Messages From the Past
How your childhood can affect your marriage
Finding happiness in the difficult marriage is a holistic endeavor. To achieve it, you have to work on your emotions and the beliefs and attitudes that govern those emotions. You have to change your behavior, and the belief system that governs your thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Finally, you have to reevaluate how much meaning you have in your life, apart from your marriage.
To make this change, it’s important to understand how you were shaped by your childhood environment and how your parents or other significant people’s vulnerabilities, limitations, or choices affected your view of yourself and of the world around you. Humans have the longest period of dependency on their parents than any other mammal. We begin paying close attention to our parents’ responses straight out of the womb.*1 Because of this dependency, humans evolved a sophisticated emotional system which insures that we stay connected to our caregivers. We believe what our parents say to us and how they behave towards us because, from nature’s standpoint, our lives depend on it. Viewed another way, if we didn’t have this system, we’d be more likely to wander off into danger or suffer parental neglect or mistreatment.
While other animals and insects communicate such critical information as the presence of danger, the location of food sources, expressions of territory, dominance, submission, or mating availability through sounds, grunts, vocalizations, chemicals, and dances- humans are probably unique in how much error we can pass along to our offspring. This is problematic since children lack the intellectual or emotional base of experience to know whether their parents’ messages are correct. Thus, a woman who was constantly told by her mother that men can’t be trusted, complied with this belief by constantly choosing men who couldn’t be trusted or by provoking men to behave in an untrustworthy fashion. A man whose father said that women are weak found himself avoiding women who disprove his father’s theory, or ridiculing his wife whenever she showed any vulnerability. A child who was told that she is stupid, assumed that her parents were right, even if her teachers thought her brilliant.
Back to the Past
I promise not to pursue the same path that many marital self-help books travel, which is to say that you can have a happy marriage, if only you work hard enough on your communication. While good communication is essential to any good relationship, it isn’t always enough to make a relationship gratifying. I also promise not to say that if you can’t make your marriage satisfying, you should leave. There are three facts that I accept without contradiction:
- You may be married to someone who, for whatever reason, has little capacity to be a fulfilling partner for you.
- There are many worthwhile reasons to stay in a marriage with children, even when the person you’re married to is difficult or unrewarding.
- Being married to someone who is difficult or unrewarding need not ruin your capacity to have a happy life.
I will go into great detail about how to live with a difficult partner, or in an unrewarding marriage throughout the book. However, it just may be that, as hopeless, and sad, and resentful, and trapped as you feel right now, you may feel better about your marriage at a later time. It is possible that you will see aspects of yourself in the following examples or exercises that allow you to experiment with a different way of being, and that this small, consistently applied experiment lets some sunlight into that suffocating basement where you’ve been spending so much time. You may discover that small changes can breathe new life into a very tired relationship.
Anyway, even if it is all your partner’s fault, you still have to develop yourself as a person to be happy. The place that you’re stuck in your marriage can tell you a lot about where you’re stuck in other areas of your life. And that’s the beauty of marriage; it mirrors us like almost no other instrument of reflection, even when what it reveals is unappealing. This chapter is written to help you begin that process by looking at how your past affects what you bring to your marriage.
To do this, you’ll have to be able to answer some tough questions about yourself:
- How much of your dissatisfaction with your partner is dissatisfaction with yourself?
- How are you unconsciously creating or contributing to the very problems you wish to solve in your marriage?
- To what extent are your experiences from childhood affecting your present experience of yourself and/or your partner?
- How many of your criticisms of your partner are aspects that you unconsciously aspire to, yet forbid yourself to have?
- In what ways are you overly dependent on validation and reassurance from your partner?
- How much do you look to your marriage as a source of fulfillment, while you neglect other important areas of your life?
My experience as a psychologist has led me to believe that most people’s childhood’s were more complicated than they remember or realize. If you have never had therapy, it’s quite possible that your view of your past is somewhat idealized. One of the chief functions of the mind is to keep distracting and painful stimuli out of awareness. Among other things, seeing your childhood as better than it was allows you to attend to the present without being distracted by the past. It also allows you to preserve relationships with living parents or family members that might be more complicated by memories of their failings.
I’m not trying to convince you that you had an unhappy childhood, obviously, not everyone does. It’s just as important to remember what was good in your past because that awareness contributes to a sense of strength and enjoyment of life. However, if you are avoiding memories and perceptions, you’re paying a high price for it. In exchange for a more palatable view of childhood, you may be unconsciously blaming yourself for things that went wrong and projecting onto your partner inaccurate feelings and intentions. You may be vulnerable to playing out in your marriage and parenting the ways that you were hurt or affected by your family. If so, you may be compromising your own aspirations and potential.
