When I suggest that a marriage conflict may stem from a childhood wound, some marriage partners protest.
“Wounds from childhood? Not me. My parents were great!”
“Why do you say my childhood wounds are affecting my marriage? That was in the past. I’ve moved on and the past doesn’t affect me.”
“My problem is not because of what I experienced in childhood. It’s all about how my husband treats me today!”
These are comments I’ve heard from clients or workshop participants when I share what I call the 90/10 principle.
90% of your upset in a conversation is rooted in the past. Only 10% is related to the present.
I used to be skeptical myself, but in my experience with couples, and especially in my own marriage, I see it played out every week.
Whether or not we we acknowledge it…our childhood wounds do affect our marriage.
According to relationship expert, Dr. Harville Hendrix…
Anytime you have a frustration with your partner that occurs three times or more, and you have negative feelings about it, it comes from childhood.
Emotions buried in your unconscious mind that are based on wounds in childhood drive the kind of behavior that’s not productive in your relationship today.
To understand how this happens, let’s go back and see how childhood wounding occurs.
The childhood wounding experience
Dr. Edward Tronick’s Still Face Experiment shows the interaction between a caretaker and an infant. If you haven’t seen this I encourage you to watch it now. And then let’s explore the implications together.
When the child feels connected with mom everything works well.
But when mom gives the child the “still face” causing a rupture in the connection, the child begins to feel anxiety.
When this happens in real life, we call this “un-attuned” caretaking, and it occurs to some degree in most parent-child relationships.
Think about it. In busy families, especially large families, it’s hard for caretakers to stay fully attuned to every child. Most of us probably got lost in the shuffle at some point growing up.
Un-attuned care taking may not be intentional but it’s a reality.
About a year after Sarah was born, her mom gave birth to twins who cried continually with colic. One-year-old Sarah experienced neglect.
It was not intentional. It was a time when her parents just had to do the best they could, and could not be constantly attuned to Sarah.
That’s why we say…
Healthy adults are a result of “good enough” parenting, not perfect parenting.
Sarah’s home was a normal home, but the wounding that occurred through unintentional neglect became a problem when it was triggered by her husband who, in her words, “gives more attention to his work than to me”.
Sarah’s husband, Eric, grew up always being told what to think and what to feel. The wound that resulted from an over-involved parent became a problem when Eric’s wife became, in his words, “controlling”.
This lack of attunement that ruptures connection comes in two forms: Intrusion or Neglect.
Intrusion is over-involvement by the parent. Neglect is under-involvement. Both produce a loss of connection.
When we lose the “attuned face”, i.e., the attuned emotions, the attuned eyes, the attuned presence of a caretaker in childhood, we call that a “wounding experience”.
In this wounding experience several phenomena occur:
1. Disconnecting produces ANXIETY.
ANXIETY is not a feeling or an emotion, but a sensation that runs through our bodies. It first happens to us when we first feel that disconnection from our primary caretaker.
As the Still Face Experiment shows, when the rupture in connection is repaired, anxiety goes away, and the child feels alive and happy again.
But for some of us, that repair and reconnection was not consistent. And anxiety was the result.
2. Anxiety replaces FULL-ALIVENESS.
The anxiety produced by the disconnecting replaces the previous sensation which was FULL-ALIVENESS.
As our neural system is flooded with anxiety we no longer sense the full-aliveness we experienced before.
3. Loss of full-aliveness gives birth to DESIRE.
When anxiety shows up, it’s accompanied by DESIRE for what was lost, which was that feeling of full-aliveness that is no longer being experienced.
Buried in every criticism or frustration with your partner is a desire to reconnect and restore that feeling of full-aliveness.
So the beginning of desire occurs with the loss of connection and the appearance of anxiety.
From the time that this wounding occurs you are on a journey to find someone who will help you complete what was missing in childhood, and help you feel fully alive again.
That’s what Romantic Love is all about. When you find a person who matches your caretaker’s positive and negative traits, you fall for that person and form a relationship.
What you don’t realize is that deep in your mind is an unconscious agenda to heal childhood wounds.
4. Desire results in SELF-ABSORPTION.
When we experience that rupture and the anxiety that goes along with it, we become self-absorbed.
SELF-ABSORPTION is the main feature of pain.
Remember the child on the way to the beach that I refer to a lot? She was enjoying all the beauty – the sun, the water, the colors, the seagulls flying overhead, the warm sand…
But then, suddenly, she stubs her toe on a rock.
All the wonder of the world outside disappears, and all she is aware of is the pain that is throbbing within her.
This is what happens psychologically to all of us.
When our emotional pain is triggered, our brain stops taking in outside information. That’s when we lose awareness of other people.
When we are receiving information only from within our own psychoneural system, it’s not possible to see, acknowledge, or empathize with another person’s reality.
This process that starts in childhood continues into our marriage.
