I am constantly told by couples when they first come to my office that they want to work on “communication”. While I accept this initial perspective of the issues at hand, a part of me is also internally thinking, “If you communicated exactly what you wanted to right now with all of the clarity in the world, this would actually be far worse, so I think this is a little bit more complicated than just simple communication.” I have found that when couples are telling me they have communication issues it is usually far more complicated and believe it or not, those more complicated “inflection points”, often have a lot more to do with the past than most couples initially realize. As much as people might say that they would rather not "look at the past” or they’ve "gotten over it so it doesn’t matter anymore”, that is just not the case and the following article will demonstrate the 7 reasons that couples worst fights ALWAYS have to do something with childhood experiences and/or past relationships.
1. The Apple Can Only Fall So Far From The Tree
The first of these has to do with being impacted by our childhood experiences in observing the first romantic relationship we get to see…our parents. This one is unavoidable meaning that yes, EVERY relationship is impacted by it whether general childhood experiences were “peaches and cream” or not. First, let me say that Freud really set up the field of Psychology to be ridiculed by theorizing that all Boys want to have sex with their Mother’s (Oedipal
Complex) and that all Girls want to have sex with their Fathers (Elektra Complex). This is just so creepy and incestuous sounding on the surface that it’s hard to get to what current research has shown actually plays out. What DOES happen in every family and with every child is that generally, each child is going to subconsciously (however sometimes consciously) choose to IDENTIFY with one particular parent (not have sex with them that’s creepy). It is more common and traditional for little Boys to identify more with the Fathers and little Girls to identify more with their Mothers, however it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way. And of course since we are kids, we end up idealizing the parent who we identify with, so often trouble seeing the shortcomings of their ways/habits/style unless this parent invites us see the less idealized parts of themselves much more directly.
2. Romantic Modeling
As we grow up, we watch how our parents interact with each other and even if we don’t know much of what is going on specifically with our parents, we do get a general gist of their “dynamic”. For instance, we know that if one parent tends to get sick (or any other example of underfunctioning), then the other parent generally responds with caretaking (or any other example of overfunctioning) to get back to a "balance". Once we reach sexual/social maturity, we tend to be VERY drawn to potential mates who demonstrate an ability to interact with us in this old familiar dynamic because to us, this represents what we have been raised to believe symbolizes an ability to balance us out in a romantic relationship (but really the parent we are identifying with). For example in the above scenario, if we identify more with the “sick parent”, then we would be very drawn to potential mates who seem like they have it all together and are very high performers, and maybe even so much so that we later realize they are “control freaks”. On the other hand, if we happened to identify with the overfunctioning parent, we are prone to seeking out potential mates who demonstrate a comfort with being taken care of, and later might even realize they seem kind of “lazy”. On both sides of this example, a couple is having an argument about a household chore or missed date on the surface, but underneath there is a whole world of subconscious belief systems about what those different perspectives mean that are HEAVILY grounded in loyalty to one’s “romantic scripts” from one’s parents. Albert Einstein is credited with the famous quote, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over then expecting different results.” Even though Einstein is often credited with being one of the great modern geniuses of our time, we go against his advice if we do not take an honest look at how these dynamics of the past impact our present relationship concerns.
3. Unresolved Parental Trauma Impacts Parenting Style
Another way our childhood experiences can impact our current relationships is through direct pain or trauma that our own parents experienced in their childhoods that they never had or gave themselves the chance to resolve adequately (that might be a sentence you have to read a few times). I commonly see in my practice where common symptoms associated with painful childhood experiences can actually “skip” a generation. An example of this might be a client who is very high performing professionally, however struggles in personal relationships. It would not be uncommon to find that the Mother of the client was actually raised in a single parent household with an incredibly strong and independent Mother of her own (maternal grandmother of client) who did EVERYTHING on her own out of necessity after Father (maternal grandfather) abandoned the Family. Even though the client is dealing with the Anxiety symptoms (avoidant of intimacy with others, hypercritical of self, sleep disturbance, ruminating thoughts, etc), the symptoms are actually most closely associated to what occurred two generations back, even before their own childhood existed. What I find in my practice is that it really doesn’t matter how long ago injuries were and while wounds need time to heal, time heals nothing on its own. In fact, time is also a necessary parameter for infection to set in, which we can safely say is the opposite of healing. Until the client is able to make peace with whatever is keeping them stuck, no matter how long ago and no matter how much medication you throw at it, people/relationships will remain stuck and oftentimes, become progressively worse off.
If you know that the relationship dynamics between the parents of either you or your romantic partner were not optimal, it would be wise to look into a process such as Premarital Counseling to make sure you are setting yourselves up for success.
4. The experience of growing up with a Parent who has significant mental illness can also impact a person's worldview and their relationship style immensely.
There is a very specific set of symptoms associated with children who grew up with an Alcoholic Parent (fear of losing control, conflict avoidance, fear of feelings/intimacy in general, critical/impatient towards self, etc). There is also a tendency of children who grew up with a parent who has Borderline Personality Disorder or Bipolar Disorder to exhibit some Narcissistic symptoms. When we look at the symptoms of the client for what they are in the context of where they were learned, they make a lot of sense. It is easy to see why a kid growing up with an Alcoholic Parent would be avoidant of intimacy, as well as a kid raised by a Borderline Parent to be good at looking out for Number One (someone had to).