On the pulpit of every self-help ministry there is the same sermon: “The only person you have any control over is yourself.” The more you know about who you are and what drives you, the more you’ll be on the road to making the changes in your life that create happiness and meaning. Personality, emotions, and attitudes are influenced by your genes and by the experiences you have in the family in which you grew up. Genetics can influence whether your temperament tends more towards the aggressive or the passive, whether you’re outgoing or shy, sensitive or invulnerable, anxious or fearless, emotional or unemotional.*2 While these are hardly etched in stone, they nonetheless exert an influence on your personality, strengths, and vulnerabilities.
Our experiences with our parents help determine what we do with those strengths and vulnerabilities. Taking a small human and making it competent for the challenging world of marriage is no small feat. Heck, making them ready for college is a momentous achievement. For children to become competent adults and relationship dwellers, they need to have a number of important experiences, one of which is having their parents provide a good reflection of who they are. They should also learn what is and isn’t reasonable to expect from others and be raised in a secure and predictable environment. They should learn how to depend on others and know how to be independent of another’s control or influence. They should have an ongoing set of experiences during childhood and adolescence that contributes to and develops their self-esteem. They should learn how to be in touch with their feelings and learn how to communicate those feelings. If any of these needs aren’t met when we’re children, we may have to work harder in our marriages to find and maintain our bearings. We have to learn for the first time, and sometimes from the most unwilling tutor, how to communicate what we want and need, and what we can or can’t get from another person.
Young children love their parents with as much force for their flaws as their strengths because they can’t discern them. Childhood love is beautiful to behold in part because it isn’t capable of pausing. That’s a skill that we develop only as we begin to be more separate. Children have only a few “options” of how to respond to their parents’ messages; they can comply, identify,*3 or rebel. Children who comply, behave as though their parent’s treatment of them is correct and justified. For example, a child who is told that he is bad, complies by experiencing himself as a bad child, and behaving in a way that others would label in that direction; in marriage, he might behave in ways that his partner would find troubling. Similarly, a child who is neglected complies by feeling unimportant and neglecting herself. In marriage, she might have a hard time being responsible, taking care of herself, or feeling important enough to assert her rights.
Children who identify use their parents’ behavior as a model of how to behave. Thus, a boy who grows up watching his father treat his mother in a disrespectful way, identifies with this behavior and treats his wife in a disrespectful way when he grows up. Or, he might identify with a parent’s passivity by having a hard time taking initiative as a child. As an adult, he might become overly passive in his marriage, much as his mother was in hers.
Children who rebel fight against the parent’s treatment of them by behaving in opposition to the parents’ treatment or wishes. Thus, a girl who grew up with parents who were moralistic and perfectionistic might struggle against this with delinquency or underachievement. A boy who is raised by parents who are worried and possessive may rebel against this by becoming excessively risk-taking. In marriage, he may feel overly restricted by reasonable requests of commitment or responsibility, and aggressively accuse his wife of trying to control him.
The choice of defense is likely a combination of inherited temperament and an unconscious assessment of how to best maintain a connection with the parent. For example, a child who is born with an aggressive temperament would be more likely to respond to an abusive parent by either fighting against that abuse (rebelling against the parent) or identifying with the parent’s abusive behavior (becoming abusive to peers, siblings, or even parents). He would be less likely to comply by becoming passive and withdrawn in the face of it. Conversely, a child who is born with a temperament towards shyness and avoidance would be more likely to comply with the parent’s mistreatment. Thus, in the same family, this child would respond to the same parental abuse by becoming more withdrawn, or by engaging in self-abusive behaviors.
Parents may consciously and unconsciously influence whether their children use compliance, identification, or rebellion. Thus, an abusive father may reward a son’s aggressiveness and punish it in his daughter. Similarly a depressed parent might reward a child for internalizing emotions because the parent doesn’t have the energy to manage more energetic behavior. Thus, children might get rewarded or praised for being withdrawn or not showing any emotion, and punished for being lively, animated, or having a normal range of feelings.
In this chapter, I’ll go over some of the common ways that childhood can affect behavior in marriage. Perhaps you’ll recognize your own parenting, childhood, or spouse. The purpose of this section is to help you become aware of how the behavior of your parents influences you today. How we’re loved or cared for as children can affect who we choose as partners; there is no statute of limitations on the influence of our childhoods. They persist in affecting us until we die, unless they have been excavated and sifted through. However, once this excavation has been achieved, there is the opportunity to build a new foundation with a stronger house for you and your children to live in.
