Freud may have been wrong about many things, but he got one thing right: Childhood Counts.
Whether we like it or not, our unique childhood experiences affect relationships later in life, whether that relationship be with lovers, friends, children, or ourselves.
Intimacy pulls from early childhood in all the wonderful ways that love is experienced. We love to be touched and caressed, we love to be gazed at with affirmation and longing. If you have been loved well, there is a good chance that you will choose a reliable spouse and not get overly triggered when upset. If not, intimacy can trigger old wounds and disappointments, which can affect your marriage or partnership in a negative way. With healthy perspective, much can be done. Take a look, for instance, at the work of James Hollis or John Gottman.
Our focus has been on things that have actually happened in relationships. But sometimes what doesn’t happen in our relationships drives us to project an unrealistic ideal onto the relationships we do have. It starts early on, but this behavior influences the choices we make as adults.
Example: Sarah came from a middle class home in Florida. Her dad was a successful local businessman and her mother was a stay at home mom. From the outside, Sarah seemed to have it all; perfect parents, great friends, good grades, and a happy home life. But Sarah’s parents did not get along well. Sarah’s father had a string of affairs and Sarah’s mother became paranoid and overbearing. Sarah’s parents worked hard to hide their issues and put on a happy face for everyone around them, but these inconsistencies affected Sarah.
As an infant, her parents had the time and resources to devote themselves to Sarah, but were emotionally distracted by their own turmoil. Kids sense what is going on and Sarah was no exception; her home life felt unstable. Sometimes she was provided with a warm and comforting environment, and other times her folks were wildly distracted and her security came second.
Here is how Sarah adapted to her childhood issues.
As she got older, Sarah convinced herself she did have a consistent and nurturing home life. She began to believe that her parents had a perfect relationship. She was also very concerned with being popular and well liked. Sarah didn’t want friends, she needed friends, and she wanted everyone else to reinforce her denial. She needed her peers to know that her parents were perfect and she was well liked. Sarah unconsciously knew that she didn’t have all of these things, but she was seeking balance and stability in her life and she achieved this through a powerful sense of denial.
When it was time for Sarah to choose someone to settle down with, she married Mark. Mark was a great guy by Sarah’s standards - good looking, a respected businessman (like her father), and not belligerent or unstable.
Even though Mark was a catch from the outside looking in, he too began to grow distant from Sarah, and she continued her denial. Mark was preoccupied with his friends and his work and didn’t attempt to make room for Sarah in his life. She maintained that everything was perfect, and gradually became needier and more overbearing in order to maintain control of the situation.
All of this took its toll on Sarah, and she eventually sought therapy on her own. With the help of a therapist, Sarah was able to confront her denial. She saw the way in which she was idealizing her life, and how that tendency related to her childhood. She also realized that she was feeding Marks own narcissism, and perpetuating a cycle of rejection, neglect, and idealization. This was a destructive pattern Sarah had fallen into, but she was able to end the cycle.
It helps to admit that you are unhappy in order to do something about it.
It proved more difficult to get Mark to confront his flaws. He would not attend therapy, but Sarah was better equipped to stand up for herself and see Mark’s behavior for what it really was. The denial went, and in its place stood two people with real needs trying to raise a family together. Sarah stuck with Mark, and while her marriage is not perfect, Sarah now knows what she is dealing with.
From The Couch: If you are dealing with a partner in denial, be gentle. They desperately need to idealize their life and while it’s surely immature, it is also adaptive. Your spouse has been building this fantasy for a long time, and overcoming it will not be easy. You must reassure your spouse that you love their flaws as much as any other part of them. An objective voice is extremely helpful in this situation, and luckily people with this kind of behavior pattern will usually see a therapist without putting up too much of a fight.
Spousal denial can seem so strong and unstoppable that change is unimaginable, but in many cases, a realization leads to progress. Acceptance is absolutely necessary. It takes as much strength to confront flaws in someone you love as it does to confront your own, but repairing the field of intimacy is well worth the battle.
It is good to give up perfection. It will make your life more livable and, one day, give your children a chance to be what they need to be.
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