Relationships have a natural state of attraction and consequence, comparable to the experience of a drug, in its addictive and withdrawal characteristics. Initially, it’s novelty supports motivation and desire to spend as much time as we can with the person, paying attention to details and learning what we can, becoming familiar with them, body, mind and soul. The quality and life expectancy of our current relationship is based on the health of what we believe we are deserving of and what we fear or trust from others. Having a strong marriage or long-term commitment will require us to acknowledge how we manage our own emotional health as well as our partner.
Getting to a deeper place of meaning and intimacy means more work
The initial experience of a new relationship becomes intense and something we continue to seek and yearn for because of how gratifying it is. We feel a connection and a sense of vitality in the newness of the person we are with. We can’t get enough of them. It’s love, it’s chemical addiction at its finest, it’s our bodies connecting with another person. Yet there is no connection on the planet that can withstand this initial period of euphoria and bliss. At some point, the inevitable happens. To “level up” we have to be vulnerable, and therein begins the fun.
It is estimated that somewhere between the 12-18 month mark in a relationship, we begin to normalize each other. We aren’t as chemically hooked as we were initially. We assume patterns of behaviors. We begin to make up stories about the person based on our history and shared experiences. Novelty has waned and we no longer experience the same rush that we once did. Getting to a deeper place of meaning and intimacy means more work, and most critical to this is the need for expanding our vulnerability. And vulnerability means risk. Based on our past experiences we will see the relationship through our lens of learned fears or hopeful trust. The determination of what I expect and how I play my role in the intimacy dance begins with my first experience of love and intimacy, my childhood. (Insert eye roll here).
Explore the realms of your childhood to investigate your relationship troubles
We muddle through our lives, for the most part, unconscious to why we react and internalize messages the way we do. We are all unique and run our lives through our templates of reference and our reference is what we learned when we were young.
As a therapist, I begin to explore this template with my clients by asking questions. What was it like in your home when you were young? What was the emotional temperature? What did love look like? How were conflicts settled? Were your mom and dad present? Were they emotionally available? Were they angry? Were they selfish? Were they anxious? Were they depressed? How did mom and dad get along? How were your needs attended to? Did you feel loved, wanted, protected, safe, a priority? Did you feel shame? We typically excuse issues within the family because, things are fine now, that was then, how could it be affecting me now as an adult, they provided, etc. All very true, but not helpful if a person wants to truly understand why they feel and behave certain ways.
If individuals are ready to investigate why their relationship is in trouble and what they need to consider to heal and improve, not only in the relationship but within themselves, then they need to get real with the hangover from their childhood and how it is implicating itself in their life. Exploring, through a non-judgmental, curious way, how we adapted to our environment as a child to ensure some form of connection and how we interpreted our value of having needs met with unconditional love and acceptance.
I invite my clients to step to the side of their childhood, to perhaps observe what was going on as if they were watching it play out in a movie and describe what they see. I repeat, not to blame but to understand and find strategies to repair before the hangover from childhood sabotages present day unions.
We see the world through a lens of conditions based on our childhood
Consider for a moment, that on a spectrum of severity, each one of us has some form of developmental attachment trauma that bleeds into all aspects of our lives. As children, we integrate what our primary caregivers model and value ourselves based on how we were treated and raised. We are in survival mode as children. Our drive is to maintain a connection with our caregivers, and we do not see that temporary adaptive behavior as children may become maladaptive permanent ones as adults. In addition, we see the world through a lens of conditions based on what our childhood instructed us to prepare for. Our survival maps are formed and create unconscious expectations that the story we became familiar with as children are what will continue to show up in our lives.
If I grow up with an emotionally stable caregiver, who is non-stressed, is consistent in attending to my needs and has a healthy understanding of emotions, then I am more apt to be secure with my relationships. Conflicts and trials will be experienced but repair is possible because I have learned through my caregiver how to navigate this and not to fear it. This adds to my resiliency and strength of managing emotions, knowing repair is possible and I am able to handle distress without reacting poorly. I will grow to have confidence, healthy self-esteem, healthy boundaries, emotional regulation and healthy relationships.
If I grow up not feeling certain how to depend on people, sometimes it feels safe and friendly, other times chaotic or abusive, then I will tend to internalize a message that I need to problem solve so that others will be there for me. I people please, I am never comfortable in general, I’m anxious. I will feel insecure with depending on consistency and will be triggered by any slight change in temperament or mood. If behaviors shift and there is lack of emotion I will internalize abandonment and rejection. When someone becomes cold and distant and does not communicate, that is like death and causes emotional chaos for me.
If I have grown up neglected or abandoned in ways where if I expected anything it caused too much pain and distress, then I will shut emotions and expectations down, thus to preserve my sense of safety and peace. I will feel more confident relying only on myself and actions that lean towards dependency on others will cause stress. I will put massive barriers up for connection and needs and trust no one. Emotions are a threat in my world; someone becoming too close is a threat because then my emotions are at risk. Though I want it, I fear it. If my partner becomes emotional, I will shut down more for self-preservation.
Each individual lies somewhere within these ranges. Think of a spectrum where secure healthy presentation is the middle point, and anxious, emotionally insecure at one extreme and avoidant, rigidly insecure at the other. Many relationship failures are the product of an anxious and an avoidant individual falling in love and once enough time has passed, these vulnerabilities become exposed and each person begins to trigger the other in a never-ending cycle because, for the most part, we are unconscious to our patterns of intimacy needs.
Understand your own individual attachment styles to start your recovery
At a time when a deeper connection is required, the attachment wounds organically emerge and begin to irritate and cause complications. Without awareness, the damage can be irreversible as both parties easily project the responsibility of the problems within the relationship on the other person, where in reality both are simply defaulting to survival patterns they relied upon through their life. They simply have not been exposed the way an intimate partner will expose them.
Once my partnership clients begin to assess and understand their own individual attachment styles, they are able to begin a process of recovery and healing that will support an authentic relationship they deserve and desire. Self-healing is possible, and the life expectancy of the relationship can improve once this process of discovery begins. The hangover from our childhood does have a remedy.