Ep 23: How Our Parents Shape Our Romantic Relationships (Ft May Liu, Therapist, Clinical Psychologist)

Published on Feb 24, 2023

About our guest: Sis May Liu

May Liu, a practising clinical psychologist cum caregiver, who believes in empowering lives by connecting with people. She is a mindfulness practitioner who is passionate about bringing mindfulness to families and couples. She is currently leading Seremban Sudhamma Sunday Dhamma School’s teens and children in learning the Dhamma through group work and exposure to nature. 


[00:00:00] Kai Xin:

Hi there. This is Kai Xin and you’re listening to the Handful of Leaves podcast, where we bring you practical Buddhist wisdom for a happier life. Today’s episode is really interesting. We are going to speak with Sister May, who is a clinical psychologist, about how our parents’ relationship influences our very own romantic relationship, and our outlook on love, marriage and life, and how it influences the way we respond and react to situations around us. All of this has very much to do with our experiences as a child.

Some people would have a very positive outlook on love while others can be downright sceptical and even vouch to stay single for life. Some couples quarrel a lot out of jealousy, fear of abandonment and anxiety, while others seem to communicate pretty well to make each other feel supported, to feel loved.

So what really makes a difference between all these relationships? Now, we first have to look at how we are being shaped by our parents in terms of how we define love, and then try to unlearn certain habitual behaviours that we’ve picked up since we were a child. All of these are what Sis May is going to help us to unpack.

And she’s very generous in sharing her own personal experiences, dealing with her husband, dealing with her ex before she got married, as well as her mother-in-law whom she is now caring for. She also shared a couple of examples from working with her clients in order to help us understand certain concepts, especially the part about identifying what is the underlying cause of all these emotions, and seeing things as they are in order to sustain a healthier relationship.

We will be talking about multigenerational baggage, attachment styles, how do we navigate situations when we have very different styles from our partner, and how do we communicate well and iron out those differences. Whether you’re single, in a relationship or you’re already married, in this episode, you’re going to learn something from it if you were to pay close attention to the contents of the discussion. I really hope you enjoy the episode and learn a lot from it. Without further ado, let’s dive right in.

[00:02:35] Hi, Sister May. We have today, Cheryl and myself chatting with you.

[00:02:41] Cheryl:


[00:02:42] May: Thank you for inviting me.

[00:02:44] Kai Xin:

It’s our pleasure. Sister May, I know that you are very active in the Buddhist scene giving a lot of talks and in your day job as a senior clinical psychologist, you teach people how to parent well. I don’t think I’d do your job justice, so I think it’s better for you to share with our listeners, just very briefly, what you do and what you’re passionate about.

[00:03:06] May:

Thank you Kai Xin. I’m a senior clinical psychologist. I am more like a part-time clinician now. I’m also a caregiver for my mother-in-law who had a stroke and has dementia. In my work, my so-called special expertise is guiding parents on mindful parenting. So I incorporate mindfulness in my work and of course, I do see youths, young adults and all that. So whenever comes to me with concerns, I always have that family at the back of my mind. I want to know how they are being brought up or how they are being shaped in terms of how they see things and experience things.

[00:03:46] Kai Xin:

You mentioned something interesting like how our parents change the way we see things. Can you give a couple of examples and what are some of the common scenarios?

[00:03:56] May: I think a very simple example is our way of doing things perhaps say cleanliness. Some people are not particular about it because the parents did not really emphasized this so much. Perhaps they emphasize their academic work and whatnot, so in terms of personal cleanliness or hygiene, they may not be paying so much attention. In terms of relationships, in a single-parent family, perhaps when the child is in a relationship, they tend to be very careful in terms of relating themself to their partner because they really want to safeguard that relationship. Some become very conscious. They are very alert about how their partner relates to them and all that. So, what they have experienced from their upbringing transpires through their relationships.

[00:04:46] Cheryl:

I think particularly in romantic relationships, the dynamics that we see from our parents is the first time we witness the love between two people. So I remember having this conversation with my friend. A little bit of background, my parents always fight, always quarrel. There’s not a day where you don’t hear them shouting at each other. So I have a rather pessimistic view of relationships or long-term love. So I told my friend, I think relationships are meant to be short-term. If you get together with a person and you don’t feel like the person is contributing, it makes sense for you to go your own ways.

