the parents

Separation and divorce of the parents make children permanently insecure, especially if they are involved in the parents' disputes and their relationships with both parents are hindered. In about 2/3 of the cases the children find themselves with the changes within about 3 years, about 1/3 are permanently impaired. It is particularly unfavorable if, after the separation, parents still have protracted arguments in which the child is included and they fail to cooperate constructively at the parent level. Due to such backgrounds, the risk of getting divorced yourself increases up to four times24. Such children often fear for years that they will be unable to bond and that they will make mistakes in their own partnerships similar to those made by their parents. They have a more negative image of women and men, which also has consequences for them Self-concept Has.

Influence of family type

Depending on what image single parents convey to children from the parent living outside of them after separation and how contact with them is formed, the social legacy is different. If single parents do not enter into a new partnership, the children are given a model of a family model without a parental partnership (Single parent family).
If single parents team up with a new partner, one is created Stepfamily, for children from different previous relationships one compound stepfamily ("Patchwork family"25). If partners come from families of different types (e.g. divorce, step, foster or adoptive families) who differ in their specific characteristics, structures, history and dynamics, they necessarily also have different models of partnership and family. They have different experiences and loyalties, often financially dependent on the parent living outside of them, and as a result, a lack of common family boundaries.Although this diversity also entails resources, it requires a high level of communication effort, which, however, can only be mastered with sufficient competence to cope with dialogue and often not without professional support. If the couple relationships in stepfamilies are of shorter duration, a model of partnership is conveyed that is not characterized by continuity. If the couple relationships are conflictual, the partnership model also turns out accordingly. The likelihood of this is considerable, since life in stepfamilies, due to its history-related complexity, places much higher demands on the couples who are also stepparents. Remarried parents therefore have an additional increased risk of divorce. The “good will” to do better in one's own couple relationship than the parents often does not seem to have much effect without professional support26.

Partner choice

Even if the families of origin in the western cultural area usually no longer choose the partner for their children, they influence the choice of partner not only through their genetic heritage, but also through early decisions. Where, in which culture under which socio-economic conditions people grow up, with which peers they come into contact, which interests they develop and which educational path they take, is largely determined by the family of origin. These influences remain relevant even if the actual partner selection takes place on the Internet or far away from home. Various studies have shown that many people continue to find their partners in their immediate environment at home, at university or at work. Wherever potential partners meet, the mechanisms of genetic-evolutionary inheritance come into play again27.

Since the willingness and ability to cooperate constructively as parents and materially secure the family in a reliable manner are important for the successful rearing of offspring, status characteristics, but also a consensus about important concepts of life and coexistence, play an important role. Therefore, from families of origin mostly common Emphasizes beliefs regarding the value system and worldview. These criteria are associated with the familial as well as the individual self-image. If the prospective child-in-law does not meet expectations, difficulties can arise. The partners then easily get into conflicts of loyalty with their families of origin and with each other, the rejected daughters-in-law or sons-in-law react for their part, the two families of origin stand against each other28. This can have consequences.

Families of origin as primary reference systems for the couple

Since most couples remain closely linked to their families of origin for life, they are each other's sources and recipients of social support, but also of restrictions and control. According to some studies, the relationships between parents and children are even mostly tighter than the partner. Due to entangled parent-child relationships and the intensive give and take that is often practiced, the generations often do not detach enough from one another to be able to concentrate sufficiently on their own partnership and family; the generation boundaries are too weak for this, which often leads to dependencies and conflicts (individuation problems29; see the genogram in Fig. 1): According to the ideal of romantic love, most people expect their partner to come first and not to rank behind their mother-in-law or father-in-law. This leads to a conflict between competing relationship models and the associated role models and priorities of those affected. The question is whether the family of origin or the partnership has priority. If the family of origin does not convey that the couple relationship comes first, young people can easily get into conflicts of loyalty in their partnership. This then leads to conflicts with the partner on the one hand and the family of origin and the in-laws on the other. According to our findings, problems in in-law relationships occur particularly quickly when individual participants are emotionally irritable and not capable of conflicting enough and the couple relationships are already stressed in other ways. Many in-laws used to have bad experiences with their own families of origin and in-laws and were unable to distinguish themselves and transfer to the next generation what models for relationships and communication they have experienced and internalized in their families of origin and their own in-laws30.

Attachments beyond death

Relationships with the family of origin do not end with the death of parents or grandparents. Rather, they can continue to have an influence through donations, bequests, dispositions and the inheritance, not infrequently of considerable assets, rights and privileges, but also through psychological ties. This often opens up a wide range of resources, but also burdens when, for example, family-owned goods or businesses are taken over31. If the testator has not made sufficient provisions in good time, there are often bitter inheritance disputes that can permanently split the family.

Businesses or larger assets make demands on the heirs, which they cannot easily cope with. If those responsible come from other professional fields or if they are not familiar enough with the circumstances, this can lead to conflicts within the family association, which also put a strain on the partnership. Conversely, a legacy often opens up resources that offer the partners livelihood and career opportunities. This also applies to a non-material legacy if, for example, an intellectual legacy, a great name or venerable traditions are passed on in families of artists or scholars. Such advantages can be explosive for the partnership if they result in too great an imbalance in the relationship or if one partner does not meet the high expectations.
Also ideological and political views and entanglements in the NS or GDR past often divide the generations32. Children of perpetrators are often ashamed of their parents, get into conflicts of loyalty and have doubts about themselves. Such dark sides of the family past are often outwardly covered with a cloak of secrecy33 or hidden by a myth.