Into the Mirror: The impact of having parents who were depressed or neglectful
A child’s sense of self is built upon a second-to-second, minute-to-minute, day-to-day mirroring process. It’s through the process of mirroring that a self develops out of infancy. Parents who are chronically depressed, self-involved, or emotionally unavailable can do great harm to a child’s developing sense of worth and identity because the parent is so out of sync with the needs and communication of the child.*4
Thus, if your mother or father was constantly distracted when you were laughing, sad when you were happy, hurt when you were ecstatically lost in your own pleasure, or bored when you were mastering an important task, you likely concluded that there’s something not very interesting or worthwhile about you. You may carry this confusion about yourself into your marriage and it taints your ability to love and to receive love. Without adequate mirroring, a child’s sense of self gets muted; it’s like trying to discover what you look like from a mirror covered with gauze. As psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon write in A General Theory of Love, “People differ in their proficiency at tracing the outlines of another self, and thus their ability to love also varies. A child’s early experience teaches this skill in direct proportion to his parent’s ability to know him.” *5
If your parent was depressed or neglectful, there may have been a reversal of roles. Rather than having the experience of being taken care of, you may have had to take care of your parent. Because children feel sorry for depressed and needy parents, they may be unaware of what they missed in their parents’ unavailability. If your parent was depressed, you may sense something’s wrong with you, but you don’t know what. You can’t understand why you have a hard time finding satisfaction in your life or in your relationships. You don’t understand why you continually get involved in friendships and marriages where you give so much more than you get back or feel so unfulfilled by what you receive.
However, not all people with depressed parents look upon their childhood as deprived.*6 Sometimes a strong relationship between parent and child allows the child to get self-esteem by caring for the parent. To further complicate the picture, some parents show deep gratitude for that care which can deepen the child’s feelings of connection and loyalty to the parent. Finally, children who are parentified like this often develop genuine skills that can be useful in some ways, however compromising those skills may be in their marriage. They can become gifted listeners and caretakers, excellent at assuming responsibility. However, they are sometimes so confused by guilt and overresponsiblity that they believe it’s wrong to receive anything in return.
Pete: I took care of my mother and I was glad to do it. I felt sorry for her. My father took off before I was born and she married this asshole who never took her anywhere or did anything for her. I felt like, ‘Hey, if I can bring some sunshine into the life of this woman who brought me into this world, then what’s the problem with that?’ Yeah, I didn’t go to school dances and crap like that because it was all so stupid. I wasn’t a momma’s boy but if it meant that I stayed home on Saturday night so mom had a little company, I don’t see what the problem is in that.
While it’s easy to understand Pete’s feelings, the problem is that he was ridden with guilt and excessive worry over other’s feelings as an adult. In his marriage, he couldn’t ask for anything from his wife for fear of burdening her. He excelled at caretaking and failed at understanding what he needed or knowing how to take it when it was offered. As a result, his marriage was weighed down by his resentment of his wife for not guessing his needs, because he felt too guilty and undeserving to voice them.
While a depressed parent can sometimes bond with their children, they are equally likely to make a child feel neglected because the parent is too tired or overwhelmed to attend.
Yoni: I was the eldest of three girls and had a lot of responsibility growing up. My mom had a pretty serious depression; they tried everything on her and nothing seemed to work. Most of my childhood memories are of her sleeping on the couch or holed up in her room with the tv on. It was hard to get mom to smile about anything. “Hey mom, I got straight A’s! Hey mom, I got elected the class president. Hey mom, I got a scholarship.” Whatever it was, she’d just give her same “That’s nice, honey” response and keep watching whatever show she had on. I remember feeling like I must be the most uninteresting person in the world.
In Yoni’s marriage she was passive and withdrawn. She described feeling invisible to her husband. As a result, she felt lonely and unloved in her marriage and frequently fantasized about being with someone who would adore her. While her husband seemed willing to connect more with her, her own difficulties knowing how to connect caused her to reject him.
The effect on marriage
If you grew up with depressed or neglectful parents, you may seek an inappropriate amount of attention and stimulation from your partner to make up for how lost or empty you feel.*7 You may be drawn to the excitement of an affair because your inner world feels so lifeless. You may not have been able to rely on your parents, and this may have left you afraid of your normal desires to depend on your partner. This may also cause you to criticize your spouse as needy and dependent when he/she wants to be close to you in a reasonable way. You may feel drained by being a spouse and parent because you don’t feel like you have anything to draw upon.
On the other hand, if your parents were depressed, you may be vulnerable to giving more than you get from your spouse. In this case, you unconsciously comply with a belief developed in childhood that your role is to give to others, even if they give little or nothing to you. You may have married someone who is selfish because you don’t know what is unreasonable for someone to ask of you. This may also cause you to be confused about setting appropriate limits and prioritizing your own needs for care. However, because you feel so deprived, you may wrongly view your partner’s healthy attempts to be self-interested as selfish.
In the next section, and the sections following, I make recommendations for how to begin to address the issues raised in this chapter. These will be developed and elaborated throughout the book.
Path for Change
- Reduce your dependency on your partner to make you feel worthwhile and alive. If you’re too independent of your partner, work on letting him or her get close to you and be a more loving force in your life, if he or she is capable.
- Strive to take control of your life. Make plans for the future and carry them out. This will help you to reparent yourself and help you experience that the world is more interested in you than were your depressed or unavailable parents.
