When I work with couples, I want to know where and how and what they learned growing up. What were the main relationships they saw? Were they loving? cold? violent? What were the messages about bodies and sex and touch? How were fights resolved? Were the adults caring for you affected by alcohol or drugs or depression or rage? And most of all, what did that child - now part of a couple - do to survive that family system?
A woman once told me that her stepmother, who came into her life when she was 2 years old, "wouldn't be happy until she annihilated me and my sisters." Now tell me that this woman is now going to choose a partner who treats her kindly. In fact, she has swung between passive, shutdown partners in which there were no risks, and her last, a near-sociopathic man who gave gaslighting an entirely new meaning. This woman's work was to figure out how her insecurely attached, deeply traumatized child was still driving her how-do-I-survive-this car, and move into a stronger adulthood.
That's an extreme end of the spectrum. Most of us grow up in the middle, experiencing some adverse behavior from the adults around us. Some of us survive sudden loss of siblings or a parent. Some an ugly divorce. Others somewhat neglectful or controlling parenting, or parenting by people who are still emotionally immature. All of these leave marks on us.
When we get triggered or activated (or feel what Terry Real calls the "whoosh" through our nervous system), we react from a largely unconscious, deep and fearful place. We feel threatened by something on an old, old level. (Hence the AA saying, "if it's hysterical, it's historical.") When we understand the child we are bringing into this (hopefully) adult relationship, then we begin to have loving compassion for what we experienced as children. (And perhaps compassion for the flawed adults raising us.) And we have compassion for our partners. And we can start moving forward.
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