Relationship Intelligence: The Key to Picking a Life Partner. ~ Mark Wolynn

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For over two decades, I have worked with men and women from around the world to help them improve their relationships.

I have noticed a common thread of unhappiness and disappointment throughout, a mélange of musical partners and dead end relationships—patterns which can be avoided once we understand the hidden dynamics operating behind the scenes. Let me start by telling you about Trent.

Trent was ready to foreclose on love. All of his relationships had been short-lived. None had lasted more than a year and he no longer trusted in his ability to make good choices.  The women he chose fell into one of two categories: the “chronically dissatisfied” or the “Damsels in Distress”—the ones he felt he needed to save.

In the first category, the women seemed to come equipped with old anger brought forward from the past. No matter how giving or loving Trent would be, their anger often seemed to explode in his direction. “You never give me enough.” “You never see me.” “You never reassure me.” “You never….”  The accusations were relentless and often seemed to be unrelated to Trent’s behaviour.

Reject Your Parent, Reject Your Partner

These particular women, Trent later learned, felt that they had never received enough from their mothers. Believing they had been short-changed by the one person who was responsible for caring for them when they were small, these women projected a feeling of deprivation onto their partner, the next person in line to care for them. Their complaints about each “love gone wrong” all shared a similar quality: “He didn’t give me what I needed. He never gave me the love I deserved.” The more they clung to this early feeling, the less likely they could see their partner for who he really was and for what he was truly able to give.

The women in the second category felt very familiar to Trent. He could rescue them from their deepest pain. He could understand their hidden needs. He could read between the blurred lines of their desires and their dislikes. In the initial months of the relationship, Trent would feel inflated like a hero. A champion of love.  That is, until his feelings disappeared and his heart felt like a block of cement.

As a boy, Trent would try to ease his mother’s unhappiness. For as long as he could remember, his mother was sad and lonely.

Unhappy with the love she received from her own mother, she was equally unhappy with the love she received from her husband.

Trent’s father could do no right in her eyes and, eventually, with all of his attempts to please her thwarted, he began spending more time away from home. From a young boy’s perspective, Mom was alone and Dad was absent. That’s when Trent, sensing a hole that needed to be filled, dove in. He was a good boy, sensitive and caring, the perfect rescuer—skills he would employ in later relationships. He would give his mother what his father could not, and imagined that his love made her happy. Trent became the gleam in his mother’s eyes. He became her raison d’ĂŞtre.

Overwhelmed Children Can Become Overwhelmed Partners

While it felt good to try to make his mom happy when he was young, it became burdensome as he grew older. He realized that he could never give her what she needed. He could never fully take her pain away. It had been a fruitless undertaking.

A parent’s role is to give to a child; a child’s role is to receive from a parent. When this order is reversed, a child can struggle in later relationships.

This was the case with Trent.

Feeling responsible for making his mother happy drained Trent emotionally. Her love felt inundating. Her needs overwhelmed him. That same feeling pervaded his later relationships.

Confusing the needs of his partners with the needs of his mother, Trent found himself shutting down without understanding why.

The natural wants and desires of his partners felt like a cascading torrent of demands. His body would tighten to the degree that he would say yes when he meant no and no when he meant yes. When Trent’s relationships reached this point, they rarely lasted very long.

Trent’s early dynamic with his mother caused great suffering in his relationships. His baffling shutdowns and rapid departures were destructive forces that both embittered him and enraged his partners. Intimacy and longevity with Trent didn’t stand a chance.

Choosing unhappy women he felt he could save, Trent would initially be the hero, only to become the villain by leaving the women who loved him. Having hurt several partners, and numbing himself one too many times, Trent finally took time off from his relationship pain and put time into understanding his relationship patterns.

Breathing Can Clarify Your Feelings

In taking time for himself, he learned to set an inner boundary with his mother. In his mind’s eye, he visualized standing far enough away from her where he could relax enough to feel his breath filling his body.

With his breath flowing, he could feel the emotions and physical sensations that gave him cues to know what he wanted and what he didn’t want.

In time, he was able to differentiate between his desires for closeness and sensations that alerted him that he needed to step back and integrate what he was experiencing.

At the same time he distanced from his mother internally, he maintained a warm connection with her externally. Instead of continuing the pattern of giving to her, he was now able to receive from her. He could take in her love without having to give anything back.

