Family can be such a loaded topic for people! It can bring up so many thoughts, feelings, memories, and associations. For some, those experiences and memories are positive, tied to fond memories, nostalgia, connection and love. For others, those feelings and associations may be negative, bringing up memories of abuse or neglect, fraught relationships, or feelings of inadequacy . Whatever the experiences were, family history can impact many aspects of adult life, including relationships and sex. How does this happen?
From the moment we are born, we are given messages about many aspects of life. Those messages start to influence how we think and feel about things. Let’s look at relationships and sex. I have worked with many clients who grew up without any discussion or acknowledgment of sex and sexuality from their parents or caregivers. This lack of information can lead to feelings of confusion and being overwhelmed when a sexual experience presents. Some people are nudged towards a certain way of thinking when it comes to being sexual. Take for example someone who has been told that sex is “bad” and should be only experienced within a marriage. Think about that for a minute. Sex is “bad”, but you can engage in it when you are married. These ideas seem to be conflicting. This can present a challenge when it comes to how we react to sexual experiences, interests and desires when we do make the decision to be sexual with ourselves or with another person.
Many things within a family can influence how we think about sex and relationships, including the relationship between our parents, our cultural background, and religion, among other things. These aspects can either help or hurt the exploration and acceptance process when it comes to healthy sexuality.
As mentioned above, religion is also something that is often referenced as an influence on relationships and sexuality. Different religions have different views on sex, sexuality, and relationships. That being said, how a religion is interpreted has an impact as well. I have worked with many clients who have experienced a strict religious upbringing. This can cause strong, often negative, feelings about sexual desire, masturbation, same sex relationships, fetishes, etc. The challenging part is finding ways for this to fit into a healthy sexuality.
Understanding of and expectations regarding gender roles or how gender is expressed was something that many of us learned from our family of origin. Think about the relationship between our parents or any other significant relationships we observed. If the relationships exhibited traditional gender roles, this may be something that we aspire to. Or we might strive to establish more egalitarian relationships as adults specifically because we don’t like the restrictiveness of the traditional gender roles we saw growing up. How the partners interact and treat each other may result in thoughts regarding what we want out of our own relationship interaction.
Family also has influences on what cultural aspects we are subjected to or are available to us while we are growing up. Think about what was presented to you in the media. Was it highly sexualized shows and movies? Were certain shows or movies acceptable and others were not? What about reading material? Did you have access to the Internet? Also, where we grew up can impact this as well. Were you raised in a small town where everyone knows you? Or a larger city that may have been a little more accepting of exploration? Even so, what were the parameters that were placed upon this possible exploration by your family, if any?
Family can also influence the types of people that are around us, especially in those young, informative years, by impacting things like what college is ok to attend or which friends are ok to be around. The types of people that we are around can impact the ideas and messages that we receive when it comes to relationships, sex, and sexuality as well. It is all connected!
An enriching and valuable activity I do with my clients is completing a comprehensive sexual history. This is a detailed and thought provoking questionnaire that many sex therapists use to help clients explore and understand how history affects the present and how we have developed as sexual beings over our lifetimes. It can provide insight into how our experiences may have shaped our thoughts and behaviors. It can also shed light on things that could be improved, or challenged, to help in finding a path to a healthy and satisfying experience with relationships and sex.
Family history can provide insight on how people experience relationships and sexuality today. Examining the influence and possible connection can pave a path for better understanding of where we are, and where to go in the future, to improve these experiences!
–Meagan Thomas, MS, LCMHCA
Meagan Thomas, MS, LCMHCA is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Associate in North Carolina, and is currently accruing hours toward full licensure. To schedule an appointment with Meagan or any of the therapists at Carolina Sexual Wellness Center, call 919-297-8322.