Stronger at the Broken Places

How challenges can strengthen your relationship

Not All Happy Couples Have Had Happy Childhoods

The best predictor of the future is not necessarily the past.

If this myth were true, most of us would be doomed to relationship hell. Fortunately, it’s not, and we’re not. It turns out that it is possible, even for people who have lived in difficult, abusive, even horrible circumstances to create loving and healthy relationships. Many of the couples we know who are living deeply fulfilling lives grew up in situations that were far from ideal and some were downright wretched. We also know people who grew up in families in which there was an abundance of happiness, love and security who have terrible track records regarding their relationships. This is not to say that it is not preferable and advantageous to have grown up in a happy family, but simply to underscore that it is not an essential factor in creating a successful relationship as an adult. So, you might ask, what then are the critical factors that determine the likelihood of relationship success? We’ll get to that in a minute.

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While there is no way to accurately assess the percentage or number of people who came from unhealthy families, it’s reasonably safe to state that a lot of us didn’t get a great start in life and grew up under less than ideal circumstances that included various forms of addiction, abuse, and neglect. While there is no doubt that such circumstances pose significant obstacles that impede physical, emotional and intellectual development, they are by no means insurmountable, given the right kind of support, resources and motivation in adulthood. This is not to infer that overcoming such hardships is by any means a simple thing or can be easily corrected, but rather to challenge or at least question the widely held belief that anyone who has grown up in a “dysfunctional” family cannot hope to create a healthy adult relationship.

One of the things that does characterize the experience of many of those who have grown up in neglectful or abusive families is the likelihood that they have internalized a belief that they are not worthy of being treated with respect or love. Children tend to take things personally and assume that they are deserving of whatever treatment they receive, good or bad. This of course adds an extra burden to anyone who has had to deal with this phenomenon. While there is no doubt that such an added difficulty is no easy matter, there is a difference between something being difficult and being impossible. 

Those of us who were fortunate enough to have positive esteem mirrored back to us from loving adults were likely to come into adulthood feeling secure in ourselves and safe in the world. We probably felt valued, wanted, cherished, honored, and loved. Still, high self-esteem is no guarantee of a successful relationship just as low self-esteem is no guarantee of an unsuccessful relationship.

Most of us fall in between the extremes of abysmal and ideal, yet the factors that seem to be most relevant to the question of the creation of successful adult relationships appear to have more to do with our capacity to learn, become more emotionally mature, detach from unhealthy patterns, and our commitment to heal the places in our inner lives that are in need of love, acceptance, and forgiveness. This includes our “shadow” aspects that everyone possesses; those qualities that we deem to be unacceptable to ourselves or others that we hold as shameful and try to conceal. The degree to which we can accept, integrate and come to terms with our shadow, is one of the most significant things that we can do to enhance our chances of creating truly successful relationships.

On the other end of the spectrum are those of us who came from families where we may not have felt wanted or valued, where things seemed chaotic or unpredictable, and we felt insecure much of the time. We may have felt that we were in the way, ignored, overly controlled, or that we were trouble. As children, we couldn’t change these conditions, so we were left feeling powerless, unworthy, and unlovable.

Most of us fall in the middle of the spectrum, so we know both extremes from our early lives and feel a mix of worth and worthlessness, unlovability and lovability. While psychotherapy is the treatment of choice for many of those of us who are suffering from low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, or addictive patterns, there are other means available through which we can heal past wounds that have left us feeling broken or incomplete, one of them being that of a committed partnership.

Committed partnerships provide us with the means through which we can expose the unhealed or unloved parts of ourselves to someone who has the capacity and desire to accept that within us that we had deemed to be unacceptable and bless us with their embrace of those aspects of ourselves. Such a relationship is not necessarily a substitute for therapy, but it can provide us with the kind of experience that affects our sense of value as a person.

 Being related to with acceptance and respect can heal the places in our self-image that have been wounded and help restore us to a sense of wholeness where we may have previously felt broken. As we come more fully into integrity with our true nature, our capacity to give and receive love increases and deepens. Loving partnerships tend to diminish fear and anxiety and promote a sense of peace and security. These relationships, due to their very nature, expose whatever within us has been intentionally or unconsciously concealed or denied, thus providing us with opportunities to bring acceptance and self-compassion to ourselves and by extension, to others.

Marriage itself isn’t inherently healing. We don’t automatically experience happiness when we engage in a committed partnership. The shared decision to use the relationship as a means of promoting mutual well-being for both partners is the primary variable that determines whether we create a great or a not-so-great partnership.

Not only is it possible to have a great relationship even after growing up in difficult circumstances, but the pain of our past experience can actually become the motivation that drives our commitment to do the work that is necessary to create the kind of fulfillment that we were denied as a child. 

The past does not have to dictate what the future will be. It is only one factor, and not necessarily the most significant one that influences future possibilities. We can recover, heal and grow beyond the limitations of our past experiences but only if we trust that this is possible. The saying that the person who believes that something is possible and the person who believes that something is not possible are both correct. There is great power in our beliefs and they can easily become self-fulfilling prophecies if we are not careful. If we are convinced that we are handicapped by our past then we will act in accordance with that belief and ultimately get to be right. If on the other hand we refuse to accept the notion that our future is determined by our past, and do the work necessary to heal and recover from our wounds and disappointments, we will not only free ourselves from the limits of old beliefs, but we will be well on our way to creating a life beyond what we previously could have even imagined. We can come from serious dysfunction, addiction, abuse, psychosis, etc. and still create a golden relationship. It’s all in the commitment.

Linda Bloom, L.C.S.W., and Charlie Bloom, M.S.W., are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love.

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