Bonding with the Same-Sexed Parent Can Strengthen Your Relationship

Trent also developed a deeper bond with his father. As a boy, he often witnessed his mother ridicule his father. Not only was it painful to watch, Trent felt he didn’t have his mother’s permission to love him. He couldn’t love them both. Were he to openly love his father, Trent felt he would secretly betray his mother.

His feelings for his father were also obscured by the fact that his mother preferred his company to his father’s. Trent stood in his father’s place as his mother’s emotional partner. Feeling responsible for her emotional needs, Trent had little option to stand anywhere else. It was as though his father had been shoved behind a curtain where Trent had no access to him without his mother pointing the way.

In getting close with his father, Trent discovered what a great guy he was. It was shocking to learn that his father had always been there waiting for Trent to come to him. Trent just couldn’t get to him, and his father had no way to pierce the dynamic that separated them.

The experience of reconnecting with his father was extraordinary.

With his father at his back, Trent felt as though he was tapping into an endless source of strength and masculinity.

Eventually, it changed the way Trent felt about himself. He now felt ready to resume looking for a partner. But he had questions.

After understanding the dynamics of his own childhood confusion, Trent wondered what sat on the other side for women. If a close relationship with his father was crucial for his ability to bond with a woman, what kind of relationship would a woman need to have with her parents so that she could have the best chance of succeeding with a partner?

What type of woman would make a good partner?

Here’s the bottom line: Look for a woman who genuinely adores her mother. If she has remained trusting and vulnerable to her mother’s love, if she delights in receiving her mother’s tenderness and care, she will receive similarly from you. Your relationship will also be strengthened if her mother and father—whether they stayed together or not—demonstrated care and respect for one another. Now let’s turn the tables.

What type of man would make a good partner?

Here’s the bottom line: Look for a man who reveres his father. If he credits his father for being his role model, guiding him through life’s challenges, you are in good hands. A man who admires his father wants to emulate what he admires most in him. Choose a man who feels loved and supported by both parents, yet sees himself as being a bit more aligned with his father. If he was his mother’s emotional partner, and was distant with his father, don’t expect an easy road ahead.

If he attempted to satisfy his mother’s unmet needs and supply her with what she felt she couldn’t get from her husband, look out. This man is likely to have difficulty appreciating your needs.  Fearing that you will want too much from him, the way his mother did, he is likely to put his guard up by shutting down physically or emotionally when he feels he’s getting too close to you.

Our partner’s relationship with his or her parents can be a trusted indicator of how frustrating or fulfilling our relationship can be. If there’s one takeaway, it would be this:

A solid bond with the same-sexed parent can be insurance that your relationship will endure.

With this principle as your guiding light, you now hold an essential piece of the relationship puzzle and can be more prepared when it’s time to pick your life partner.

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Assist. Ed: Jade Belzberg/Ed: Bryonie Wise

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Mark Wolynn

Mark Wolynn is the Director of The Hellinger Institute of Northern California and co-director of the Hellinger Learning Center in New York City, Mark is one of North America’s foremost Family Constellation facilitators. He conducts workshops and trainings in family therapy throughout the United States, Canada, England and Latin America, as well as for the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Social Work, Western Psychiatric Institute’s 4th-Year Psychiatry Residency Training Program, Kripalu and the California Institute of Integral Studies. Mark is a regular presenter at hospitals, clinics, conferences and teaching centers. He specializes in working with depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, fears, panic disorders, self-injury, chronic pain and persistent symptoms and conditions. Check out his website for further details.


121 Responses to “Relationship Intelligence: The Key to Picking a Life Partner. ~ Mark Wolynn”

  1. LivingArtisan says:

    I think its more important to be resolved and at peace with our parents, regardless if the relationship was supportive or not. ideally everybody grows up with a perfect family, but we all know that isn't reality. To believe that we must have a perfect adoring relationship with our same-sex parent to have a strong relationship with our partner is very clinical and idealistic.

    However, in my own experience, the women I've dated whose mothers didn't treat them with love and whose fathers abandoned the family or were divorced are the relationships that have been the most turbulent and bewildering.

    Coming from a family where my mother and father are still married after nearly 40 years has made me unusual. I think that people who come from divorced family or single parent homes have different needs and relationship skills than people who are raised within a more traditional family structure.

