So there’s this show I’ve been watching lately called BoJack Horseman (note: I’m not recommending you watch this show. It contains content some will find objectionable). It’s a silly cartoon about a horse that is also one of the most existentially sad, heart-wrenching shows I’ve ever seen. I only mention it because an episode I watched last night has me thinking a lot about families, and relationships, and marriage, and the cycles of pain we pass on to each other.Every family – even the really great ones – contain dysfunction. Maybe it’s an inability to express sadness, or a tendency to be really sarcastic, or a parent with some low level anger issues. Often – far too often – the dysfunction is something even deeper: addiction, verbal abuse, an emotionally absent parent, sexual abuse, domestic violence, or a message sent over and over to each other that “you’re not good enough.”
These dysfunctions are like the relational version of a genetic trait, passed down from generation to generation. If you’ve ever thought “I’ll never be like my mom in that way” and then seen yourself being just like your mom … or if you find yourself repeating a marital dynamic you saw in your parents that you always hated … that’s the relational “genetic” dysfunction. I am absolutely convinced this is part of what the Bible means when it repeatedly says that the sins of the father (or mother) will be passed down from generation to generation.
It’s easy in a marriage to think the conflicts are either 1) all your spouses fault (and they’ll never change!) or 2) all your fault (and you’ll never change!). Without letting ourselves off the hook for sinful choices, it’s
important vital to understand that in our marriages we are carrying with us all the good and bad “relational genetic traits” we received from our family of origin. We learn what a relationship with the opposite sex looks like from relationship our mom or dad. We observe how a marriage should be from watching our parents. We absorb where it’s safe to be vulnerable and where it’s not from how our family functions. Every day you are carrying your “relational genetic traits” into every conversation you have with your spouse.
This leads to two important questions – I genuinely believe these questions are so important the answers can either make or break a marriage. 1) Do you know what unhealthy “relational genetic traits” you’ve received from your family? Can you identify them and say “you know, I’m lucky to have the family I had in some ways, but in other ways this part wasn’t ideal.” 2) Do you believe that one of God’s greatest desires is to free you from those traits?
In Deuteronomy 5:9-10 God tells his people that while the sins of the father are passed down to the third and fourth generation, God’s unfailing love with be lavished on a thousand generations for those who are faithful to him. I don’t believe this verse is literally documenting an exact timeline for the effects of sin and righteousness. God’s point here is to say “yes, your sin will wreak havoc on the future, but my redemptive love is SO much stronger and will bring a healing and life you can’t imagine.”
One of the things I’m most grateful for is that my parents – who both inherited and passed on their own dysfunctional “relational genetic traits” – did something right that was so much more important. They built our family around the power, grace and love of Jesus. While I am still learning to sift through the relational dysfunctions in my life, I am also seeing the redemptive power of my parents’ legacy of trusting Jesus redeeming, restoring, and making things new.
So this week, find some time to be still and reflect. Ask yourself these questions: 1) what are some unhealthy, “relational genetic traits” of the family you were raised in? Be specific. Think through painful memories. The point is not to blame or become bitter, but to identify where these things might be at work in you.
2) Are you passing on a version of these traits to your current family (if you feel courageous, talk to your spouse about this and ask them)?
Finish by praying. Imagine yourself lifting these traits up to God. Pray that his redemption that lasts for thousands of generations would redeem these traits and turn them into something beautiful.