Meanwhile, my friend grew up witnessing a relationship where their parents modelled a lot of loving behaviour even in their sixties, e.g. they’re still saying “I love you very much” and things like that. He had a very optimistic view of relationships. He was saying love is possible to go all the way to the end. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world and things like that. So I found it very surprising because before talking to him, I didn’t realize that people could have that kind of view where a loving relationship is possible after 30-40 years of marriage. So it is just crazy how much our parents can affect our views.

When you gave the example that growing up with a single parent may cause the child to sometimes be very careful with their partner because it’s the love that they don’t want to lose, a thought that came up to me was, “can an apple really fall very far from the tree?” Like, are we able to really not take after the mistakes of our parents and build something positive if all we have seen is negative modelling?

[00:06:33] May:

Of course. You know, like people have the ability to change. They learn and then they change. It requires the intention to shift the dynamic to an ideal one or to a better one. So I always believe that people have the ability to change. For example, in a family, you have a parent who may have modelled not-so-pleasant experiences for their children. Among the children who grew up in the same family, you will see some of them repeating the patterns of their parent’s marriage and some do not, you know? So what is the difference then?

It is how one picks up or learns new things from their exposure. So, as you said, seeing how your friend’s parents are so loving and all, opens up your perspective. That’s how you’ve been nourished and you know that there’s a possibility of a different model of relationship. That gives you hope that there are opportunities and possibilities to shape a more optimistic relationship.

[00:07:35] Kai Xin:

That’s very interesting. Just now you also mentioned that if a person goes through a single parenting kind of experience, they would kind of look at their situation very differently. Cherishing their relationship versus being too careful or very avoidant. You mentioned having more exposure to broaden the view, and you also mentioned something about being deliberate. Can you share a little bit more on how we can be more aware of how this affects us?

[00:08:03] May:

Yeah, definitely. This reminds me of a client. She’s in a relationship now, in her twenties, just graduated from university, currently starting her career. She experienced domestic violence between her parents and her father was absent all the time. She’s the youngest in the family. So she witnessed her siblings’ respective relationships and their marriages as well. After stepping into this relationship, she realized that she clings to her boyfriend so much that her happiness comes almost exclusively from her boyfriend. So there was one occasion when her boyfriend did not reply to her and did not attend her birthday celebration. They were supposed to have a celebration, but he had an emergency and was uncontactable.

So she was very depressed, you know. She wanted to break up and whatnot. She came for a session and of course, we processed all this, right? And one thing that helped her to understand her situation is how her previous experience of witnessing her siblings’ marriages has taught her that if her partner is not attending to her immediately or responding fast enough, there’s something wrong. So when there’s something wrong, her immediate response is to run away, to get out of this. Hence she reacted very strongly to this. But her boyfriend is a policeman. As a policeman, he needs to attend to emergencies and they have to be discreet about their operations at times, right? So that’s the context of the situation where she felt that she cannot spend time with her boyfriend anymore because he cannot be there for her consistently.

So, her distorted perspective on a relationship, of needing a boyfriend who can be there for her 24/7 stems from her childhood and from witnessing her siblings’ marriages where they are not able to communicate well. So she needs a lot of communication from her partner. She needs consistent communication to help her to feel secure, to feel safe. So, I have to really help her to recognize that there are a lot of injuries and wounds — wounds of attachment. It took a lot of trial and error to help her understand what is a normal degree of attachment, or what a normal relationship should look like. There is always give-and-take in certain situations.

She deliberately wants to have a good relationship, that’s for sure. We can see that, right? But her distorted perspective on relationships is something that needs to be done away with. Also, she needs time to heal the attachment wound that she has experienced for such a long time.

[00:11:03] Cheryl:

Can you maybe share a little bit more about attachment wounds?

[00:11:08] May:

Well attachment is the first basic trust that we built since we are born into this world, from zero to two years old. This is where we learn how to trust the outside world. As a baby, we do not have the ability to take care of ourselves. We have to rely on our caregivers.