When these personality traits enter into a romantic relationship and start “ping-ponging” back and forth, they can seem really confusing, irrational, and feel VERY INTENSE. For example, let's say I am working with a couple at my office. They are in their mid 40s, both are successful professionally and they have all the material things they ever wanted, however after several years of miscommunications and the resulting growing tension they eventually decided to seek me out for professional help. They were recalling a recent conflict wherein the husband was late to a date night without prior warning and the wife immediately became angry, began criticizing her husband, then their fight really took off from there. The Wife grew up in a Family with a Borderline Father so she has always needed to protect herself (avoid vulnerability) with loved ones, especially Men. This leaves the impression that she has no other option than to criticize her Husband to get her point across since she believes from her childhood that with Men, the best defense is an even better offense. Meanwhile, the Husband (while knows he messed up) cannot level with his Wife because he feels the need to protect himself from his Wife’s criticism, which was learned in her own Family of Origin that actually has NOTHING to do with the Husband presently. I describe this to you to give an example of how quickly a conflict can escalate into a real fight in a romantic relationship when one or both partners are reacting to the past rather than responding to the present.
5. When Parents Cheat, Their Children Are TWO TIMES MORE LIKELY TO BE UNFAITHFUL
There is an obvious area of great injury and even trauma surrounding the experience of infidelity, whether in our past relationships or in our Family of Origin. When we commit to a long-term partnership, us Human Beings wrap up a LOT of our personal security and safety into being able to depend on that relationship (both the kids and the parents). When that safety and security is threatened in these relationships, it can even create symptoms commonly associated with PTSD (hypervigilance, hostility, flashbacks, mistrust, guilt, insomnia, emotional detachment, etc). If these experiences haven’t been dealt with and resolved directly, their unresolved symptomatology will wreak havoc on present relationship dynamics. How is a couple supposed to experience intimacy if one or both partners cannot be vulnerable with the other, or even do so with themselves with basic self awareness??? If you are thinking that it probably can’t, then you are right. At least as impactful as past experiences with infidelity can be in relationships, past experiences with Domestic Violence are usually even worse. In these cases, the client is usually more aware that this was/is an issue for them currently, however this is not always the case. Since these clients usually struggle with some degree of PTSD symptoms as well and heavy avoidance being characteristic of those symptoms, it is not uncommon for this same client who wants to deny a connection to their past experiences, is also acting like World War 3 is going to break out and threaten going nuclear every time someone gets a little irritated. Unfortunately over time, these symptoms usually become so intense they can literally provoke the other partner in a defensive stance until they escalate with each other, making present/future Domestic Violence more likely NOW (click here for an instructional video on taking space). Unfortunately by the time there is physical conflict and especially without significant intervention and accountability, it is often too late to salvage a relationship. This is unfortunate because the relationship could have been saved if the client(s) could bring self to acknowledge the role of the past experiences in the present concerns.
6. Intense Childhood Bullying
Another type of past relationship experience that can stand to impact our present relationship dynamics is intense bullying from peers in childhood.
While we all go through some degree of it, some kids are especially targeted and get it way worse. If you think back and you were not “that kid”, you can probably remember the peer who was. Even though looking back you might feel that peer relationships in childhood were not as intimate as the current romantic relationship with a committed partner is, they are still held in relatively high regard throughout adolescence. Heck, it might only be when we talk to a teenager now that we remember how much they are prone to prioritizing their social group even over their own family. While this is developmentally appropriate (much to the chagrin of families), this leaves them open to a degree of trauma if the experiences of bullying are never dealt with adequately.
These people can go between combative and/or avoidant much like the child who experienced Domestic Violence and much like this adult survivor, they are more prone to latching onto a peer in an attempt to find and secure emotional safety. In adulthood, this often plays out by Adults having a tendency to become “co-dependent” in romantic relationships. In these co-dependent relationships, the survivor of the traumatic bullying will continue placing all of the responsibility for love/belonging and security onto their partner. If their partner doesn’t have a similar style themselves, they will eventually get overwhelmed and leave. If their partner DID have similar traumatic bullying experiences (actually more common to occur mutually in relationships than you might think), the couple often becomes so dependent on each other that they avoid any real conflict out of fear that this will create rejection and abandonment. Over time, issues cannot be dealt with, resentment builds on both sides, and the relationship will become derelict and crumble.
7. Lack Of Experience (Self OR Other)
Last and certainly not least, is having limited or even no experience in romantic relationships before jumping into a very committed one. In our Western Individualist culture this goes against cultural expectations, so often occurs when people have higher anxiety and/or lower self esteem as an adolescent/young adult. When this lack of experience occurs, couples tend to adopt a lot of the co-dependent style description noted above in that they are conflict avoidant out of abandonment fear. The individuals in the romantic relationship cannot imagine standing solely on their own two feet to the degree that they forget where their personal integrity lies (who they are VERSUS who partner is). It might also not be a surprise that these couples often struggle with a very restricted intimate life, often including their sexual repertoire, that leaves both individuals feeling a sense of dissatisfaction. And truth be told, they ARE dissatisfied and could have a chance of increasing that satisfaction greatly by addressing these concerns directly with professional support.
As you can see, there are many ways that childhood experiences and past relationships infiltrate present relationship dynamics, whether we want to admit it or not. It doesn’t mean that you are weak because you have’t gotten over it. It doesn’t mean that your romantic relationship is destined for failure. And it DOES NOT mean that more time trying to avoid dealing with it directly will do anything other than make this infection grow bigger and more painful.
The founder of New Leaf Counseling Group, Logan Cohen, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, as well as a Clinical Supervisor for the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy and the North Carolina Board of Licensed Professional Counselors. The practice was founded on the belief that relationships are a beautiful and effective vehicle for growth and transformation, whether the therapeutic work is being done with the relationship directly or just with one individual in the relationship. You can click here for a current list of professional therapists who all share this same sacred respect for utilizing loving human relationships as a vehicle for growth. Consider giving back to yourself by contacting one of us for a free initial consultation and remember, we have room for you to GROW.
Are you looking for a Couples Therapist near you to provide support through Marriage/Relationship Difficulties in Charlotte, North Carolina? You can book an appointment with us TODAY.