The Intelligent Divorce

And further unorthodox advice on relationships, marriage and parenting

Control & Intimacy

I am so controlling and he's not happy. Can I fix this?

It’s often not hard to have sex; but it can be very hard to have sex and a close intimate relationship. This is the thesis of the original Icy Intimacy post. I call this The Field of Intimacy. Within this field, old wounds announce themselves. The premise is that if you were damaged as a child, the problems of early childhood can sit inside you like a time bomb, only to come out in the context of an intimate, long term relationship. 

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Many of us grow up just fine. We have a solid bonding experience and feel relatively secure. For these fortunate souls, The Field of Intimacy allows soft and safe sex, closeness and even an ease with safe fighting when needed. You know that you can be loved, and you permit it into your life. The ups and downs of a relationship are not that troubling.

Margaret Mahler tell us in The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant, that our first three years of life our precious. Whether it is the safe bonding of the symbiotic phase, or the playfulness of the exploring phase or the simple reassurance of refueling; all these steps in development ensure a confident child who can handle closeness and distance, without being overtly triggered.

But, not everyone is so lucky.  When an injury happens, trust is damaged – and often badly.  The interesting thing about these early wounds is that they can go underground for years, only to be triggered in an adult intimate relationship.

You see, despite the hurts of early childhood, the vast majority of kids do grow up, and often manage to cover these wounds. Perhaps they may be a bit controlling, maybe they have unstable relationships, or they stay away from sexuality, but the real test does not happen until a true long term intimate relationship evolves. 

Below is a letter to us by Joy, a woman who had been given up for adoption at birth. She tells a tale of longing to be loved. She also tells us that she controls as a way to keep things safe; as in, I can leave you before you will ever get a chance to leave me. Our writer understands that this is a survival mechanism; she just can’t help it. Yet Joy wants to be healed once and for all.

While this by no means is the exclusive experience of all adopted children, Joy speaks a truth about trauma in early life being triggered in an adult relationship.

My birth mother gave me up for adoption at moments old. I expected her loving arms and voice to greet me upon arrival. Instead I was whisked away and given to a foster home for a month and then went to live in my adoptive parents home. My adopted state was NEVER EVER talked about while I was growing up. Yes, I was told I was adopted when I was about three or four years old, but deep down in my psyche I already knew.

We were married when I was 27 years old. We have three kids--17, 13, and 11. About three years ago, a trauma in my life brought up the original trauma of being ripped from my birthmother's arms. I am now 45 years old and truly now just coming to grips with how being traumatized and unable to attach has affected every single relationship I have ever had. 

Yes, I protect myself from future injury. When I am injured in the present, it brings up the original injury. I try to stuff it down and minimize it. Sometimes I succeed. Sometimes I don't.

Complex trauma is when a young person experiences a psychological wound, like abandonment, from which they are unable to escape. It sits in your brain as a hurt ready to be reawakened.  Joy may have been loved by her adoptive parents; and this may be sustaining her to get to the present moment. Yet, at a deep level, Joy experiences her adoption, not as an experience of being embraced by her adoptive parents, but by as a primal loss. 

Given that I don’t know Joy, I’m assuming that she doesn’t bring other issues to the table like Major Depression or Bipolar Disorder, which can make bonding with her husband even more difficult. Here I take Joy at her word. The problem is early trauma, a controlling method of self protection, followed by later trauma; a poor recipe for intimacy.

What do traumatized people like Joy do? Some avoid deep relationships altogether. Some have stormy relationships, always testing their lovers, only to walk away when they fail. And some marry, but keep their spouse at a distance with an icy sort of intimacy in which they are in control in order to stay safe

It is unsatisfying, but it’s the best they can do.

Yes, I want loyalty. Yes, I want control. By you giving those things to me, that demonstrates that you love me. 

Yes, I want mutual dependency. Yes, I want closeness. I want to be pursued like Thompson's gazelle running through the tall African grasses! So that when you finally catch me, I can turn around and say, "No, I didn't want you after all. I'm in control and I will leave you."

I have asked my husband I don't know how many times to hold me closely in bed, to tell me that he loves me multiple times per day, to tell me that he needs me and he wants me. Yes, I am trying to heal my past with my relationships in the present.

However, my husband is not quite catching the vibe and the vision in the role he plays in my healing. He may not be interested. He may not be willing to change. He may not yet see the value in his changing ever so slightly to increase his satisfaction in our relationship. 

Am I expecting too much from him?

This is so very sad and tragic. Joy wants closeness more than anything in the world. She asks to be reassured that she’s loved, despite pushing away. A skilled couples therapist can make a difference here, but I would also recommend that people like Joy, work on forgiving and letting go of the hurt. Her husband can’t cure her. But he can love her. Joy must overcome a fear of vulnerability and trust a therapist to help her detoxify her trauma; otherwise she’ll probably keep her husband at a distance, like the running gazelle, only to reject, and yet want to be saved. This is too much work for any husband or wife. However, I believe that people like Joy can be healed and it is worth the effort.

Finally, I spoke about how mothers like Joy find tremendous satisfaction in raising healthy children. They identify with them as well as parent them. This heals some of their wounds. But when the kids hit adolescence, a mid life crisis is often not far away. They can experience a triggering of abandonment that can make them reactive mothers or fathers – or cause them to withdraw. This can be a turning point. Maybe it is with Joy.

(It’s) hitting very close to home as I go college shopping with my oldest. I am really, really going to miss her. And the 14 year old prefers her daddy to me. I am very much aware of the need to have a normal, healthy relationship with my 11 year old son.

If any of you are married to an adoptee, please be extra aware of some of these issues. Read The Primal Wound by Nancy Verrier--her knowledge will add to your own as to why some adoptees have trouble with marriages.

The very relationships that I need to heal--my husband, my two daughters, my son--are the very relationships I want to run from the fastest. It's quite the existence.

From the Couch 

This is a noble post from Joy, telling her story so others won’t feel crazy with their own suffering. She understands that we all want intimacy, but it can be elusive. 

Here are four useful steps:

First you need to understand that traumas of early life can and do affect relationships in adulthood. 

Second, you have to look at your story; in Joy’s case it’s an abandonment laden adoption experience. 

Third, you have to see how those wounds are protected by you in ways that undermine intimacy with your partner in real time. The injury may be archeological, but the way you protect yourself is current. 

Finally, once you accept what’s going on, get the help that your need. Couples counseling can help you see and deal with mutual triggers. And individual work on abandonment trauma can enable you to trust more and control less. It can give your relationship a chance.

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The Intelligent Divorce book seriesonline course , newsletter and radio show is a step by step program to handling divorcewith sanity - from raising healthy kids to dealing with an impossible ex.

 

Mark Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

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