So whenever we cry, are we given immediate attention? Are we given a response that is caring enough for us to feel safe and secure? Sometimes when our parents do not respond immediately, we keep crying. As a baby, we keep crying until we receive what we need. So some babies learn that they have to cry hard to get attention. They learn to cry harder because when they cry harder, their caregiver will respond. Perhaps, some children may become manipulative. For example, they do a lot of things to make other people happy so as to get their needs fulfilled.

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Each of us has attachment wounds of different severity, including you and me here. I wouldn’t say that there is no one without attachment wounds. But how do we heal from attachment wounds which are formed while growing up, how do we build relationships with other people and what are the responses we received externally? Will It help us to heal or will we worsen the injury from within?

[00:12:42] Cheryl:

It reinforces the belief that is unhelpful when the interactions with people become negative.

[00:12:48] May:

Correct. Yeah. So this is very much the interpersonal process of building trust and shaping our worldview.

[00:12:57] Cheryl:

I’m just very curious, do you have any attachment wounds that you’re open to sharing? How has It affected your past relationships or how do you see it show up in your current marriage?

[00:13:07] May:

Um, okay. I do have two relationships before my current marriage. I think the second relationship is the one where I got very, very hurt. But through this relationship, I learnt a very important thing about myself. I stepped into my current marriage because I’ve learnt what is called a moderately good relationship. Of course, in every relationship, we hope that this is our last relationship, right? I don’t know about youths nowadays, but for a person who seeks a serious relationship, we always want our first relationship to be the last one.

So, what happened in that relationship? The relationship was actually not approved by the ex-boyfriend’s family. So, we had to break up because of that. At one time, I was very resentful. Why did we have to submit to our parent’s wishes despite being so in love? We always say that love is between two people. What I’ve learnt from it is that our parents are also part of our relationship. Although they’re not directly involved, we carry them behind us as we enter into a relationship.

So what I can see is that when she disapproved of our relationship, my instinct was to rebel. I want to prove to her that she was wrong for not choosing me. You know, I had that kind of ego. I modelled this behaviour after my mother. My mother was always like, “I’m not going to bend down to you. If you look down on me, I’ll strive to do even better.” I’m a fighter, you know, my mom too. So I really realized that this was how my mom fought with my father.

So, in my current marriage, I’m living with my parents-in-law. I do appreciate this because I know a lot of youth nowadays, even if they’re married, they will choose not to live with their parents-in-law. But I can see that when I’m living with my parents-in-law, I can understand my husband much, much better, and I can empathize with his situation. Somehow he also appreciates me more because I show appreciation to his parents by taking care of them. So I guess, that’s my give-and-take in the relationship. While I’m learning how to rebel reasonably, I also learn to respect more. I think this is an important lesson that I learnt. What didn’t happen in my parents’ relationship is now happening in my own marriage.

[00:16:09] Kai Xin:

Thanks for sharing. So if I can put what you have shared in clear steps:

  1. We need to first be aware of our behaviours and then investigate because behaviours usually have some form of hidden expectations, right?
  2. Then, we re-evaluate what are the causes. Is it caused by our parents? How does it translate to our current relationship?
  3. And then we rebuild and repair.

And I’m thinking, at which point in the journey did you become aware that there is this cause and effect? Is it when you feel really angry, or do you have to be deliberate in reflecting all the time, even when things are peaceful and calm? How can we build healthier relationships through whatever we have just discussed?

[00:16:58] May:

Of course when you are in the mud, you need to learn how to survive. Or maybe to stand still and really look at what else can be done differently. I will say that actually, I learn a lot when I’m experiencing challenges. Those situations or those challenges, on a day-to-day basis, can be small things like, not replying to messages or forgetting something, to big things like perhaps sickness or trauma. I find that when I was drawn to challenges, especially those associated with romantic relationships, I really needed a lot of space to talk and express my feelings and thoughts.

I was lucky that I had my friend’s support at that time and I had the time to reflect on what is actually happening because I was finger-pointing. It’s very hard for me to reflect on myself when I was hurt. I was caught up in thinking that I was hurt, I was injured by another person. That was my younger self.