The emotional pain from childhood that our partner triggers floods our psyche. That’s when we lose sight of our partner and we become absorbed only in our own pain.
5. Self-absorption results in SYMBIOSIS.
Because you’re not getting data about your partner from the outside, you start creating an image of your partner with the data you have inside.
You construct your partner with the figments of your own imagination.
You think you are experiencing your partner, but in reality you’re experiencing your own projections of your partner, not who your partner really is.
This is called “emotional SYMBIOSIS”. It’s when you assign to your partner your inner world and you assume they are you – that they think and feel the way you do.
“That’s a great song! Of course you like it too. Wouldn’t everyone?”
“Who would ever want their living room painted green? Everyone can see that’s not a very attractive color!”
6. Symbiosis results in POLARIZATION
As you’re stuck in this self-absorbed, symbiotic state, you’re rattled whenever you encounter a difference in your partner.
When your partner’s perspective, or opinion, or desire is different from your made up image of him or her, there is a trauma and POLARIZATION results.
That’s when you feel your partner is no longer someone you can talk to, no longer someone who is safe.
This is when the Power Struggle Stage of your marriage begins. This is when you begin wanting your partner to change.
You feel like, “If my partner doesn’t change, I can’t be happy.”
7. Polarization results in OBJECTIFICATION
As polarization happens you lose empathy for your partner. You lose the feelings that your partner feels about himself or herself.
That’s when OBJECTIFICATION occurs. Your partner has been effectively degraded to the status of a mere object.
And when people become objects, we can then treat them any way we want.
We can criticize them, yell at them, or label them. We can withdraw from them even if it makes them feel abandoned.
We can do anything to them we feel like, because they are no longer human. They are just things that serve us. And they become objects of our frustration.
Ok, Chuck, this is bordering on TMI. What’s the point?
This seven-part phenomenon all begins when your partner triggers that original feeling of disconnection you experienced as a child. That experience of wounding that came in the form of either intrusion or neglect.
So what can I do?
Let me recommend three steps I learned from Harville Hendrix in The Safe Conversations Workshop
First: Identify the "early challenge" that may be affecting your marriage.
Study the ten items in the two columns below. Write down the ONE (and only one) that most represents your greatest early challenge.
MY EARLY CHALLENGE
- To get free from feeling controlled by others.
- To express my own thoughts rather than what I should think.
- To express what I felt rather than what I should feel.
- To experience my thoughts and feelings as important.
- To do what I wanted to do rather than what I ought to do.
- To experience feeling seen and valued rather than invisible.
- To be approached by others rather than feel alone or abandoned.
- To feel appreciated as a person.
- To get support for what I think or feel.
- To have someone interested in what I want and like.
Second: Identify the "early need" that may be affecting your marriage.
Just as you did with your early challenge, study the ten items in the two columns below. Write down the ONE (and only one) that most represents your greatest early need.
MY EARLY NEED
- To have space and time to myself on a regular basis
- To experience trust from others in my thinking and my decisions.
- To be asked what I feel and what I want.
- To experience genuine and reliable warmth when I need it.
- To experience what I do and want is valued by others.
- To experience a show of interest in me when I am talking.
- To be responded to when I asked for it.
- To ask me what I want, feel and think and then respond.
- To show curiosity about my experiences in life.
- To get love and a gentle touch frequently and without having to ask.
Third: Communicate this challenge and need to your partner in a “Safe Conversation”.
YOU: “When I was a child, I lived with caretakers who were generally _______________ (Neglectful or Intrusive), and my relational challenge with them was to ________________ (the challenge you wrote down).”
YOU: “And when I remember that, I feel __________ .”
YOU: “What I needed most from them was _______ (the need you wrote down).”
PARTNER: (Summarizes) “Let me see if I got all of that. In summary, your caretakers were generally _____ and the relationship challenge you had with them was to _____. When you remember that, you feel _____. What you needed from them was _____, and not getting that from them, you brought _____ to our relationship. Did I get it all?”
PARTNER: (Validates) “You make sense, and what makes sense is that if your caretakers were _____, then your challenge would have been _____, and that your relationship need would be ______. It also makes sense that not getting that in your early years, you would bring it to our relationship. Is that an accurate validation?”
PARTNER: (Empathizes) “And given that, I can imagine that if you’re relationship need to ______ was met by me, you would feel _______ (glad, relieved, happy, connected, heard, etc.). Is that your feeling? Are there other feelings?”
PARTNER: “Thank you for sharing with me your unmet need caused by your childhood challenges. I want very much for you to have your needs met in our relationship.”
YOU: “Thank you for listening and for wanting to understand this about me, and for helping me with it.”
Give each other a one-minute, full body hug.
THEN SWITCH ROLES AND REPEAT THE PROCESS.
Finally, let me know how it went in the reply section below! Share your insights with all of us!
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