So, what if your parents didn’t have a great marriage? Or, maybe other folks who served as role models in your life haven’t modeled a healthy, thriving marriage? Are you hooped, or is there hope? Let’s figure out if there’s any hope.

If you are in this situation of having poor role models, you are not alone. This is such a common, shared experience. We all try to do our best as a couple, but even then, I’m sure our kids can see things that they like and will adopt from our relationship, but also see other things they’re not going to want to carry forward.

We all face this challenge of role models, to varying degrees, so be encouraged!

The first thing we need to remember is that all role models are useful. We all think the positive ones are, but negative ones can be as well. What the research shows about human behavior is that when we want to add positive, beneficial activities to our lives we look for positive role models. For example, if I want to work out more often, I will choose a fit person as a role model.

On the other hand, when we want to remove unhelpful behaviors, such as over-eating, we may consider a very obese person as a role model. That is an example of a useful negative role model.[i]

We use positive role models to help us engage in beneficial activities and negative role models to sustain our motivation to refrain from negative activities. So, no matter what role models you had, they all are useful either as something you want to imitate or avoid.

Another challenge when thinking about our role models is to remember that role models are very rarely ALL bad or ALL good. We want to be selective and wise and put things in the right buckets. It’s really about taking the good and leaving the bad, or as Caleb says, eating the meat and spitting out the bones!

There is an interesting cultural difference too when it comes to role models. European descendants are far more inspired and motivated by positive role models who highlight a strategy of pursuing success. More collectivistic cultures, however, such as Asian-American, are more motivated by negative role models with a strategy to avoid failure.

Your cultural background is going to influence how much value or importance you place on each type of role model.[ii]

Let’s take a moment to look at the root causes. How do our early role models affect our ability to relate today?

Caleb values attachment theory when looking at early childhood role models. “The basic tenet of attachment theory is that the accessibility and responsiveness of a trusted other leads to greater social and emotional adjustment at any age.”[iii]

This is saying that our ability to relate to others is formed by our childhood caregivers. The kind of atmosphere our caregivers gave us for establishing relationships affects even how we relate to people today. If our caregivers did not provide a safe, secure environment, we may struggle in our relationships, as we grow older.

The good news is that attachment can improve in the context of a secure relationship. Be that trusted other for your spouse!

The first part in doing this is to create safety within your marriage. Make it a shared value to respect one another. Avoid name-calling, barbed comments, teasing sprinkled with sarcastic truth, and any forms of criticism or contempt. Agree to create a culture within your marriage where safety is a fundamental, inviolable principle.

So, even if you didn’t have good role models, make a covenant with your spouse that you are committed to making the marriage safe. This doesn’t mean the absence of conflict, it just means you’re committed to growing the sense of security and repairing breaches when they are made.

Abuse, of any kind, is so damaging to a marriage because the fundamental principles of an intimate emotional bond such as marriage are based on safety and security. With abuse, these are completely abandoned and violated.

The second part in improving attachment in your marriage is listening to understand.

There are so many ways that we miss each other in our communications because we react from our own perceptions of reality without truly being willing to open ourselves to see reality as our spouse sees it. We need to stop, listen, and understand.

Isn’t this at the core of what we truly want?

We want to feel understood. We want to know that someone understands us, to know that we’re not alone in this world and to receive empathy.

Your role models for marriage may have been really, really poor at listening. BUT, this is a skill you can learn and develop and bring to your marriage very quickly. Even if you didn’t have good role models, it is still something you can bring to the table as a new skill.

Just because you didn’t have good role models doesn’t mean you’re somehow crippled!

At this point, if you’re feeling like you haven’t had good role models, I hope you’re beginning to understand that this isn’t fatal to your relationship! You do NOT have to follow the pathway that your role models did. You do NOT have to experience the same outcomes that they did.

You can choose to live differently, to create your own, new, healthier ways of relating to others!

You also have the option of finding new role models to help you form these new habits. Here are some tips to help you do that:

  1. Marriage mentoring:

This is typically available through your local church either through formal systemized programs or informally. If you got o a small church, find an older there that you respect and whose kids are turning out OK (or have turned out well) and ask them if you could meet with them as a couple for marriage mentoring. If they don’t have any idea how to do that, suggest Tim Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage and just meet once a month to discuss a chapter. The cost of two books is $30 and boom, you’re all set.

  1. Coaching or Counselling:

Get coaching or counselling and ask the counsellor to help coach you through communicating about difficult subjects. This is a great way for couples to learn new ways of relating to each other over issues that they often disagree about.

  1. Post-wedding Coaching

Even if you don’t feel like there are specific hot button issues you need to deal with, you can do the equivalent of pre-marital coaching after you get married. (Post marital counseling? Doesn’t sound quite right!)

This is a systemized approach to allow you to identify growth areas in your marriage with a counselor. You go through them in a structured way that helps you to discuss these issues profitably helping you gain deeper insight and understanding. The counsellor helps you model your own healthy ways of interacting around these growth areas.

  1. Books

Don’t forget that reading books is a great option. Anything by Dr. John Gottman is going to be helpful – especially books like The Relationship Cure or The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Also, Hold Me Tight by Sue Johnson, and Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage that we mentioned earlier.

  1. Spoken Word

Of course, you can also learn by digesting good marriage content like what you get in our podcast. If a marriage speaker comes to a church near you, make sure you attend. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to attend marriage conferences or retreats if they are available in your area.

These are all ways to fill in the gaps left behind by poor role models.

Yes, it can be a real challenge not to have had good role models, but the good news is you don’t have to let this define you. You are not doomed to walk in the footsteps of the role models you did have. You can live differently. You can make your own choices.

Think of the kings whose lives are recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible. You would have 3 or 4 generations that would make really bad choices, one after the other. Then all of a sudden you would have someone like Josiah who became a king at the age of 8.

Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned in Jerusalem one and thirty years. And he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the ways of David his father, and declined neither to the right hand nor to the left.” 2 Chronicles 34

Unlike his forefathers, Josiah led a balanced life: ‘declined neither to the right hand or to the left’. He completely obliterated the idolatry of his forefathers and repaired the house of the Lord (v.8).

At the end of v 33, we see the impact of a man who eradicated the problems of a former generation and grounded his personal life and mission on the things of God: “And all his days they departed not from following the Lord, the God of their fathers.”

Josiah completely reversed the impact of generations of poor role models, and he did it on a national scale. Think of the potential of just doing this for your own marriage and for your own children!

This also highlights the need to attend to our own needs: Self Care. We are reminded in 1 Tim 4:16 to “take heed unto thyself…for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself and them that hear thee”.

So, be encouraged to face the realities of the role models you have had, even if they were not what they should have been.

You can be the person, with help from God, who breaks a generational pattern of neglect, of poor or broken marriages, of children loved inadequately and brings something new and more powerful, and healthy to your marriage and to your children, and to your children’s children.

[i] Penelope Lockwood et al., “To Do or Not to Do: Using Positive and Negative Role Models to Harness Motivation,” Social Cognition 22, no. 4 (August 2004): 422–50.

[ii] Penelope Lockwood, Tara C. Marshall, and Pamela Sadler, “Promoting Success or Preventing Failure: Cultural Differences in Motivation by Positive and Negative Role Models,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 31, no. 3 (March 2005): 379–92.

[iii] Susan M. Johnson, The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection, 2 edition (New York: Routledge, 2004).