You cannot not be connected to your family of origin, even if you do not (no longer) know them. In addition to genetic inheritance, the family inheritance is passed on epigenetically by stimulating experience-based gene expression and facilitating neuropsychic schemes. In the context of everyday practice, children “naturally” grow into certain forms of family life: The communication does not necessarily have to be of a linguistic nature; it can run more or less consciously and implicitly through the very subtle way in which and what is (not) talked about. Learning processes through model learning, reward and punishment are just as involved here as conditioning or mood contagion. In the family togetherness, values ​​and models are lived and conveyed in the form of traditions, rituals and stories, in taboos and symbols. Family dynamic problems and other family issues find their way into individual feeling and thinking in this way. Such interaction processes between the generations ensure, despite all the changes over time, that consistency that is characteristic of family culture. Since the genetic and social heritage of the families of origin often continues to have an unconscious effect and influences the biography, personality and life concepts of the partner, active exploration of these influences is of increased importance:

  • transgenerational patterns and intergenerational relationships
  • Strategies for clarifying your own resources and vulnerabilities
  • family structures that hinder development
  • Model ideas, schemes and life concepts
  • critical / traumatic situations or developments
  • Choice of partner and structuring of relationships.

To clarify the mostly (too) little conscious resources and vulnerabilities from the partners' previous history, it is advisable for the partners to deal with their family history together. Information is obtained from conversations with as many relatives as possible, from family chronicles and photo albums, but also from contemporary historical documents such as old newspapers, films, etc. Many connections only become apparent when they are recognized in the context of historical and political events such as world wars, economic crises or National Socialism.

The best way to do this is to create a psychological family tree and a time table on a large sheet of paper, in which one not only enters the members of the previous generations with their important data, but also their characteristics and relationships to the other family members (genogram or genographic multilevel analysis34; see Fig. 1).

Genogram work is a stimulating and economical process that allows the diverse information about the family, its history and structures, its traditions and values ​​as well as the fate of its members to be clearly presented despite its complexity. In this way, the partners can set out on a journey of discovery together, which not only leads to fascinating insights into the two families of origin, but can also enrich their own couple relationship. As the partners unconsciously uncover effective schemes and family patterns with the resulting resources and vulnerabilities and get to know them better, they can more easily assess themselves and their families of origin and develop optimized perspectives for joint future planning.


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Peter Kaiser, Univ.-Prof. Dr. phil. habil., graduate psychologist, psychotherapist, department of psychology and education at the University of Vechta. Head of the Institute for Family Psychology and the Family Therapy Outpatient Clinic in Oldenburg. Founder and director of further education programs for family therapy, mediation, supervision and organizational consulting. Research focus and numerous publications on couple and family psychology, transgenerational patterns of family coexistence, structures and task management in social systems.


Prof. Dr. Peter Kaiser
Department of Psychology and Education
University of Vechta
P.O. Box 1553 D-49364 Vechta




[1] Bauer, 2002; Le Doux, 2003

[2] e.g. Funcke, 2012; see below

[3] Bauer, 2002; Le Doux, 2003

[4] Grawe, 2004; Lesch, 2007; Zerres, 2010; Yehuda, 2012

[5] Rhodes & Zebrowitz, 2002; Klusmann & Berner, 2011; Nakajima et al., 2014

[6] Klusmann & Berner, 2011; Schwarz et al., 2011

[7] Hüther, 2007; Zerres, 2010; Yehuda, 2012

[8] Epstein, 2003; Grawe, 2004; Lesch, 2007

[9] Grawe, 2004; Lesch, 2007; Koelsch, 2014

[10] see Antonovsky, 1997

[11] Banse, 2004, 2013; Roediger et al., 2013

[12] e.g. Seidler et al., 2011

[13] Grawe, 2004; Jacobi & Harfst, 2007; TK, 2011, BKK, 2012

[14] Grawe, 2004; Hüther, 2007; Taubert, 2012; Koelsch et al.

[15] Lesch, 2007; Hüther, 2007; Zerres, 2010; Seidler et al., 2011; Roediger, 2013

[16] Goerke, 2005; Hüther, 2007; Kaiser, 2008; Bierhoff & Rohmann, 2010

[17] Hüther, 2007; Julius et al., 2009; Bierhoff & Rohmann, 2010; Fremmer-Bombik, 2011; Banse, 2004, 2013

[18] Bourdieu, 1983; Banse, 2004, 2013

[19] Imber-Black, 1995; Goffman, 1998; Müller, 2009; Wulf et al., 2014

[20] Tallmann et al., 1999; Kaiser, 2008; Schaer, 2012

[21] Gottman & Silver, 2014

[22] Kaiser, 1989; Lee, 2005; Amato, 2010; Werneck & Werneck-Rohrer, 2011; Schaer, 2012

[23] Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1973; Minuchin, 1977

[24] Hullen, 1998; Amato, 2010; Werneck & Werneck-Rohrer, 2011; Moon, 2011

[25] Bliersbach, 2007; Kaiser, 2008; Schulz, 2009; Rattay et al., 2014

[26] Hullen, 1998; Bliersbach, 2007; Werneck & Werneck-Rohrer, 2011; Moon, 2011

[27] Amelang et al., 1995; Hejj, 1996; Buss, 2004; Lee, 2005; Schulz et al., 2010; Skopek, 2011

[28] Kaiser, 2013

[29] Kohli et al., 2005; Lee, 2005

[30] Kaiser, 2013

[31] Bossong & Nussbeck, 2004; v. Schlippe, 2009; Bohnsack, Ralf & Przyborski, 2014

[32] e.g. v. Westernhagen, 1987; Kaiser, 1989/2011, 2009

[33] Imber-Black, 1993; Kaiser, 1998

[34]; see McGoldrick et al., 2008; Schmidt, 2003; Kaiser, 2015; see also my guide to self-application (Kaiser & Onnen-Isemann, 2007).

Created on October 12, 2004, last changed on September 6, 2016