3 steps to healing the childhood wounds affecting your marriage

Does your partner’s controlling behavior open up old wounds of feeling smothered by a controlling parent? Or does your partner’s emotional withdrawal trigger wounds of abandonment or rejection from an emotionally distant parent?

Here’s some good news!

Because your partner can trigger your childhood wounds, your partner is also the one who can heal them.

Marriage is all about getting what you didn’t get in childhood.

How do childhood wounds happen?

Your parents may have unintentionally wounded you in two ways: Intrusion or Neglect.

Intrusion is over-involvement. Neglect is under-involvement.

If that intrusion or neglect caused you to feel a loss of connection, it’s what we call a wounding experience.

And unfortunately we bring these old wounds and unmet needs into our marriage where they can cause problems if we don’t address them.

Here is a helpful tool (created by Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt) that will help you identify your unmet childhood need and find healing from your partner.

1. Identify the “early challenge” that may be affecting your marriage.

Think about whether your parents were intrusive or neglectful. Then study the two lists below under MY EARLY CHALLENGE. Write down the ONE (and only one from the two lists) that most represents your greatest early challenge.

MY EARLY CHALLENGE

If I had INTRUSIVE parents…
I wanted:​
  • 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.
  • Other (If there was something you wanted not on the list)
If I had NEGLECTFUL parents…
I wanted:
  • 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.
  • Other (If there was something you wanted not on the list)

After you’ve written down one item from the two lists above go to step 2.

2. Identify the “early need” that may be affecting your marriage.

Just as you did with your early challenge, study the ten items below MY EARLY NEED. Write down the ONE (and only one) that most represents your greatest early need. 

MY EARLY NEED

If I had INTRUSIVE parents…
I needed:
  • 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.
  • Other (If there was something you wanted not on the list)
If I had NEGLECTFUL parents…
I needed:
  • 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.
  • Other (If there was something you wanted not on the list)

After you’ve written down one item from the two lists above go to step 3.

3. Communicate your early challenge and need to your partner in a “Safe Conversation”.

Use the Couples Dialogue format below to share with your partner the childhood need you brought into your marriage. Allow your partner to respond in a way that will meet that childhood need and bring healing.

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).”

PARTNER: (Mirrors)

YOU: “And when I remember that, I feel __________ .”

PARTNER: (Mirrors)

YOU: “What I needed most from them was _______ (the NEED you wrote down).”

PARTNER: (Mirrors)

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 story with all of us!

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What you may not know about the childhood wounds affecting your marriage

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 partner treats me today!”

These are comments I’ve heard from clients or workshop participants when I share what’s called the 90/10 principle.

90% of your upset in a conflict 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 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 childhood can drive you to explode or withdraw, behavior that’s not productive in your relationship today.

To understand how this happens, consider with me 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.

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.

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”.

Notice how the child uses all her abilities in a desperate attempt to get mom’s attention. If that doesn’t work the child will either continue to act out, or she may withdraw and simply give up trying.

This experience shows how we adapt to childhood wounding by becoming either a maximizer (hailstorm) or minimizer (turtle).

The experience of Sarah and Eric

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 she experienced through unintentional neglect in childhood became a problem later in her marriage.

Sarah’s parents were under-involved. Her pain from those feelings of neglect in childhood (the 90%) was triggered by her husband Eric whenever he gave “more attention to his work than to me” (the 10%).

On the other hand Eric’s parents were over-involved. He grew up always being told what to think and what to feel. Therefore, the pain of this continual intrusion in childhood (the 90%) was triggered whenever he felt controlled by Sarah (the 10%).

And what did he do? He withdrew emotionally from Sarah when she became “controlling”. What effect did this have on Sarah? It activated more of that old pain of neglect causing even more explosive anger and need to control.

Sarah was the “hailstorm”. Eric was the “turtle”.

Our childhood defenses will always activate the childhood wounds of our partner. And vice versa.

What about you? Do you see where your childhood wounds are affecting your marriage in similar ways?

Which are you? The hailstorm or the turtle? Which is your partner?

Here is a powerful exercise that will help you better understand and empathize with your partner’s childhood wounding experience.

It’s called the Parent/Child Dialogue. Click on the link, print out two copies and follow the instructions very carefully.

As you do this simple dialogue, it’s my hope that you begin to turn your relationship of conflict into a partnership of mutual healing.

Here’s to turning conflicts into a stable connection that facilitates healing of our childhood wounds!

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Build your dream marriage part 3: Understand how your childhood affects your relationship

If we are going to build our dream marriage we must understand the effect our childhood has on our relationship.

Most couples describe their dream marriage as one that feels safe and connected.

It’s from that safety and connection that feelings of full-aliveness and relaxed-joyfulness are born and sustained.

The operative words here are “safety” and “connection”.

