Why You Should Talk To Your Parents About Their Dating Histories (And How To Bring It Up)

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.

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Even as an adult, the idea of talking to your parents about the intimate details of your romantic and sexual life can be cringe-inducing. Some households are very open and candid about these types of conversations, but the research suggests that the majority of them aren't.

Part of the problem goes back to that deeply instilled fear of sexuality that still persists in societies across the world, including even the seemingly hypersexual America. Our culture continues to view sex outside of marriage as morally contemptible, dangerous, and emotionally unhealthy, and so under its influence, many parents desperately want to ensure their children abstain from sex for as long as humanly possible. And so these probably well-intentioned parents purposefully avoid or outright forbid conversations around relationships and sexuality with their children outside of warnings about the negative consequences. The unspoken belief seems to be that talking about sex positively could accidentally encourage their adolescent offspring to get curious.

And the other reason for all the hush-hush? The obvious: It just feels awkward to talk with your family members, particularly between parents and kids, about sex.

But a growing body of research strongly suggests that the silence on this extremely normal and often integral part of adult life likely does more harm than good—and not only because it perpetuates an unhelpful culture of shame and misinformation around sex.

How your parents' romantic pasts affect your relationships today.

Even as adults with our own homes and lives, our relationships are deeply affected by our parents' relationships. Take, for example, a new study released this month that found young adults' number of romantic partners actually tends to mirror their mothers' number. After looking at survey data culled from over 7,000 people—all mothers and their children—followed over the course of 24 years, researchers found that people whose mothers have had multiple serious relationships also tended to have many partners themselves. In other words, people tend to at least somewhat follow in their mother's footsteps when it comes to relationships.

We've known for a while that children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves, and past research has found a similar connection between a parent's number of breakups and their offspring's. But thanks to this study's particularly rich data set, the researchers were able to narrow down why kids mirror their parents in this way. It didn't have to do with money, for one—mothers who break up with someone they'd been cohabitating with or married to do tend to experience financial stress, but the researchers were able to control for the effects of financial instability and still found kids following in their mother's romantic footsteps. The common argument about how children of divorce value commitment less also didn't pan out in the findings: The researchers compared siblings with age gaps between them to see if older siblings who saw their mother go through more breakups tended to have more partners than younger siblings who saw fewer of their mother's breakups. That wasn't the case, meaning being able to observe mom's relationship troubles yourself didn't seem to be driving the mirroring effect.

So what was it?

"It's actually not about observing your mom breaking a commitment," explains Claire Kamp Dush, Ph.D., a human sciences professor at Ohio State University and the study's lead author. "It's something about the moms that have more partners that make you more likely to have more partners. So for example, we know that moms with mental health problems are more likely to have children with mental health problems, and if you have mental health problems, you are less likely to have stable relationships. You're more likely to have unstable relationships."

In other words, it's possible that you're inheriting from your mother specific traits that affect your personality, character, or ways of relating to others. (Past research supports the theory: For example, more emotionally intelligent parents tend to have more emotionally intelligent children.)

"It's also the case that children learn conflict management skills from observing their parents or, in this case, their mom and her partners," Dr. Kamp Dush adds. "So it could be that you're learning ways to resolve conflicts through watching your mom."

So if Mom doesn't have great conflict resolution skills, you might be picking that up from watching her. Does your mom not talk much about her feelings? Maybe you learned to do that too. Is she someone who gives too much to lovers who don't give back? Maybe you never knew that about her growing up—at least not consciously—but it's possible that it subconsciously registered, and you've behaved that way in relationships ever since.

Importantly, this means that your mother's specific number of partners or relationship dissolutions doesn't actually matter—it's all the potentially less-than-great relationship skills you're learning from her that do. (Also important to note: This particular study didn't have data about fathers" past relationships, so no one's saying your trouble with love is all Mom's fault. There just wasn't enough information on Dad. But it's probably safe to say that we're likely picking up bad habits from both parents, and maybe even any and all caregivers we grow up with.)

The way our parents navigate their own relationships does seem to be affecting us, whether through inherited traits or observed ones. But if we're not talking to them about this stuff, how could we ever avoid the same mistakes they made—or experience the same triumphs?

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How to open the conversation with your parents.

As my mother loves to say with a kiddish laugh: Love is blind, and lovers cannot see. But the neighbors can.

And so can your family!

It's so hard to see ourselves clearly, explains Bobbi Wegner, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist who works with parents and families at Boston Behavioral Medicine, to mbg. But you can hear an anecdote from your parent, and regardless of whether they themselves have the wisdom or self-awareness to understand what happened, you might just learn something just from bearing witness to their story. By examining your family history this way, you might just be able to come to understand yourself better and why you are the way you are.

So how exactly do you bring this stuff up, considering the aforementioned uncomfortable environment around family sex talk? "Take a position of caring curiosity, not judgment," Dr. Wegner recommends. "Say something like, 'I'd love to hear more about you and your life before me.'"

Here are a few open-ended questions she suggests to get the conversation started:

  • When were you most in love? How did you know?
  • What did you love most about that person and that relationship?
  • When were you most hurt in a relationship? How did you respond? What made it so painful?

"Although these conversations might initially seem awkward or difficult, often it is very connecting to talk about past loves and hurts," Dr. Wegner says. "Remember, parents are people too, and moments of deep love and pain are just below the surface. By talking, you might learn something about your parents (and yourselves), on top of connecting at a much deeper level. Talking about love and loss humanizes parents and shows vulnerability, which can be incredibly reparative and helpful for children to see."

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Should parents open up the conversation with their kids?

All evidence suggests it's likely in their best interests, especially if you're a parent who has struggled with relationships in the past. Children who have more conversations about sex and relationships with their parents throughout their childhood tend to have safer sex when they do become sexually active—and, to Dr. Wegner's point, a closer bond with their parents. And adult children who've received intense support from their parents, including plenty of emotional support and advice, tend to have psychologically healthier minds and more satisfying lives.

"Open parent-child communication about sexuality and relationships from an early age is best," Brigham Young University family life professor Laura M. Padilla-Walker, Ph.D., tells mbg. "That doesn't necessarily mean a parent disclosing all of his or her relationship triumphs and failures, but it means not shying away from these conversations and discussing sexuality and healthy development in an open and developmentally appropriate manner."

Dr. Padilla-Walker does suggest going light on the gruesome details, but starting the conversation from a young age and going deeper as the child gets older is a great way to at least foster that openness from the get-go. That way if your child, whether as a teen or an adult, later wants to come to you with more specific questions, they can feel safe doing so.

Passing on the family wisdom.

Whether you're an adult with parents whose pasts are still enigmatic to you or a parent wondering what to share with their kids, the big take-away here is that we all have a lot to learn from those who came before us. The lessons a parent learned about life and love can and should be passed down—that way, as a family, we can all continue to build off one another's growth from generation to generation.

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