My husband and I were visiting his parents back when he and I were still just engaged. It was a normal visit, a normal day, a normal moment.
The four of us walked along, talking about this and that, and my father-in-law cracked a joke. I stopped dead in my tracks.
“What did you say?” I stared agape at him.
He repeated his joke, confused as to my shock. I nodded in revelation.
“That’s where he gets it from!” I looked at my then-fiancé and back at his dad.
My husband has the wittiest sense of humor, rife with irony. I could never come up with the clever remarks he thinks of. His humor was distinct to him…at least so I had thought. The three of them, who had known this family trait all along, laughed at my realization.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” is an adage that is apparent in most marriages to one degree or another. A husband or wife will learn a thing or two about their spouse when they take their first visit to the in-laws. Good and bad, habits and traits get passed down through generations.
The family tree exercise
Fortunately, the sense of humor in my husband’s family is a fun one, but—of course—not everything we inherit from our parents is good. At a marriage retreat, my husband and I were prompted to create a family tree. He laid out his family on one posterboard, and I did mine on another. We were to note specific details about each person as far back as we could accurately recall, and then we were to note the trends.
The couple who lead the retreat—Carol and Steve, we will call them—shared with us their findings when they first did this exercise. In Steve’s family, there were patterns of divorce rampant throughout his parents’ and grandparent’s generations. In Carol’s, she noted patterns of depression and alcoholism, as well as many dominant, controlling female personalities. Bringing their family trees together, Carol and Steve could identify a little more clearly why they operated with the dynamic they did and why they had the marital fears they had. They were enlightened to how their generational stories might incite each other’s negative family behaviors and to how they might nurture each other’s positive behaviors.
Examples from the Bible
It was revealing to do this exercise, and it has given me eyes to see these kinds of generational patterns in Scripture too.
Take Abraham, for example. He favored his son Isaac over his son Ishmael (the son he had with Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar). Sarah began to detest Ishmael and made Abraham put him and Hagar out on the streets. Isaac became the favorite.
Isaac grew up to play favorites as well, as did his wife, Rebekah. Isaac loved Esau more, and Rebekah preferred Jacob. Rebekah, in particular, engineered situations that would favor her beloved son, Jacob.
When Jacob grew up, he too played favorites with his children. He loved Joseph and Benjamin, the sons of his wife Rachel, more than the rest. His lavish preference of Joseph, specifically, caused a riot among the children that worked to Joseph’s “demise.”
Here we see three generations of parents who struggled with favoritism. One would think they would have learned from their own childhood how hurtful favoritism could be and would have chosen to raise their own children differently. Instead, the generational cycle continued.
How to break free
What about in your family tree? Do you see harmful generational hand-me-downs in the form of behaviors (greed, entitlement, criticism, complacency, withdrawal, negativity, passive-aggression, yelling, etc.), diseases (obesity, bipolar, cancer, heart disease, etc.), addictions (alcohol, pornography, shopping, etc.) or sin (premarital sex, adultery, abuse, fraud, partiality, etc.)?
At first, it might be difficult to recognize these hand-me-downs because they might be deeply ingrained, they might seem like a natural consequence of your DNA, or they might simply be something that you don’t want to admit lest it damage your reputation or your relationship with your parents. When you can see the damage repeating itself in your own marriage, however, it only becomes more difficult to unravel yourself from the generational snares. Identifying these patterns early will greatly benefit you and your marriage.
Usually, a spouse can identify these hand-me-downs more readily than the person who has received them because the spouse has an objective eye. This can make discussions about dealing with them very charged, so proceed with care. But do talk about them because settling for “Well, this is just how I am” will hinder your unity with your spouse. Together, you can determine the tools and develop the strategies for breaking your marriage free from destructive generational hand-me-downs.
Perhaps your change will come through learning new communication skills or receiving marital counseling. In the case of generational diseases, perhaps you can alter diet and lifestyle to minimize the risk or make advanced plans so onset of the disease won’t abruptly consume your marriage. In the case of addictions, maybe you enroll in a 12 Step program, join a Celebrate Recovery group, or set conservative boundaries to avoid certain circumstances that have previously acted as triggers. Whatever your tools and strategies are, you have a teammate in figuring it out (one who will surely need your support in tackling his or her own hand-me-downs as well).
Most importantly, you can pray that God would allow those negative generational patterns to end with you. Do this as a gift to your marriage and to your future generations. Some of those hand-me-downs are repercussions of sin, others are sinful themselves, and others are merely difficult challenges. But no matter the snare, God is one who sets the captives free! He is with you even in the darkest of these patterns.
I once heard a man say that after he had relapsed in his addiction to pornography, he could tell that God was sitting with him while he watched porn. At first I balked at God’s willingness to sit in the moment of someone’s sin, but then I realized, that is exactly what He does. He meets us where we are.
There is no sin that would drive God away, and there is no chain that He cannot break. Jesus entered into hell and overcame sin and death for exactly the purpose of setting us free!
Whether you are engaged or married, consider what hand-me-downs you are bringing into the relationship. Pray for God to humble your heart and enlighten your spirit to see areas in which you need to confess and repent. Presenting these revelations to your beloved and praying together for God to set you free can be exactly the new beginning that your marriage needs in order to live as a new generation.