Safety is what makes connection possible, and connection is what keeps a relationship safe.

A dream marriage is one that does that delicate dance where the one leads to the other. And where each one is dependent on the other.

Safety leads to connection and connection preserves safety.

But why is this dance so fragile? What is it that causes relationships to become unsafe and therefore disconnected…or disconnected and therefore unsafe?

One answer: childhood defenses.

Why is she so defensive?  Why is he always overreacting? Why am I being blamed for stuff I didn’t do? Why are we fighting before we’re even aware of what hit us?

One answer: childhood defenses

It’s because we bring our childhood into our adult relationships.

What do you mean, Chuck?

The way we learned to get our way as a child will be the same strategy we use as an adult. We’ve just grown taller and more sophisticated. 🙂

A tantrum is a still tantrum. Pouting is still pouting. All those defenses that block our connection go back to our childhood. And it usually happens without any conscious awareness.

According to Dr. Gary Brainerd…

90% of our upset in an interaction is related to history. Only 10% is related to the present.

I call it the 90/10 principle.

If I have a painful, infected ingrown toenail, and on a crowded bus you happen to brush up against it with your foot, my reaction is to pop you in the mouth.

Ouch! #@$%#

And now you’re looking at me saying, “What gives?! You’re reaction makes no sense!”

But when I take off my shoe, and you look at the swollen redness, you remember a time when you had the same problem. Then you say, “Oh yeah. I get it.” And although you don’t justify my reaction, it makes sense.

At that point, we both realize that you are not the source of my pain, you are only the trigger.

The 90/10 principle.

The same thing happens on an emotional level in intimate partnerships.

Last week in Build your dream marriage part 2, we saw how we tend to marry someone with the same traits as our early caretakers. We call that our Imago.

For example, when your wife acts in a way that is similar to your mother who wounded or neglected you, your reaction to your wife may pack a powerful and surprising punch that is related more to your childhood wound than to what your wife did or said.

Dr. Herb Tannenbaum describes it as…

a 5 watt stimulus that produces a 1000 watt reaction”.

Such was the case with Mark and Deanna.

One morning they were making their bed. They both noticed a spot of blood on Mark’s pillow. Evidently he had scratched himself during the night, and it left a small stain right there on his pillow.

Deanna said, “Oh bummer, I just washed that.”

Mark felt a surge of anger and he lashed out at Deanna.

What was this all about? Why was Mark suddenly infuriated at Deanna?

Deanna said, “That’s just the way he is! He does that all the time. He has ‘anger issues’!”

Sound familiar?

It’s so easy to label people who have reactions we don’t understand.

It’s what we do when we don’t understand the 90/10 principle.

Imago Relationship Therapy tools helped Mark and Deanna go deeper and begin to understand Mark’s reaction in a way that transformed their relationship.

In one of the Couples Dialogues, Mark shared the frustration…

Mark: “When we saw that little stain on my pillow, you said, ‘Bummer, I just washed the bed clothes’. When I heard that I got really angry.”

Deanna: “Let me see if I get what you’re saying. You’re saying that when we saw that stain on the pillowcase, I said, ‘Bummer, I just washed that.’. And then you felt angry.”

“Did I get it?”  “Yes.”

“Is there more about that?”

It was when Deanna asked this powerful little question that the breakthrough came.

“Is there more about that?”

That question, designed to intensify Deanna’s curiosity and curtail her own reaction, made it safe for Mark to see, for the first time, what he’d never seen before.

And that was when the real issue behind Mark’s anger began to surface.

Mark: “Yes, it reminds me of when I was about 8 or 9 years old. My parents had separated and for some reason I started ‘wetting the bed’ at night. This happened every night and my mom, evidently couldn’t deal with it. For whatever reason, she stopped changing the bedclothes, and I had to sleep in that filth night after night. I didn’t know any better. I thought it was normal.”

You could see the compassion flood Deanna’s eyes as all the dots were now being connected.

She mirrored Mark again and asked, “Is there more about that?”

Mark: “Yes, I guess I grew up believing that my needs don’t matter. Now I realize that in some ways you’re like my mom. Not in that kind of gross neglect, but whenever you seem to scoff when I need something, it connects with that feeling that my needs don’t matter. I can see that it’s not you I’m angry at, it’s my mom.”

A major shift occurred in that moment.

Mark later reported that his awareness of this childhood wound being triggered began to change everything between him and Deanna. It enabled him to talk about the pain with her, rather than blaming and blasting her for it.

It also helped Deanna make room for Mark to feel, and to process his feelings with her, rather than walking out on his angry outbursts as she had done for years. She no longer took his reaction as personally as she had before.

She realized she was not the source of his pain and anger, only the trigger.

What about you and your partner?

Are you puzzled by your partner’s reaction? Do you feel blamed for things you don’t think you’re guilty of? Is the intensity of your reaction sometimes over the top? Do your reactions kill safety and thus sever the connection between you?

Could it be that one of the things holding you back from your dream marriage is your unawareness of  your own childhood defenses?

If you’d like more information please contact me personally and I’d be happy to give you a free 30 minute video consultation.

Also, please put your questions and comments in the reply section below and let’s keep this conversation going.

Here’s to another step in building your dream marriage!

Subscribe below to receive my weekly post that will come to your email inbox every Saturday morning! 

My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week! 


What to do when childhood defenses sabotage your relationship

Couples fight for one fundamental reason: they bring their childhood defenses into their relationship.

The way you learned to adapt and survive in childhood can negatively impact your adult relationships…even if you had really good parents.

To one degree or another we all bring our childhood into our relationship…

…and it happens UNCONSCIOUSLY.

And it usually happens in one of two ways.

In your relationship you’ll tend to be a “HAILSTORM” or a “TURTLE”.

Recently I heard a wife say, “When we argue I blow up! And then he does a disappearing act! It always leaves me mad, and then feeling guilty like I’m the one who screwed everything up!”

This wife is in a marriage relationship with a “MINIMIZER”, represented by the TURTLE, who withdraws into his shell when conflict occurs.
She is a “MAXIMIZER”, depicted by the HAILSTORM, insistent and intrusive. Often these two marry each other (though not always).

In the Romantic Stage of the relationship, those wonderful pleasure chemicals that cause us to fall in love with each other also blind us to many sobering realities about each other.

And in this inebriated state, the Hailstorm is drawn to the Turtle and vice versa.

And then after some time together (2 months to 2 years),  the drugs wear off, the Power Struggle Stage begins, and these same two people begin to drive each other crazy!

The Turtle and Hailstorm represent two common childhood defense strategies.

Growing up, these two may have experienced similar kinds of wounding, frustrations, or unmet needs, but each learned a different way of coping.

Each developed a strategy that helped them survive childhood.

Problem is, that same strategy is now sabotaging their adult relationship.

If you are a “Turtle”, you may driven by an unconscious fear of conflict that causes you to disengage emotionally.

Even though you crave connection with your partner, at the same time you resist that very connection, because deep down you fear the pain of losing that connection.

If you grew up in a home where anger was not allowed, or you had to shut down when people got angry, you probably still tend to check out when there is conflict. 

That’s how you survived in the past. And no one should feel judged for that!

Problem is that strategy will not work in your relationship today!

Withdrawing from conflict is like using a gun with a silencer – killing the relationship without detection.

You say, “Hey, I’m just trying to be nice and avoid a conflict.”

I get it.

But your withdrawal not only frustrates your partner, it triggers her deeper childhood pain.

That is why you are probably seeing an even greater “Hailstorm” effect when you pull away.

If you are a “Hailstorm”, your unconscious fear may drive you to explode outwardly in an attempt to get what you need.

You may have grown up in a household where you had to “get louder” in order to get others’ attention, and you probably learned to face conflict and push and shove, so to speak, until you got what you needed.

Is that you? 

This helped you survive then. So no one should judge you.

But it doesn’t work today!

It doesn’t make your Turtle partner feel loved and safe.

Trying to force your partner to be present with you will only cause him to withdraw further into his shell.

So how do we deal with these defenses and reconnect with each other?

Here are FOUR STEPS that will help you get beyond your defenses and reconnect with your partner in a close relationship of mutual healing and growth.

1. Mirror the frustration.

As a Turtle, when you check out emotionally, it triggers her feelings of rejection or abandonment. That withdrawal on your part energizes her as a hailstorm.

As a Hailstorm, when you crowd your partner, it triggers his feelings of being smothered or controlled. That aggression on your part energizes his retreat into the shell.

Mirroring can help you disrupt this pattern.

As a Turtle, you will have to regulate your emotions in order stretch forward and be present with your partner.

As a Hailstorm, you will have to regulate your emotions in order to dial it back and make it safe for your partner to stay present.

Together agree to an “appointment” where you both will take turns, one talking, the other mirroring.

Mirroring is simply repeating back in your own words what you heard your partner say.
Mirroring helps you stay out of your “reactive brain” by turning on your “curious brain”.
Mirroring says to your partner, “You matter, and what you think and feel matters to me.”

Here’s an example of what the whole dialogue process might look like with the Turtle talking and the Hailstorm mirroring.

TURTLE: “When I was asked three times about fixing the front gate, I got really frustrated.”

(Notice how he didn’t use “you” language. As in, “You’re always nagging me.” or “You’re so demanding.” He used non-accusatory “I” statements.)

HAILSTORM: “What I heard you say is that when I asked you three times about fixing the front gate you got really frustrated.”

“Did I get that?” (check to be sure. If not, keep mirroring.)

Then ask,

“It there more about that?”

TURTLE:Yes. I felt like I was being controlled, and I felt like nothing I do is ever good enough, so I just avoided you and did something else for the rest of the day.

HAILSTORM: “What I hear you saying is you felt controlled and like nothing you ever do is good enough. So you didn’t work on the gate, but avoided me and did something else.

“Did I get it?

“Is there more about that?”

Staying curious and making it safe for your partner like this allows him to begin to access what’s going on in his unconscious mind.

Seriously, things you have never seen, and things that even he has not been in touch with, begin to surface when dialogue makes the conversation safe.

Suddenly he’s conscious of something…

TURTLE: “Yes there is more. This reminds me of when I was little and my mother would force me to play the piano for her guests. And even though I would do it, I never felt it was good enough.”

Now you’re both in touch with something not seen before.  You’re seeing the SOURCE of your partner’s reaction.

And as the one mirroring, you naturally begin to “re-image” your partner, to see him, not as someone intentionaly trying to hurt you and abandon you…

… but rather, you see him as someone who, is himself, hurting and scared of being shamed and controlled.

You mean a strong, grown up man like him can feel scared of being shamed and controlled by the woman in his life?

Before the dialogue brought them to this place, I’m confident if you had asked him about his fear, he would have reacted and said something like,

“Who me? I’m not afraid of anything.”

So many people say that at first, but when you use the dialogue process to “check under the hood” you’ll find that his whole life is being driven by fear.

Fear he’s not conscious of.

The dialogue helps uncover the root issue behind your reaction and conflict so that you both understand each other at a deeper level.

This process of seeing your partner’s reality transforms the relationship.

Remember you can’t be curious and critical at the same time. Stay curious and your emotions will stay regulated.

It’s haarrrrrd! But you can do it!

Now go to the next step with the Turtle continuing to talk and the Hailstorm now VALIDATING.

2. Validate the feelings behind the frustration.

After summarizing what your partner said, validate him by saying something like this.

“You make sense. And what make sense about what you said is…”

Finish that sentence so that your partner will feel heard and validated.

It might look like this.

HAILSTORM: “You make sense. And what makes sense is that when you experience that feeling of being controlled, and when you feel like what you do is not good enough, you pull away from me. That makes sense.

“Especially because when you tell me how your mother demanded from you and you never felt good enough, it’s easy to see how you would feel the same thing when I become anxious and demanding.”

Then ask,

“Does that validate your perspective?”

Wait for an affirmative answer.

Validation says to your partner, “Although I may see it differently, you make sense.”

This will help your partner feel safe…

…while, at the same time establish that the two of you are different.

Different needs, different experiences, different ways of dealing with conflict.

This differentiation is an essential process if you two are going to connect.

Now the third step.

3. Empathize with your partner’s fear, anger, pain or joy.

After validating your partner, EMPATHIZE with him by looking past what he did, and focusing on what he felt.

In our example it would go something like this.

HAILSTORM: “I can imagine how you would be angry when you feel controlled and unappreciated, like nothing you do is good enough. That must really hurt and feel bad.”

Then ask,

HAILSTORM: “Is that what you felt?”

Wait for the affirmation and amplification he gives.

Empathizing says to your partner, “I know what it’s like to experience your pain or fear or joy. I’m present with you in that feeling.”

When you have validated and empathized with your partner, then and only then will you be ready for the final step. It won’t work without the transformation that occurs with empathy.

4. Grant your partner’s deep desire buried underneath the frustration.

Now we ask the Turtle to make a “change request”.

Buried underneath every frustration is a desire not expressed.

By MIRRORING, VALIDATING, and EMPATHIZING, your goal is to make it safe enough for your partner to get in touch with the unconscious desire that lies buried beneath the frustration.

And then to form it into a request.

A request that, when granted, will bring HEALING to him, and GROWTH to you.

Healing, because it represents for him what he’s always longed for but never received.

And growth because, in granting it, it will stretch you, and cause you to grow and discover a part of yourself you lost along the way.

Make change requests specific and measurable.

Don’t ask for your partner to do something from now until eternity.

Just ask regarding the “next time” you encounter another potentially frustration experience.

So when the Turtle is invited to make a request, it might look like this:

TURTLE: “The next time you ask me to do something, would you first tell me two or three things I’m already doing that you appreciate?”

Embedded in this kind of change request is a powerful formula for healing (for the Turtle) and growth (for the Hailstorm).

And it sets the whole trajectory of their relationship toward wholeness.

Why don’t you sit down right now with your partner and try this out?

Then reverse roles and have the TURTLE mirror, validate, empathize and grant the HAILSTORM’S request.

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My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week!