What I’m learning now is that when I’m able to practice meditation or mindfulness more often, I find myself really at peace when I look at my own struggles from within, instead of blaming others. For example, now that I’m taking care of my mother-in-law. She’s in a lot of pain and has a lot of difficulties. She cannot move easily. So every time I move her, she will grumble and shout. So every day I have to really practice patience and acceptance of who she is.

When I’m not mindful, I will always think — “Is she making my task more difficult?” But when I am able to be more mindful, I can see that this is what she is because she is in so much pain, so much discomfort, that I’m the only person to whom she can express her anger and frustration. I am not the cause of her anger. I kept reflecting on this for a long time to realize that the anger I was feeling stemmed from my expectations of how she should behave, how she should appreciate my effort and all that. So, I realized that, wow, okay, it was me. The ‘I’, the ‘mine’, the ‘self’, was polluted by my own expectations, and that made me struggle to connect with my mother-in-law.

So this realization only came quite recently, even though I’ve been practising for a few years. This was a breakthrough moment. So, I really see that daily practice is important. We might not be getting there so easily, but every little effort we make, however small, still brings us one step or maybe one baby step forward.

[00:20:11] Kai Xin:

I’m curious, how do you get that sense of expectation for reciprocity? And did that also strain your relationship with your husband if it’s not too personal to share? Because typically romantic relationship is affected by our parents as well, right?

[00:20:27] May:

Yeah, definitely. My husband and my mother-in-law do not have a good relationship, but they still somewhat maintain a cordial relationship. Many times, I am the middle person. So I do have that feeling of “why me?”, you know. “I’m the external party”, I can say that very easily since I’m the so-called outsider in the family.

So this is where the ‘me’, the ‘mine’, the ‘I’ come in so strongly, creating this kind of boundary which makes me feel that I am not supposed to be involved. I will also try to throw the responsibility back to him.

[00:21:11] Cheryl:

finger-pointing and blaming.

[00:21:12] May:

Yeah, correct. The finger-pointing comes out again. I realized that when I’m not able to take care of myself, it happens. When I’m burnt out or overwhelmed, then, of course, it will burn my husband as well. But, I’m happy that, when I complain and all, I am given the cuddles and the listening ear that I need from my husband. Even though he doesn’t help much, he’s there to listen. “Oh, okay. Okay. I understand. 辛苦了,辛苦了。” which translates to : Thanks for your hard work.

This soothes me a little bit so that I know I can continue, I’m not alone on that journey, even though I expect him to help me more physically. But, I know that there are certain challenges between him and his mother. So, what I can see here is that this kind of parent-child baggage really takes courage and intention to confront so that you can slowly reconcile with your parents. I felt that it benefited me a lot to know what is moderately good. I do not have to be good, but moderately good. I think that is good enough.

[00:22:38] Cheryl:

That’s interesting. Moderately good is good enough. So I guess what we can say is, there isn’t going to be a perfect relationship, be it with your partner or your partner’s family. And as long as you’re able to be content with what is going well, finding the goodness in what is going well, that would make it good enough, is that right?

[00:23:02] May:

The contentment comes from really understanding the nature of things. The nature of things is just how things are. They have been living in such a situation and things have been done in this nature for a long time.

When we are there, if we do not have enough understanding, we may not be content with such a situation. We want to change things, we want to have our way and we want to perhaps insert new things. So it really takes a long time to get to understand and accept the nature of things as they are. That is really the contentment that makes you know, “Ah, this is good enough”.

[00:23:46] Cheryl:

I think like as a Buddhist, right, I want to be very wary about this contentment as accepting it as good enough in a very resigned way. You’re just like “算了 (Forget it)”. The opposite of that would be, “I think I deserve better. I should get more. I should do more”. It’s very hard to balance.

Just tying it back to what you mentioned just now about attachment wounds, everyone hurts differently. Everyone has been conditioned differently. So how do you know you’re doing yourself justice in the sense that, you are fulfilling your needs as a result of your attachment wounds versus settling for, uh…

[00:24:35] Kai Xin:

Settling for less?