    So the needs, perspectives, expectations, will be completely different.

    To say that a partner will or will not be good because they do or do not have a good relationship with one or other of the parents is an incomplete premise.

  2. Mar says:

    Much wisdom, very harsh conclusion. The man I have been with for 4 years did not know his father. He is still a beautiful, loving and strong man.

  3. florella says:

    Thank you for a great article, and thanks everyone for equally fantastic comments! Such an interesting exchange. I just have one question – in your POV, are there significant differences in the importance/way of impact when it comes to ones relationship to a stepfather or stepmother? How would you describe the impact of an abusive stepfather? I understand that the way to healing is the same, but I just wanted to hear your thoughts on how it can impact my behavior.

  4. vyogi says:

    I am 100% behind this article and really appreciate the post. Thank you for writing this, one of the best ive read on elephant journal in a while! !

  5. omshanti says:

    What about people who had abusive same sex parents? Damaged goods? Not worthy of be chosen as life partners? Not capable of being good life partners? I cannot get behind this article.

    • Blackfoot says:

      Thanks so much for pointing this out! It agree that it is bordering on impossible to have that “adoring” relationship with an abusive parent. In that light, the bottom line of this article is actually quite insulting. I’m sorry, but it’s just not that simple. While generalizations can be helpful to many people, they can also do harm by over-simplifying things. Not everyone with a bad (or no) relationship to their parents or same sex parent will be a bad partner… And of course: nor will all those who do have these happy family bonds automatically be good partners.

    • NormaJeane says:


  6. kolohi says:

    I have to strongly disagree with Mr. Wolynn. I don't think that how much you "adore" a parent tells anything at all about you. So many writers here have expressed pain and insecurity about their ability to have healthy relationships if their parental bonds are strained. As a health care professional, I feel that Mr. Wolynn's position is irresponsible. To the writers: ignore him and create your own success stories.

    I can site relationship profiles, also: Person #1: "adored" both the same and opposite gender parent, to a point where he felt paralyzed by their goodness, as in, "I cannot measure up", so he gave up entirely… expecting to fall short of his idealization. Now in his 50's, Person #1 has never married, has never had children and has never been able to live with a partner. He hates his life. Person #2 "adored" his same gender parent. This parent was a workaholic, alcoholic, abusive parent. Person #2 has adored his parent to the point of emulation. Hardly a surprise.

    It makes no sense whatever to evaluate a person based on the qualities of the parents… something quite beyond our personal control.

    Instead of seeking a partner with a capacity for undifferentiated "adoration", I would prefer a partner who can view parents and other humans clearly and honestly… who can respond consciously and appropriately as the circumstances warrant. Straight up: an abusive parent is unworthy of my adoration. My ability to draw appropriate boundaries, break patterns and forge a new type of relationship with such a family member is what is important.

    "Adoration" of a parent is meaningless in and of itself. What is important is HOW we respond to those things we cannot control. Sometimes it is appropriate to walk away from an abusive parent. Sometimes it is appropriate to foster a continued, limited relationship with a parent. Sometimes it is appropriate to mend a rift in the relationship. "Reject your parent, reject your partner?" Absurd.

    In the end, what a person makes of the circumstances handed to them is the defining element. That Mr. Wolynn presumes parents to be a positive influence tells me that he is insulated and out of touch. Again, how "adoring" an individual feels about their parents is a significant predictor of… hardly anything. That we have free will and are capable of our own choices may be frightening, but that does not make it any less true.

    P.S., I am in a healthy, loving, married relationship… in case that is relevant to anyone reading my comments.

  7. Alison says:

    I like some of the things in this article but not everyone has the best relationship with their patents. Is this to say those people are incapable if love? You’re leaving out a large part of the population. Some people never knew their parent or were abandoned and abused by them. Or maybe the parent makes no effort to have a relationship with their son or daughter; they are a drug addict or recluse. So, if you are one of those people than you are s.o.l.? Lame. A lot of people come crappy situations that make it difficult to revere their parent. It does not mean they are incapable or a bad choice for a healthy relationship.

  8. Dawn says:

    I was abused and tortured by mother and ignored by my father. So that means I don't deserve to be loved?