- If you’re overly responsible, work on being less responsible for others. Learn how to tolerate and rechannel the anxiety and guilt you feel when you are doing things for yourself or when others are in need. You can begin to do this by starting to prioritize your own needs so that you are not at the bottom of the list. Use these pleasurable experiences to develop and enliven your inner world. Let others take responsibility and let them face the consequences when it doesn’t work out. Examine whether you give yourself power by letting your partner be weak.
- Use self-talk (Chapter 8) to counter the self-criticism that stems from your guilt and over-responsibility.
- Work to understand how your childhood affected your attitudes about marriage. Consider with which parent you’re more identified. Your feelings of depression, guilt, or worry may make it hard for you to be appropriately aware of how your parent’s behavior affected you. The goal isn’t to blame your parent, but to develop your understanding of what you needed.
Limits and Deservedness: The impact of having narcissistic or over-indulgent parents
A healthy sense of deservedness is good for marriage because it frees us to communicate our needs and to develop our feelings of pleasure and meaning. A sense of overentitlement is harmful in marriage because it leaves the other feeling burdened, resentful, and unappreciated. Children can be damaged by excessively entitled parents because the parents’ needs for mirroring, praise, and empathy get prioritized over the child’s.*8 Self-centered parents may greatly attend to the child when the child enlarges the parent, and ignore him or her when the child is involved in ways that leave the parent out. They might act jealous or threatened by a child’s beauty or talent. Children who grow up in this environment often develop the belief that it’s dangerous to attend too much to their own needs, if those needs are at variance with the people they love.
Rebecca: My father was a black hole of needing to be center stage. At the dinner table he’d usually have some story about how he met this important person and how brilliant they thought he was. He was an entertainment attorney so there was never any shortage of interesting people he was involved with. If we were bored or distracted or actually wanted to talk about what was happening in our meaningless little lives he’d act completely insulted and storm away from the dinner table, sometimes when someone else in the family was right in the middle of a sentence. But if you did something that made him look like a good parent such as star in the school play or whatever, he’d be like, “Yep, that’s my girl. Taught her everything she knows.” My husband is a milder version of my dad. In the past year I’m seeing how much I put myself at the bottom of the barrel in our marriage and it’s made me resent him. Now I have to learn how to value myself as much as I do him and our kids which, as obvious as it sounds, is foreign to me. It’s like growing a new personality.
While Rebecca complied with her father’s message that she was unimportant, many identify with a self-involved parent and behave in a self-centered and demanding way in their own marriages. Another kind of family environment that produces excessively entitled behavior is when parents fail to adequately set limits on their children. Parents who “spoil” children fail to prepare them for marriage.
Klaus: I didn’t have to lift a finger in my house, growing up. Pretty much whatever I said went. I think it’s because both of them never had anything growing up from either of their parents – everybody was so poor and freaked out from the war. Their big motto was, ‘We don’t want you to ever experience what we went through. We want you to have the life we never had.’ So, I never really had to work to make things happen.
Klaus’s attitude was a serious strain on his marriage because he never learned the concept of reciprocity. Even though his wife had a full-time career, he wanted her to wait on him when he got home and take full responsibility for the parenting. He acted bored when she would complain about her difficulties, though insisted that she give him her undivided attention whenever he spoke. His marriage floundered because he took his wife for granted. People who are raised in an environment like Klaus’s believe they’re entitled to one-way giving. They are often unmotivated to change because they seem to be getting what they want, as they always have. It’s often not until it’s too late or until they’re delivered an ultimatum that they consider changing.
A weak parent can produce children who are excessively entitled.
Doug: Mom never got over her divorce from my dad and it was really pathetic. Even when I was a teenager she’d sit around crying, ‘I just don’t understand why he left, I just don’t understand it.’ I didn’t really respect her, it’s like ‘Get over it, move on. He’s gone and good riddance.’ If I wanted money or whatever I’d just bully her until I got what I wanted. She was really easy to intimidate.
Doug had problems in his marriage knowing how to share power with his wife. He never developed the ability to accept influence from a woman and thus used the same bullying techniques in marriage that he used on his mother.
An environment of deprivation can produce feelings of excessive entitlement.
Monica: I grew up pretty poor in West Texas. My ma was a very worried, depressed, and dependent woman and my dad might have uttered two words a year. Ma was in and out of the hospital all of the time for every illness you can think of, though I don’t think they ever found a real problem. I was an only child and got a job at twelve so I could help support the family, but mostly so I could have an excuse not to be there. It was pretty suffocating, I guess the way they show mental institutions on TV with people sitting in the dark, never saying anything. They weren’t bad people, they just didn’t have a lot to give me. I felt like if I stayed there one more day I’d wind up like them with the life sucked out of me.