[00:24:37] Cheryl:

Not, not settling for less, but you’re trying to not live with an unhelpful coping mechanism. Does it make sense?

[00:24:45] May:

Um, how do we still have our own individuality while we are living as a couple or we are living as a family? So, this is where you really have to understand that before we say that we can understand other people, we have to first understand ourselves. How much do we accept ourselves? Improvement is not wrong but this tendency of wanting something to be better always comes from desire. And this desire arises because most of the time we want to feel good; it pushes us to do something. So, we need to be aware of how we feel when we come into contact with certain things before we try to change things. These feelings that arise, where do they come from? They come from our consciousness. They come from our past experiences, right?

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For example, whenever your mother is not responding to you, you feel bad about it. Now, if you were in a relationship and you want to improve your relationship, and when your husband, boyfriend or partner didn’t talk to you about certain things, your past experience or your memory about that unpleasant feeling of abandonment arises. You do not like this of course. You want to change this, right? So then you will try to talk a little bit more or maybe do different things to please him or to get him back. You might make him a good meal to get him back, or you might dress better or make yourself more attractive, right?

Is that right or wrong? There’s no right or wrong, but are we aware that it’s the unpleasant past experience of abandonment that causes us to keep blaming others? “Oh, you know, I’ve put in so much effort already, but you are still not responding to me. Is there something you are not happy about or are you not content with me?”

We’re pointing fingers, again, right? So we must have an understanding of this. Well, of course, when you understand this abandonment, it’s very scary. And now that you want to talk again, we can first soothe ourselves by knowing that it’s okay to give our partner some space. I can also give myself the space to work with my inner child a little bit more, to know that I am worthy of this love. I don’t need to rush on changing anything. I just need to be patient. So be patient with myself, give myself some time and I’ll continue to do my own thing, but I’m also giving space for the other person to come back to me.

Of course, I will express myself because I also want him to connect with me. I will express that I really want to talk to him again. But I can also learn to soothe myself knowing that I don’t need to keep worrying about whether or not he will come back to me. I don’t need to keep trying to do more so that he will come back to me. So I’m not sure if I’m answering what Cheryl has asked directly. Correct me if I’m wrong.

[00:28:26] Cheryl:

I think you, you answered it very, very powerful way. I feel that what you essentially highlighted is that a lot of times we focus on the momentum and the energy of frustration and anxiety, and we try to solve that, right? And sometimes, the more you try to fix that, it gets a little bit more rigid.

But actually, you bring the awareness that we need to understand what is the narrative we are holding behind all these kinds of emotions. And that will help us to be able to recognize what is actually going on here and to then turn around and soothe the anxious little inner child inside that is actually calling for attention or in a way wailing for some sort of attention.

Kai Xin, do you have any thoughts?

[00:29:14] Kai Xin:

I think fear of abandonment, on the flip side, what if a person is avoidant? I kind of fit under that category. So when you put an avoidant person and a person who has the fear of abandonment, and you ask the question like, okay, I’ll just wait for the person to come back, wouldn’t there be more friction? And how can we navigate that kind of situation?

[00:29:38] May:

Thanks for asking this question. There are different patterns of attachment. Actually, there are four patterns of attachment if you will have to categorize them. These are between parent and child.

  1. Secure attachment
  2. Avoidant attachment
  3. Anxious attachment
  4. Disorganized attachment

So for a person who has more of an avoidant attachment style, when they have any concerns, they may avoid it. Correct me if I’m wrong Kai Xin. If I understand you correctly when you’re in a conflict, perhaps you will tend to not want to talk about it or do you want to talk about it?

[00:30:19] Kai Xin:

It’s more of like, give me some space to process things first. I don’t really wanna tackle the issue head-on, I’m not ready yet. Yeah, like say if my partner was to feel anxious, then it would be quite difficult to deal with right? Just like, talk to me, tell me what’s wrong, then how do you reconcile? Because on one hand, I have my needs, like give me space. If my partner feels that the space creates anxiety, how can one navigate that situation?