  9. Aross says:

    I'm just wondering if anyone pointed out the issue of heteronormativity here… yes, there's probably some helpful information in this article, but it is very simplistic and completely misses many diverse family situations. Not only LGBTQ parents and their kids, but the situations of loss, death, prison, etc… so many different family systems to consider, not just mom and dad relationships.

  10. Dani says:

    I find this article extremely insulting. We do not live in a perfect world nor will we ever. Learning to love oneself makes a person whole. It is like you are trying to say that every human being’s value is based on how much they were loved as kids.

  11. KH says:

    It is seriously cruel and unfair to say I am an unfit partner just because my mother had no interest in mothering me. Yes, I missed out on a lot as a child but that was not my fault! I was just a little girl who got up for school every day alone, age 7, while my patents slept. I want an equal partner, the kind where we do things for each other because we love each other and because it’s fun. I don’t need a babysitter and I’m not angry or any of the other stuff mentioned. I just miss love, giving and receiving. It’s really that simple. Your friend,,,, Kath

  12. Bodine says:

    wow- really- so basically the majority of us are doomed in relationships.My suggestion is you do more research and work around this subject. this is not a one size fits all world.What works for Trent or mary or John may not work for someone else…I know(and teach) a lot of fantastic people and I have to say not many revere their mother or father…there are a lot- I mean so so many people with childhood emotional trauma.Broken families, abusive parents….
    so then avoid these people you say?This piece was submitted and accepted? wow again.
    Men and women look for someone who is authentic, and you, be authentic.Love yourself.end of story.

  13. Dominique says:

    I have seen enough therapists to get the point of what you are saying, but today is actually the day I had to let my mother know that she wasn't welcome back into mine and my sons life until she seeks out medical mental help. I wont say I am at peace with her, but I can say I have spent many years taking a look at my part in these situations, and learning to find compassion for another wounded child. I can also list traits from her that I inherited from her, and love about myself. It is because of her I am so open and driven to heal, which is why I made this decision to remove her. I am still reprogramming, and her continuous emotional abuse has proven to be a huge road block, and I have to protect my son from the toxic nature of her energy. So since I am not close with my mom, I'm not a good catch. Really bad advice. Everyone has wounds, and everyone is a teacher. Our worth is not that simple. Maybe your speaking about the average american who has no sense of individuality, let's their mind continue to be controlled by other people and things, and who has those relationships, and no consciousness in regards to healing, boundaries, and searching inside for worth. Please consider not giving advice like this to someone you are trying to help.

  14. Kate lambert says:

    This article is massively insightful and resonated with me at a deep level as I explore my own constant disassisfaction in relationships. I felt empty and saddened by the end when the article concluded by advising partners to pick people devoid of the experiences it describes. That person to avoid is me- so best that I’m left on the shelf Alongside the rest of us unfortunate souls with parent issues? I think a part two article is needed – written not for the person picking but to advise the person who it advises to avoided. We are all deserved of love

  15. j says:

    I like and agree with koholi’s and Ms H’s comments. The relationship between parent and child involves two people. It is how we learn to relate with ourselves and others as we move through adult life that determines our ability to relate with a partner. This includes being able to see people realistically, including our parents.

  16. Charlotte says:

    Much insight, but your conclution is dangerously wrong! People who know and love themself are the best partners. My life experience have been that even those who have great relationship with their parents can be lost, and those who didnt may have found themself. Love people for who they are, not where they been. And love and know your own patterns. <3

  17. Leah says:

    Hi. It seems to me that you are saying a person (particularly a man) who has a connection with the same- sex patent will be a better partner. Maybe so. But what about if that's not an option? My husband's father died when he was 4. Clearly this created some issues, and he continually works on and through them. But maybe you could offer a different alternative for alternative situations? You'd article seems to assume that the same- sex parent is an available option for all which is sadly not the case for a large portion of folks.

  18. Emma says:

    Your article has made me very upset and made me realise I can’t be with my partner anymore as we weren’t loved by our same sex parents. I started reading with hope and insight but your conclusion is not very nice, knowing no man would wana be with me considering my upbringing. Thanks

  19. @BubblesDeux says:

    Interesting read, and one I really wanted to be able to share with others. It is lacking in something – it leaves out those children who grew up in physically and emotionally abusive homes. The kinds of homes where social workers spent just as much time in them as did neighbors. Homes where police often visited to 'speak with' the only parent in the house who also happened to be the abuser. I've been married and divorced and my longest relationships are between me, my daughter and my best friend. We're going on 22 years now – and while I am not married, I can honestly say that I don't lack for love or for being able to give love. Perhaps it is the people I've surrounded myself with, or the therapy I've received or a combination of many things I'll never understand. Some of us grew up in very non traditional homes – I'm certain that doesn't mean we are incapable of healthy relationships.