After high school Monica married a man who was quiet and withdrawn, much like her dad. However, she rebelled against her childhood environment of overresponsibility and deprivation by becoming demanding and overly-entitled in her marriage. Despite her husband’s modest income, she wracked up thousands of dollars of credit card debt buying expensive clothing for herself and expensive toys for the children. When he wanted to talk about a budget or suggested that she get a part-time job to pay down their debt, she became enraged and accused him of trying to deprive her of enjoying her life.
The effect on marriage
If you are identified with a narcissistic parent, or if you’re complying with their overindulgence of you, then you may have unrealistically high expectations of attention and care from your partner (though you probably wouldn’t recognize this in yourself). You may possess unrealistic notions about the amount of work one has to do to maintain a marriage. You may have a hard time empathizing with those around you and feel superior to your spouse and others. You often express your feelings like an enraged child rather than a mature adult. You’re the least likely to get help because you don’t believe you have a problem.
On the other hand, it’s possible that you comply with your parents’ self-centeredness by feeling unimportant in your marriage and life. You may feel guilty about valuing your needs because you were raised to prioritize the needs of others. You may carry a feeling of emptiness because you were never given a sense that your own feelings and ideas matter. You also may have chosen a partner who is overly self-involved because you unconsciously comply with the belief that others needs are more important than yours.
Path for Change
- Examine your sense of entitlement and where it came from. Learn to see it as self-destructive, rather than a pathway to happiness. Develop a work ethic towards marriage that says you can’t take out what you don’t put in.
- If your partner accuses you of being selfish, consider the possibility that there may be a grain of truth to it.
- If you were overly indulged, you may have a hard time structuring your time, and may procrastinate or avoid as a way to force your partner into structuring your time for you. Thus, develop small goals for yourself both in and out of marriage and work to achieve them on a daily or monthly basis. Consider individual, group, or couple therapy to help you gain a more appropriate perspective on your contributions to the problems in your marriage.
- If you weren’t helped to achieve independence, you will have to work hard to be an independent adult. You will need to challenge yourself and take risks in order to experience the rewards of independent behavior.
Security and Predictability: The impact of being raised in a chaotic or threatening environment
The childhood experience of emotional security and predictability are the most basic building blocks of identity. Infants deprived of predictable and consistent human contact develop significant problems relating to others. John Bowlby observed that infants who feel the most secure are the most likely to feel comfortable exploring their environment.*9 This need for security is apparently true for all mammals. Monkeys who are raised without a consistent parent do poorly in their social relations with other monkeys and attain low status within their group. They demonstrate lower levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin than those raised in a secure environment.These results have been found in many mammals.*10
When children are raised in environments filled with chaos, threats, or abuse they bring considerable fears of abandonment and mistrust into their marriages. Children who grow up in these environments may also develop beliefs that they don’t have the right to set limits on a spouse’s hurtful behavior.
Andrea: My father molested me for six years and when I finally told my mother about it she blamed me. It was enough of a nightmare having him come in my room whenever he was high, but then to have my mother side with him and not believe her own daughter, that was too much to even stomach. I dropped out of high school and proceeded to go from shitty relationship to shitty relationship after that and through two marriages. I just let men treat me the way my father did, like I was there to be used. By my third marriage, I’ve had to learn the hard way to stand up for myself. I’ve got a long long way to go on that one, but I’m at least on the road instead of lying in a ditch beside it.
Marie internalized the destructive messages of her mistreatment. While it’s not a hard and fast rule, women are more likely to internalize by blaming themselves when hurt while men are more likely to blame others.*11 As adults, people who internalize mistreatment become passive in the face of abuse and confused about whether they have a right to defend themselves. The “battered woman syndrome”*12 is an example of this process of internalization.
Externalizers, conversely, respond to hurt or trauma by making the other person the victim. Their unconscious strategy is to be sure they’re not in the position of vulnerability by being in complete control. Thus, a common pattern is that partners who are batterers come from homes where they were abused as children or witnessed a parent being abused.
Some avoid the memory of painful experiences by either failing to get involved with others, or only involving themselves with people who won’t hurt them.*13
Brenda: I chose Sal because I knew he wouldn’t hurt a fly and neither would I. He and I never raise our voices at each other and we’re very supportive. We try never to disagree and I think that’s been our strength.
While this can be a strength, marriages like this are vulnerable to disruption when there’s a crisis or when one of the members grows enough to wants to change the rules.* 14 In either case, it requires the ability to tolerate the anxiety of conflict, something that avoiders are fearful of doing. If you were raised in an abusive environment, you may have developed your identity around being prepared for the worst. You likely either withdrew into a shell or became wild as a way to shout down your anxiety and fears. As you entered adolescence, you may have used drugs or alcohol as a way to manage your anxiety, fear or upset.*15 If not, you may have found other costly ways to withdraw or manage your fear and anxiety such as bulimia, phobias, obsessiveness, or perfectionism.
Effect on marriage
You may misinterpret any criticism as an act of betrayal or war. This could either be out of an identification with a critical parent or as an effort to protect yourself. You may be vulnerable to having affairs or engaging in potentially self-destructive behaviors as an attempt to manage your fear of being left or hurt. You may often feel scared and alone and constantly wait for the ax to fall. You may blame your partner for your feelings of anxiety and vulnerability and insist that he or she demonstrate loyalty or devotion in ways that are neither reasonable nor possible. You may get your partner to reject you as a way of proving that your worst fears are true (and that your parents were right to mistreat you). You may be obsessed with maintaining control of yourself and those around you, such as your mate and children, or you’re married to someone who controls you.
Path for change
- Learn how to soothe yourself so that your anxiety is not such a dominant feature of your emotional landscape by using self-talk, affirmations, and relaxation techniques (see Chapter 8).
- Don’t tolerate abuse in your marriage or your friendships. If you’ve been the abusive one, get help right away for your sake and the sake of your children, as we’ll discuss in Chapter 7.
- Decrease your spouse’s potential to make you feel scared or intimidated through assertiveness techniques and social support. If you’re in an abusive marriage, you may have to leave or greatly change the structure of your marriage. Either way, you will need a supportive group of friends or family members to help you feel loved and safe in the world. Because you may be fearful of being hurt, it may be hard to reach out to others, however, it is critical to your happiness that you do so. There is no short-cut around this one.
- Learn that you are more resilient than you believe yourself to be. Your mind plays a trick on you, scaring you into believing you’re on the edge of a thirty-foot drop when it’s only three feet. You possess resources and defenses that you didn’t have when you were a child, however, you can only discover this through taking risks. While it is sometimes painful when things don’t go the way you want them to, it will not be the catastrophe that you’re telling yourself.
- Learn to tolerate the anxiety that receiving help engenders. Stop waiting for others to call you or acting martyred when they don’t.
- Develop a soothing set of beliefs to replace that sadomasochistic symphony that’s constantly playing in your head. Some examples are: “ I am deserving of love and attention.” “If something happens, I have the resources to solve it.
- Learn that keeping your partner on the defensive by shouting or shaming is an illusory safeness. Take responsibility for the ways you push your partner away. Disengage from your spouse if either of you escalates the conflict
- Write a letter to the people who have hurt you. You can decide later whether to send it or not. In the letter, tell them that they were wrong to abuse you when you were the most vulnerable. Let them know how you have suffered in life as a result of their neglect or abuse. Let yourself get angry, as it will help you fight against your internalized messages from them. It may also help you to place your anger where it belongs.
- Don’t blame yourself. It wasn’t your fault that you were abused.
- Make amends to people whom you have hurt in the past. Ask for forgiveness.
Boundaries: The impact of parents who are overly restrictive or controlling
Parents who are overly restrictive create children who feel crowded and controlled in relationships. As adults, they often respond to this experience by either becoming controlling, choosing a partner who is controlling, or wrongly viewing their partner’s behavior as controlling.
Pam: My dad was a control freak and I hated him for it. I wasn’t allowed to go to friends’ houses after school like all the other kids because I had to be home where he could keep an eye on me. It’s like he thought I was on the verge of committing some crime all of the time, even though I was a really good kid. When I got into high school he turned the screws even tighter. I couldn’t grow my hair out, I wasn’t allowed to date because, of course, I’m going to go right out and get pregnant. I had to wear clothes that looked like something my grandmother would have worn. I basically wasn’t allowed to have any say over any part of my life.
Pam’s background caused her to be hyper-sensitive to any request of compromise from her husband. Her constant refrain with him was, “You’re not my father. You don’t get to tell me what to do.“ She viewed him as trying to dominate and control her when he would want her to negotiate in the ways that are reasonable in marriage. Over the course of their relationship, her husband gradually withdrew from her in a cloud of resentment and frustration.
Parents are sometimes restrictive out of excessive worry
Anthony: My mother was a major worrier and saw danger constantly lurking around the corner. If I was riding my bike outside and she saw me fall, she’d rush outside crying, ‘Are you all right? Are you all right?’ It was so embarrassing. I remember being in the eighth grade and it started to storm and I look out my classroom window and am horrified to see mother running to the school carrying my boots, so I didn’t ‘catch my death of cold’ which, according to her, I was always on the verge of doing. But it was like that with everything. I couldn’t do anything without her freaking out about it.
Anthony’s experience made him very passive in his marriage. Like many people who aren’t raised to be competent or take risks, he chose a wife who overfunctioned. This caused problems in his marriage because she resented him for not taking enough responsibility and he resented her for contributing to his feelings of incompetence.
Effect on marriage
If you felt overly controlled or restrained as a child, you may have developed an inappropriate need for independence as a way to fight against that experience. You may confuse reasonable nurturance or concern with worry and intrusion. You may have a hard time negotiating with your partner because you worry that you’ll be dominated. However, this may make you controlling and domineering, much as a parent was with you.
If you are complying with your parents’ treatment, you may have become excessively docile or dependent in life and marriage. You may have chosen a partner who controls and manages your life because you believe that you are unable to, or you believe that others need you to be in a submissive position. You may lie about small things in order to stay out of trouble with your mate or give yourself a feeling of independence.
Path For Change
- Work on being independent and close at the same time. This means learning to tolerate the anxiety that comes when your partner needs you or wants to spend time with you. Learn that you can be giving and not lose yourself; needing you isn’t the same thing as wanting to bleed you dry.
- Learn to compromise. Consider that your partner’s desire to negotiate has some merit to it.
- If you are dependent, strive to do more things in your marriage without your partner’s permission or help. Start small. Work to tolerate the anxiety that comes from standing on your own two feet by setting achievable goals. Learn that your independence isn’t hurtful to you or to others.
- Stop blaming your partner for standing in the way of your happiness and start making plans to do whatever it will take to become happier. Make a list of the things you’re the most afraid of and begin tackling them without asking for help.* Make this plan as detailed as possible.
The effect of losing a parent to death or divorce
The loss of a parent can have a profound impact on a child. Children who lose a parent to divorce or death often have problems feeling secure in their marriages. While it’s easy to understand the effect of a parent’s death, research shows that divorce can sometimes be even more difficult for children.*16 This may be because a child will feel rejected if the non-custodial parent doesn’t work hard to stay close. It’s also damaging to children if the custodial parent remains embittered and critical of the non-custodial parent. In addition, divorce often exposes children to other stressors such as frequent changes in living situation, decreased parental availability, and decreased financial stability.*17
Adult children of divorce have a far greater likelihood of divorce and are less confident that their marriages will work out.*18 These anxieties can cause survivors of divorce to feel more cautious, reactive, and fearful than is sometimes useful for marriage.
Julia: My dad left when I was ten and that was almost the last I saw of him. It was really hard on me because I was a lot closer to him than I was my mother. When he moved to Chicago, I cried myself to sleep at night for three months straight. It was really painful. I always felt like he’d show up. Plus, my mother was always talking trash about him to me, ‘Your dad never did give a damn about you kids. Now you know what I had to put up with all these years.’ That kind of crap. I lost a lot of respect for both of them.
Julie’s experience with her father made it hard for her to trust men. She had a series of brief romances in her twenties and two of her marriages ended in divorce. When she came to therapy she was on the verge of her third divorce. Her third husband seemed motivated to work on the marriage, however Julie was burning him out with her tests to see if he would reject her.
Effect on marriage of parental death or divorce
You may be burdened with fears of losing the people most important to you. Thus, you may respond by either clinging to your mate or refusing to let yourself become attached. You may feel insecure in the world and believe that something terrible is in the offing. You may test your partner by being difficult or rejecting to see if he or she is going to leave you like your parent did. You may have made a decision to go it alone in life and not depend on anyone in order never to be wounded again. This may make it impossible for your partner to be close to you. You may be overly dependent on a safe person such as a mate.
Path for Change
- Evaluate whether you have grieved the death or divorce of your parent(s). Were you comforted during the loss or did you have to manage your feelings alone? Were you able to be a child or did you have to take care of the surviving or custodial parent? Did someone help you make sense of your thoughts and feelings, or were you left bewildered and overwhelmed?
- Write a letter to the parent who died or left. Tell him or her what that was like for you and the effect it’s had on your and your marriage. Let yourself feel the emotions of sadness, grief or anger. The more in touch with your feelings you are, the less you may need to act them out in your marriage.
- Learn to become aware of your belief system by keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings around the topic of intimacy and rejection. Develop positive counter-statements to the irrational beliefs that you hold about yourself or others.
- Take risks in your marriage and friendships. Stop waiting for your partner to change to feel safe and secure. Don’t blame your partner for your difficulties with being intimate.
- Learn that you’re more resilient than when you were young. Adults have a wealth of experience and healthy defenses that children lack. Even if you get rejected or lose your partner, you’ll survive and grow; you’re stronger than you know. Your memory of loss keeps you afraid as an adult and interferes with your taking the risks you need to change and grow.
The need for help and admiration
Children need a frequent source of admiration, praise and support in order to feel confident and calm in and outside of marriage. Parents who constantly use shame, humiliation, intimidation, or guilt-trips produce children with self-esteem problems. They often become adults who are anxious or insecure in their marriages. It’s much harder to do the work of marriage if you’re constantly feeling one-down or on the verge of being shamed or rejected.
Pierre: My parents were very hard to please. I don’t think I heard ‘good job’ ever. I remember being in kindergarten and showing my mother some finger painting or something that I was really proud of and she just laughed and said, ‘I don’t think I have to worry about you running off to be an artist because you certainly can’t draw.’ It was pretty non-stop. ‘You’re stupid, you’re lazy, why don’t you ever do anything right, why can’t you be more like your brothers.’ A person hears that enough times, they start to believe it.