[00:30:48] May:

In a situation like this, perhaps for the avoidant type, he or she could learn to give a timeline because when you work with another person who has an anxious attachment style, setting expectations will be helpful, to know that, “Hey, I will come back to you, you know, give me two days to think about that.” This would also help the person with an avoidant attachment style learn how to face it. Maybe it is very hard to talk about issues for the avoidant type because they want to avoid unpleasant situations. To handle a conflict, it becomes very scary, you know. So, how to stay through the unpleasant feeling is what the avoidant type can learn, instead of running away. You can choose not to say anything, but to stay there and not go away. Just be present. Yeah. I think that’s a big learning, takes a lot of courage for the person to stay there.

[00:31:58] Kai Xin:

Yeah, that’s very helpful. So it’s about understanding, yes, I have my needs, but I can’t run away forever. I need to find a common ground. Yeah, that’s helpful.

To wrap up our chat, do you have any practical daily practice that we can adopt to build stronger relationships? How frequently should we check in with our partners or how frequently should we reflect on our behaviours and how that’s linked to our relationship with our parents or our parents’ relationship with each other? Yeah. Any practical advice?

[00:32:40] May:

For me, it’s the practice of mindfulness, to anchor yourself in terms of being able to stay still whether or not you are facing any challenges. Learning how to stay still is very, very helpful.

You can spend some time to come back to your breathing every day, just to really take a moment to be with your present breath, your bodily sensations. That’s always very helpful. In psychology, we call it grounding. In our day-to-day tasks, there are so many things happening – conversations, thoughts, ideas, problem-solving, etc. So it’s very much, up here, you know. The mind is always actively thinking and processing information. So to have time to ground ourselves, to come back to the body, to the sensations, to the senses, is very helpful. We know that our hands still feel, our legs still touch, our tongues still taste, our noses still breathe well and all that.

And of course, if there is also an opportunity to reflect, say, for example, to really allow yourself to hold space to be with the feeling, it is also very helpful. I know that a lot of youths will sometimes say “I don’t know how I feel. I just feel blank. I just want to lie down and do nothing. I just feel like not doing anything.” So this is where the need to be with one’s feelings and emotions arises. When they are overwhelmed or when they finish one thing, they will experience the emptiness, you know, a sensation of emptiness. It’s actually not empty if you really look into it. Maybe there are so many feelings that you can’t even name one. It is a sense of loss perhaps.

Do we have time for ourselves to write or to express ourselves? Do we express to friends or write to ourselves, like, “Hey, you know, how have you been doing?” Do we spend time getting in touch with nature? We could just sit there and enjoy the wind and the air, and just be surrounded by nature. This is to take care of our own feelings and our own senses so that we are not so lost. We are carried away by too many things in our life that we forget how to be in touch with our feelings and our inner child. To have a space to express ourselves, whether it’s by being in nature, by writing something, by drawing something, or maybe just by sitting down and meditating, is very important. Yeah, just be, just be.

[00:35:52] Kai Xin:

It’s interesting how you bring it back to ourselves. When we stabilize our inner child, meet our own needs and be able to self-soothe, then our relationship with our partners would be so much healthier because it’s not like we are trying to fill a void or a form of lack, and our behaviour around them would also change because our needs are met then, you know, it becomes a lot happier to be around with the person and, we can truly be present. This shifts my mindset a little bit. Thank you very much. It all goes back to inner work and understanding the causes and conditions.

[00:36:30] May:

Yeah. The person we need to connect with is ourselves before we can connect with another person.

[00:36:39] Cheryl:

To wrap it up, thank you Sister May for sharing a lot.

We started with understanding how a lot of how we react is also because of our parents, our upbringing, the dynamics that we observe from them, and the kind of interactions that we learn from them. And obviously the kind of exposure that we learn from our friends, from the different kinds of relationships we see modelled around us can change our views too.

We also talk about really understanding what the root cause is in terms of your distress and frustration, and really trying to understand that many kinds of healing can happen from within. Thanks so much for sharing all the practical ways that we could use mindfulness to help us to ground and like you say, just be.

Yeah. Thank you so much for coming onto this episode.

[00:37:27] May:

Thank you, thank you for having me and sharing on this interesting topic.

[00:37:33] Kai Xin:

Thank you.

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