Could Your Family Of Origin Ruin Your Marriage?

Getting Ready For Marriage Series #3

Imagine with me, for just a moment, your perfect wedding day.  From the moment you wake up, everything is going exactly as you had hoped.

Celebrities everywhere are seething with jealousy as your guests shut down Instagram with one perfect photo after another.

Finally, it’s time for you and your (almost) spouse to exchange vows.  You get misty-eyed as the pastor says, ‘Repeat after me…’

I, John, take you Elizabeth…

your parents and your extended family…

to be my lawfully wedded wife…

As you start to mindlessly repeat the pastor’s words, something doesn’t sound quite right… After exchanging an awkward glance at the pastor and Elizabeth, you notice that she’s not alone.

There, just behind her, are her parents, brother, sister and other relatives.  As you look more carefully, you see that each one has a heavy suitcase with large lettering.

Her father’s says ‘kind but aloof’.  Mom’s reads ‘sweet but controlling’.  Seized with fear, you frantically try to make out what the other suitcases say without looking too obvious.

After all, 200 pairs of eyes are locked in on you.

One by one, the family hands their baggage over to Elizabeth, who receives them with a bizarre mixture of eagerness and regret.

With a look of fear and hope, she tries to hide the uglier suitcases under her dress.  All of a sudden, she turns back to you, awaiting your response.

As you try to remember what you’re supposed to say, you wake up in a cold sweat, thankful it was all a dream.

Or was it?

Who Do You Think You’re Marrying?

In their book Great Expectations: An Interactive Guide To Your First Year Of Marriage, Toben and Joanne Heim write, ‘Let’s face it; you marry more than just your spouse. In a sense, you marry your spouse’s family too.’

Over the years, in our premarital counseling with couples, we have found this to be true.

Many hopeful couples are like ‘John’ above.  They’re surprised to learn that their family of origin has shaped them in quiet, profound ways that will powerfully impact their marriage.

Other couples look more like ‘Elizabeth’.  They seem to recognize that they’ve inherited a lot of (mixed) baggage from their families.  While they’re still excited to get married, they worry that the negatives will bubble to the surface at some point and cripple their marriage.

Of course, many couples contain both a John and Elizabeth.  What about you and your future spouse?

And, how should you think about the role your family of origin may play long after you say, ‘I do’?

Your Family Of Origin & Your Marriage: Biblical Insights

So which is it?

Can we easily overcome what we’ve inherited from our families growing up, and go on to have a great marriage that proves them all wrong?

Or, are we bound to eventually succumb to the damaging patterns we picked up from our families?

When we look at the ways families influence their children and future generations in Scripture, here are some quick observations.

Sometimes children follow directly in their family’s footsteps.  The Books of 1-2 Kings provide many examples of this.  For example, after Israel was divided into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom never had another good king.  Every son followed the bad example of his father.

Other Scriptures, thankfully, paint a more positive picture.  Timothy, for example, had a ‘sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in [his] grandmother Lois and [his] mother Eunice’ (2 Timothy 1:5).  Timothy’s strong faith appears to be – at least in part – a result of the investment these godly women made in him.

Sometimes children walk away entirely from their family upbringing.  Returning to the Books of 1-2 Kings, sometimes kings with great fathers turned out to be lousy rulers. This happened when Ahaz took over for his father, Jotham (2 Kings 16-17).  Other times, the reverse happened, as when good King Asa followed on the heels of his evil father, Abijam (1 Kings 15).

I know a million caveats are in order, but these passages show that, spiritually-speaking, our relationship to our lineage isn’t always entirely linear.  There’s a real tension here, and it’s not always easy to sort out.

So let’s look a few more verses, see if we can make some headway, then end with a quick thought or two for your future marriage.  

Your Family Of Origin & Your Marriage: Biblical Insights, Part 2

Exodus 20:5-6 says,

I the Lᴏʀᴅ your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me.

Verses like these seem to say that the sin of parents can somehow (we’re not given details) become the sins of their children, too.

But then other verses, like Ezekiel 18:20, seem to contradict this.

The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.

So again, which is it?

If your parents struggled with anger, are you destined to import that into your own marriage?  Or, can you pretty much leave it behind you?

While it appears – from the bible and our own experience – that the families we come from can predispose us to certain patterns of sin, God’s grace runs far, far deeper.

John Piper mentions that the bible makes this abundantly clear.  For example,

  • Leviticus 26:40-42: ‘If they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers . . . if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob.’
  • Acts 10:43: ‘To him [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.’

In other words, as Piper puts it, ‘Nobody is trapped in his father’s sins — or even in his own sins.’  Is that great news or what?  

Three Takeaways For Your Future (Or Current) Marriage

As you think about your family of origin and its possible implications for your marriage, here are three observations.

  1. The key themes and patterns of your home growing up may well be the default in your own marriage.  What are three positive, and three negative, patterns from your childhood?
  2. God’s amazing grace means our marriages can be free from poor patterns we’ve inherited from others.  And, even our own!  Ask God to free you from repeating the negative patterns you identified in #1.  And, your own sin.  (See 1 John 1:9.)
  3. Because we’re broken in a broken, distracting world, we can’t assume that we’ll just keep doing whatever was good from our upbringing.  Grace is still required.  Ask God to help you see the good you’ve inherited, and pray for power to keep living it out.  

Regardless of your story, your marriage can be the beautiful picture of God’s relationship to us, his church, that he intended all along.

If you found this post helpful, you may be interested in the other posts in this Getting Ready For Marriage Series: