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.
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’!”
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 Couples Therapy helped Mark and Deanna go deeper and begin to understand Mark’s reaction in a way that transformed their relationship.
In one of the couple’s 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!