4 Ways Our Pasts Affect Our Current Relationships

Kent, a retired army commander, often discussed his marital struggles in therapy: “Doc, get this:  Marianne said she needed to take a business trip to Chicago with a male coworker. I did just like you would have told me to do- I calmly asked her not to go.  But she just ignored me and still went!  Then, when Marianne got back from her trip, I couldn’t help it- I was so angry, I yelled at her and told her she was acting like a tramp!  And THEN she became apologetic and told me she felt badly and would never do it again. What gives?” 

In Marianne and Kent’s situation, as with most distressing relationship scenarios, unresolved childhood (or past relationship) issues were rearing their heads. Here are four ways that our current relationships are affected by our past experiences:

1. What we associate with “love” or “caring:”  If a person’s caregiver or past lover behaved in destructive ways while also periodically showing caring and love, that person may begin to view those unhealthy behaviors as symbols of love.  Three behaviors that are most-commonly confused with “love” are 1) diminishing/belittling/mistreating 2) being in control or being controlled 3) smothering/possessiveness/enmeshment.  Kent’s wife, Marianne, had come to associate shouting and diminishing with “caring.”  Unfortunately, the child of an alcoholic, Marianne had been the victim of verbal abuse which was often immediately-followed-by dramatic professions of remorse and love (the cycle of abuse). Alternatively, Kent, had grown up in an environment which was both rigid and smothering.  Many of his father’s interactions with him were commands and demands for submission, and his mother, in an effort to compensate for her cold and detached marriage, smothered and engulfed Kent.  Therefore, Marianne only felt loved once Kent actually yelled at her, and Kent only felt love in the event that Marianne acquiesced to his desire to remain perpetually attached at his hip.

2. Our sensitivities to inadequacy:  When a caregiver or past lover diminishes, criticizes, and belittles,  an individual will likely become especially sensitive to feelings of inadequacy.  An ego has to be confident to objectively withstand criticism and moments of disapproval, and diminishing from a main attachment figure erodes confidence. Those whose feelings of inadequacy are especially raw, can engage in paranoid or hostily defensive behaviors to ward off feelings of inadequacy.  They may read-into what their partner says, and conclude wrongly, that they are being insulted or ridiculed.  Alternatively, they may adapt a superior and narcissistic stance to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy.  Either way, their relationships are deeply affected by their sensitivity to not being “good enough.”

3. Our sensitivities to rejection/abandonment:  Most people who have experienced rejection or abandonment in a significant relationship, are especially fearful of a loved-one leaving or rejecting them.  To stave off difficult feelings associated with rejection/abandonment, they generally adopt one of two extreme defenses:  1) Actively resisting being “rejected” again or 2) Pushing others away to gain a sense of power over the pain that is considered inevitable.  Kent, whose ex-wife had left him abruptly for another man, was especially fearful of infidelity.  He  resisted future rejection by reactively demanding that his wife not leave the state without him or interact with a male coworker.  To make matters more sticky, Marianne had her own sensitivities to rejection, as her mother had told her over and over that her alcoholic father “left us for another family.”  In an effort to manage her own fears of abandonment, Marianne often pushed Kent away, engaging in cold and detached behaviors that gave no consideration to his feelings or needs.

4. Our sensitivities to not having “control” (or our levels of “rigidity”/ sense of “shoulds“): When a person is raised without consistent emotional or physical safety, they may adapt a type of environmentally-induced anxiety.  When they are young, their impressionable brains are, by repeated exposure, taught that “Bad things happen when other people are in charge.” Additionally, as children they RARELY encounter exposure to scenarios that teach them, “Even though this didn’t go according to plan, it all worked out.”  Therefore, they defend against expected pain by doing one of two things:  1)Attempting to control, manage, and subscribe to rigid  “shoulds” or 2) Gaining “power over their powerlessness” by relinquishing control and adopting an overly-passive demeanor.

Mommy left this mess all over the table for two weeks straight.  Clearly she pre-emptively protects herself from disappointment by denying her need for control and order.

Mommy left this mess all over the table for two weeks straight. Clearly she pre-emptively protects herself from disappointment by denying her need for control and order.

Both Marianne and Kent were sensitive to not having control, in-part due to their inconsistently loving childhoods.  In the end, Marianne managed this feeling by denying that she needed control at all, and finally denying her own needs and acquiescing to her husband.  Kent managed this feeling by digging in his heels and demanding control.  Ideally, partners with control-sensitivities resolve to flexibly tolerate both times when they are in charge and times when they are not.

And there you have it- More proof that regardless of what your husband or your mother in law says, your reactions to certain things aren’t actually crazy.  Because compassionately understanding ourselves is the first step toward making necessary changes.


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