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‘You’re Better Off Single Than In A Bad Relationship’: Lessons In Love Readers Learned From Their Parents

Nothing has a stronger influence on children than the unlived lives of their parents, at least according to various quotes attributed to Carl Jung. While that maxim may hold some water, when it comes to love, it’s often the romantic lives our parents do live that underwrite our own rulebook for relationships.

From navigating feelings for other people, maintaining one’s composure and dignity, to some unconventional approaches to long-term love, readers share how the examples set by those who raised them have helped shape their own love lives.

Know yourself and accept each otherMy parents never argued, were always chatting, loved us kids and supported each other. When we moved off the farm to follow Dad’s passion for sailing, he met and married another sailor. Mum, on her healing journey, met her new partner. Both parents were mature and sanguine about this situation, which allowed us kids to accept the step-parents and allow our parents their individual happiness. By embracing our parents’ choices, we learned that life is for living and taking responsibility for your own happiness is essential.

Although my husband left me and found someone else, I was able to take my parents’ example and choose to accept his choices. This acceptance meant I was able to move on, as well as maintaining a civilised and respectful relationship with them both. It didn’t lessen the hurt or stem the tears when he left, but helped avoid secondary wounds. –Nicola, Melbourne, Australia

You need to love and understand yourself before committing to a relationship. You are not incomplete, and in need of a person to feel whole. I watched both of my parents jump from partner to partner after their divorce. Each of their subsequent relationships were filled with highs and lows, but eventually crushed by hyper-dependence. I strive to break this trend by attending couple’s and individual therapy, looking after myself and trying my hardest to love myself. – Caiti, Melbourne, Australia

My parents’ unconventional relationships showed me that love means different things to different people in different times and places. They encouraged me to work out what love means for myself. I think that the best response to a feeling or a declaration of love is to ask what it means in that moment. It might uncover a bundle of ideas and expectations about relationships, desires, personal histories and wants for the future.

The idea that we can actively learn how to love others is very old. It means that love is an intentional practice: an art form we cultivate, as well as a feeling that we have. – Clare, Sydney, Australia

Caring is keyMy dad gave me my life motto, ‘it’s nice to be nice’. I’ve applied that liberally and found it gets me through angst in relationships and helps restore loving to an even keel more quickly. – John, Canberra, Australia

Life doesn’t always go to plan, but love gets you through. My mum was a tour de force, but due to renal failure she was on dialysis for 15 years before she died aged 56. My parents hadn’t factored such a life-changing scenario into their plans, but my mum always used to say that my dad never made her feel any guilt for their change in circumstances. Dad dedicated himself to making her life better, whether that was looking after her so she could have home dialysis (helpfully he was a nurse!) or driving her six hours for a crab sandwich and a paddle in the sea.

My parents instilled in me what a good relationship looks like – it’s not always perfect, but it’s full of respect, compassion and love. – Clare, Kent, UK

My mother was forward thinking. During a conversation about sex when I was about 15, she advised me that if one wants a good sex life, one should satisfy their partner first. I’ve never forgotten it and by all reports have had a wonderful sex life with my wife for over 30 years, well into our 70s. – William, Liverpool, UK

If you can’t disagree respectfully, leaveAnger is a choice. If you can control your feelings around your colleagues, friends and strangers, then you can do it around your family. It took a lot of unlearning as an adult to not behave like my parents. – Katie, Melbourne, Australia

My parents were two people who so obviously at best tolerated each other, at times openly hated and resented each other, but stayed together “for the children”.

Decades-old slights and arguments were resurrected and sharpened at a moment’s notice. The most important thing I learned was not to be like them.

Today I find myself in the most beautiful relationship, with the most incredible human I’ve ever met. We talk everything through like sane, rational people who actually love each other. I’ve never felt happier or safer. – Neil, Sydney, Australia

You won’t always hold the same opinions, so it’s perfectly normal and fine to disagree about things. A healthy exchange of views – not a screaming match – is important, whether it be about emotions or politics. My parents enjoyed discussing the ways of the world with each other, and for over 60 years showed a willingness to hear an alternative view.

My partner and I are each other’s sounding boards and often bring a new, helpful perspective to a situation. – Jayne, Adelaide, Australia

My mother always said that you were better off single than in a bad relationship. She also told me that I should leave any man who hit me immediately, and be sceptical of any promise he might make of never doing it again.

I’ve successfully followed my mother’s first principle – leaving unsatisfactory relationships. And while I’ve never had to follow her second piece of relationship advice, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to verify it when observing other couples. I’ve since passed on my mother’s excellent advice to my daughter. – Anonymous, Australia

Love doesn’t need to be conventionalMy parents divorced when I was very young, and both proceeded to go through a string of marriages and relationships. Each time, both would become distracted by someone shiny and new and leave one person for the next. I saw the pain and heartbreak it causes when someone cheats, and dealt with much of the fallout myself. I realised that developing feelings for someone new is probably quite normal, but decided in my teens that I wouldn’t continue my parents’ example.

A few years into a long-term monogamous relationship, I started to develop feelings for a friend my partner and I shared. I agonised over it for some time, going through the usual internal conflict. Something could have happened, but nothing did. I talked to my partner in depth about what I was feeling and though it was painful and difficult, we realised we were both experiencing many of the same feelings for the same person.

After much discussion around boundaries and expectations, that person became a part of our relationship too and we shifted from strict monogamy to the inclusion of a third person. I’m happier than I’ve ever been and proud of myself for navigating this situation with honesty. – Anonymous, UK

My parents “separated” when I was two years old. My mum moved 60 miles south to be closer to my grandad and I saw my dad every weekend. I had no qualms with this as I got to have the “fun” dad that taught us all of his favourite skills. My sister and I had a joyous childhood. The weird part was that they were still very much in love and committed to each other, but having been together for 15 years already, they had both shifted into new, older versions of themselves and living together wasn’t so fun any more. Soon after the “separation” the weekend roster became all of us spending time together. From Friday night to Sunday night we were a complete family and spending weekends alternating between my mum’s house then my dad’s.

This went on for 16 years and then shortly after I’d left home to go to university, I got a call from Mum – she was moving back in with Dad. I remember feeling quite shocked at the time. It was so bizarre to have my parents living together!

This was 13 years ago. Now they’re happier than ever. They’re like love’s young dream. It taught me that love doesn’t need to be conventional or convenient. You can live and lead separate lives and then come back to each other. – Abi, Melbourne, Australia

Quotes have been edited for structure, clarity and length

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