In Pierre’s marriage he was passive and resentful and his wife was critical, much like his parents. He was unable to defend himself against his wife because, unconsciously, he believed he deserved to be shamed and humiliated. Thus, he seethed inside, though said little. His wife grew to respect him less and less over time because he didn’t stand up to her and allowed himself to be mistreated by her and by others.
Experiences outside of the household can also lead to a strong feeling of defectiveness. Children who grow up with undiagnosed learning disabilities or attention deficit disorder may develop strong beliefs that they are fundamentally flawed. In addition children who have physical features that make them the object of teasing by peers or family members can also carry strong feelings of defectiveness into their marriages. Children who grow up shorter, fatter, less attractive; children who stutter, or have severe acne, or painful shyness can all internalize a strong belief that they are seriously flawed and these insecurities can affect their behavior in marriage.*19
Effect on marriage
You may be either drawn to a partner who would reject you, or you are drawn to those you can reject. You may have a hard time feeling good about yourself and this can make you distance yourself from your partner for fear of being hurt. You may be perfectionistic or workaholic to escape internal accusations that you’re not good enough; you may also burden your spouse or children with perfectionistic expectations, if you’re identified with your parent’s treatment. You may be excessively oriented to pleasing others at the expense of your own needs, or excessively defiant at any hint of criticism. You may be overly dependent on your partner’s opinions to maintain your self-esteem because you’re so hard on yourself. You may expect to be found out or revealed as a fraud. You may have a hard time relaxing or being spontaneous unless you’re using substances or you’re by yourself.
Path for Change
- Learn to tolerate the anxiety that closeness raises. Don’t run from it by being rejecting or critical of others efforts to be close. Replace your critical beliefs about yourself with positive, self-supportive beliefs such as “I am deserving of love, attention, and admiration.” “I am a worthwhile person.” Make a list of all of your strengths and achievements and use those to counter your internal criticisms.
- Identify the negative ways that you treat your partner as your parents treated you. Commit to changing this pattern. Make amends to those you have hurt.
- You may have developed an excessive need for approval as an attempt to counter your feelings of defectiveness. Work on this by identifying your dysfunctional beliefs and countering them. Use this strategy to cultivate the awareness that you don’t need other’s approval to feel good about yourself. Too much seeking of approval gives your partner or others excessive control over your well-being or state of mind.
- Learn to tolerate criticism. This will require developing your self-esteem so that you don’t take the criticisms to heart. In addition, learn to be assertive so that you don’t feel at the mercy of toxic people, spouses or otherwise.
Many people feel disloyal to their families when asked to examine their parents’ shortcomings. They often feel that their parents tried the best they could given where they came from, and given what they had to work with. I think that parents, in general, do do the best they can. However, that’s where the analysis should begin, not end. The fact that a parent did the best they could or were well-intentioned doesn’t always mean that they did enough, or that their good intentions were expressed in a way that was useful for the child.*20
On the other hand, parents are sometimes blamed by therapists or politicians for things which are increasingly outside of their control. For example, studies show that poverty, race, and lower socioeconomic level can give parents much less control and influence over their children.*21 African-American children are routinely discriminated against in the attitudes of their teachers, in the funding and resources of their schools, and in the quality and availability of medical care.*22 Exposure to ongoing discrimination directly affects self-esteem, optimism, and the desire to achieve. A study at Harvard found that African-American boys who scored in the ninetieth percentile on the Iowa achievement test in the third grade dropped down to the twenty-fourth percentile by the seventh grade.*23 This isn’t poor parenting. This is large-scale institutional and societal neglect.
Conversely, upper, and many middle class parents are able to provide psychotherapy, tutors, boarding schools, summer and after-school programs that can correct serious problems in parenting or vulnerabilities in the child.*24 They are also better able to raise their children in neighborhoods and schools where the children are safer from coercive influences. In this case, the effects of the parenting can be corrected or aided by the programs of enrichment and the safety net that follows many of these children into adulthood. This doesn’t mean that middle and upper-class children are immune to parental trauma or neglect, genetic vulnerabilities, or exposure to the problematic aspects of our culture. It means that those parents are much better able to protect their children from these effects because they possess the resources that less fortunate parents lack.
However, whether from societal or parental influences, it is critical to understand how you were affected by your past and with your caregivers. Understanding these effects may increase the possibility that your marriage can be freed from their weight and influence. Changing your behavior in some of the ways described may be enough to begin to put your marriage back on track.
Either way, gaining happiness in the difficult marriage comes as you begin to stop blaming your partner for your unhappiness and strive to understand how you hold yourself back in life. Inevitably, this leads us to the fertile landscape of where we need to grow and change.