  20. alyssa says:

    I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one upset by this article. I don’t understand what point this serves to anyone. Those that care for someone who has a less than perfect relationship with their parent are now left to question their own relationship with their partner. And those (like myself) who did or do not have great relationships with parents are now left questioning their worth and potential damage to a partner. Everyone else just has another thing to add to their laundry lists of requirements for a partner. Bad form, Mr. Wolynn.

  21. alyssa says:

    I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one upset by this article. I don’t understand what point this serves to anyone. Those that care for someone who has a less than perfect relationship with their parent are now left to question their own relationship with their partner. And those (like myself) who did or do not have great relationships with parents are now left questioning their worth and potential damage to a partner. Everyone else just has another thing to add to their laundry lists of requirements for a partner.

    I can see from your website that you try to help people to resolve those issues with their parents and, while I don’t agree with much that you write, at least there you are trying to offer a solution. Here you are simply pointing out a problem to an audience in which it is much more common than you seem to think. And I would assume the majority of whom cannot afford your costly services to heal our wounds. Bad form, Mr. Wolynn.

  22. Diana says:

    Misogynist much? I find it disturbing how the writer, through “Trent’s” story, manages to blame the mother both for the damaged relationship between herself and her child as well as the damaged relationship between the father and his child. The father in this story bears no responsibility whatsoever for the relationship he has with his children. After reading this article and its glaringly apparent biases and unchecked assumptions, I was quite surprised to learn that the author has such a wide teaching influence.

  23. debintheuwharries says:

    This is all well and good. The challenge comes when it's not possible to build a strong relationship with the same sexed parent, but want to be a good partner AND figure out who would be a good partner. It's very difficult to navigate the boat with broken oars. I have not given up, not by a long shot, but I finally understand through my own deep work why I have had such a difficult time in partnerships.

  24. mike irwin says:

    I dont understand this article – so many of my friends had bad relationships with parents and still see the reality of the hurt for what it was …and have been succesfully happliy married over 20 years .- should they get a divorce now ? please…i find them to be in some ways more sensitive to the needs of others..

  25. Gaby Casavantes says:

    Irresponsible article. Simplistic author. Too much responsibility to label people as if they are destined to fail out because of the type of family relationship they had as children of dysfunctional parents. There are millions of men with an excellent relationship with his father, full of affection and admiration, who are not able to have a healthy and happy couple relationship. Just as there are millions of men with a resentment or non-existent parent-child relationship due to the abandonment and yet are perfectly capable of being a loving couple.

  26. Anjelica says:

    Thanks for this post. after reading this post, I gain some knowledge's and gathered some informatio's. Keep posting.

  27. Tom says:

    Add me to the choruses of nays on this one. While it would be great to have had a great relationship with my father, I had one who had little interest in parenting me and was emotionally abusive. So I, also, am not worthy of love or a relationship? I’ve done a lot of work in therapy and am a good, caring person. This article is cruel and irresponsible.

  28. Paola Marks says:

    I very much enjoyed your article, however I believe the conclusion to be very accusing. I was taken into care at 11 years old because my mother was extremely abusive and had serious issues towards me that stopped her being a good mother. I have tried to build this relationship with her to no avail, as an adult I have to keep myself and my family safe. I do not adore my mother; I do not respect her; she is a cruel and bitter person who does not understand love. I do however adore my husband; if he were to take your advice he would never have married me. I do not believe things in life to be so black and white and such sweeping statements are generally misinformed. If a parent has given no love none than can be taken it does not right off that persons ability to love another.

  29. lia says:

    I am a fan of family constellation therapy and thus, intriqued by the work of Mark Wolynn. Healing our family legacy wounds is core to healing the unconscious patterns that cause us to replay the same dysfunctional relationship and life patterns over and over until they are brought into conscioys awareness and released. I think that is why he was trying to get at, but his assertions in this article were simplistic and diminishing to many. I read every comment here and thought the last sentence of the last one I read by Ms. H articulated

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