How Our Childhood Influences Adult Relationships
BY RYAN BREEN
In the practice of couple’s counseling I am amazed by the seemingly perfect people who find themselves in relationships with emotionally reactive partners. People wake up one day and find themselves trapped in a horrible predicament. They are married to an emotional terrorist who wishes to ruin their experience of living out the continuation of happiness from their childhood. They wonder why this emotional volcano refuses to adopt common sense and continues to stand opposed to the governing rules and expectations that were proven throughout his adolescence and adulthood. This emotional train wreck of a person appears to be either depressed and guilt ridden or angry and acting out because they cannot live up to the "logical" expectations that were set forth. Partners who have it all figured out are heard saying, "If they would just..." While the partner who is deemed the “emotional mess” draws the focus of therapy, the perfect spouse completes assigned homework with an air of emotional detachment. He clearly knows where the problem is and it’s not him. His contributions to therapy consist of affirming his own good demeanor and intentions as a contrast to the more obviously struggling partner. And, he asks, “What’s wrong with her?”
Now, I'm being facetious in the above description, but this is a common scenario for those seeking relationship counseling. Typically, one partner says, "We need to go to counseling!" The other, seeing it as a personal problem of the emotionally needy spouse, is either a begrudging participant or neutral in their commitment. They are not quite sure why they agreed. Perhaps it is only to keep the "needy" partner quiet. They believe if their partner would work on himself or herself then everyone could be happy. They do not see it as a relationship issue, yet the hurting partner sees it as just that, a clear divide.
A young couple came to counseling seeking direction for their relationship. As I tend to do, I began psychoeducation with the laws of attraction and relationships. We progressed towards identifying their personal childhood wounds that needed to be healed. For the wife, these wounds were easy to identify and admit to because she wore them on her sleeve. However, it became clear that the young man was struggling, though not obvious to him. As his wife described the coldness of her mother coupled with unrelentingly high expectations, he was unable to express any critique of his parents as related to his marriage problems. This young woman was able to describe her need for affirmation and lived in constant hunger to feel connected and accepted. Her mother had been unable to validate her efforts and achievements. So she became an adult, but continued to hope for her mother’s affirmation, "Good job!"
On the other hand, the young man insisted that his parents were and remain superb. He couldn't reveal any treatment that was unjust and unfair. He rejected the possibility of an imperfect childhood. He was completely convinced that he was raised right and his job was persuading his wife to live according to his roadmap. He thought if she could "get on board" with his approach her anxiety would go away. He was somewhat willing to listen and join her in therapy, but his stubbornness prevented him from experiencing true empathy.
Empathy is a necessary component to building trust and healthy communication. Empathy can only be achieved when I am able to connect my humanity to your personal experience. It is expressed by statements such as, " You must feel..." or "I can see how you feel..." or "Your experience make sense to me because..." Defensiveness destroys our ability to be empathetic; it inhibits our ability to tune into another human being, and therefore prevents connection on a deeper level. After six sessions, the couple decided I and therapy had helped them and they discontinued counseling.
4 months later...
They returned to therapy, this time at the husband’s request. He had recently discovered his wife was involved in an emotional affair with one of his friends. He was distraught and shaken by the thought that he could lose his wife. After all, he thought, "She needed him for support. Didn't she?"
Relationships are always two-way streets. Their purpose is to provide an opportunity for both partner’s personal growth and character development. It can never be a top down approach were one person is constantly in the power position. As we began to work, I quickly addressed the heart of the matter. I met with the husband alone; I asked specific questions about his past. To me, either he was perfect or he was like every other human being who carries hurt and unhealthy experiences into adulthood that can be, at times, disguised as strengths. In time, he opened to exploring what he thought was a “perfect” childhood.
In the beginning, we focused our questioning around his strengths. Where are you most appreciated in life? When do you feel most alive and of value to others? As with many men, the work place is where he receives value and expresses himself best. At work, he is able to get people to respond to him, take his advice, and feel a sense of control. Transferring professional success to relationships is never easy. Why do you think your wife refuses to do what you want? How does that feel? In response, he revealed that he felt disrespected, undervalued, and unappreciated. What emerged was he perceived his wife’s rejection of his advice as a direct threat to his personal safety, sense of success, and value as her husband. Why is it important for her to follow your suggestions? What might happen if she doesn’t? Then, the pivotal moment arrived: When in your childhood did you feel similarly?
The light bulb went on. He revealed parents who were both high-powered lawyers. His mom worked six days per week until he was ten years old and his father had excelled as a professional athlete through hard work and discipline. As a child, the husband worked constantly for his mother’s approval in school, athletics, and as an older sibling. He also became more likely to receive her validation when taking her advice. However, in playing by mom's rules he was living out her values and expectations rather than his own. Years of seeking her approval had resulted in a disconnection from his hard-won successes. And, he had never considered that he was still seeking his mother’s approval in adulthood. "My parents routinely advised me on life choices, but didn’t support good decisions as my own. It was their approach and therefore, their success. I came to depend on their guidance.”
The husband began to confront his adult need for his mother’s advice and expressed concern if his wife found out. “My wife would probably be upset if she knew, he said.” He became aware that his unmet emotional needs were taking a toll on his marriage and that he had rationalized his pain as “the perfect childhood.” Eventually, he was able to acknowledge his parents did their best, but that he had become unconsciously driven to seek his mother’s approval. He shared, "I am the little boy who came home from preschool to show my art work only to have mom ignore me because she was working." He was able to recognize he had patterned his marriage in much the same way. He was giving advice to his wife and expecting her to follow it. If she did this, he would finally have the approval he sought. Clearly, his need to gain his mother's acceptance had disrupted an empathic connection with his wife.
For many people, dissatisfaction in marriage, or any relationship, is almost never solved by someone else changing to satisfy our needs. It rarely comes down to a right or wrong issue that can be defined contractually. It frequently settles on developing empathy for your partner, which requires a person to confront their own painful wounds. These insights can allow us to accept our childhood experiences and understand how they may influence present relationships. Addressing unhealthy relationship behaviors requires us to look again at our experiences and those of our parents with compassion. Once we do so, we may find the freedom of perspective and release from reliving the past.
AUTHOR'S WEBSITE: http://www.couplescrisiscounseling.com