Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Child Development

Is Our Childhood Really to Blame for Everything?

The difference between acknowledging pain from our past and being a victim

In recent months I've been writing about some of the deeper and unconscious reasons beneath our choice in partners. I've suggested that we will choose someone who is uniquely qualified to push our buttons by touching upon painful and unresolved issues from our past, usually our childhood.

Couples have problems accepting this thesis for a number of reasons. One reason is because most couples I work with are at least 10 years removed from living with their parents and they have a hard time imagining how something from so long ago can still have such an impact on their marriage. Another reason is that it’s hard to admit, when we’re grown up in terms of chronological age, that childhood issues can still have such a large sway with us. Finally, a frequent subtext to the "it's so long ago objection" is "I'm a grown adult now and I'm not going to blame my parents for problems I'm having as an adult." To which I answer "good for you."

I am a firm believer in taking responsibility for one's own life and not blaming anyone else for whatever it is we need to do live the lives we were meant to live. I’m not into blaming anyone for our problems: not our partner and not our parents. But if we take out the word “blame” and use the word “influence” I think it is possible to look at how our parents influenced who we are today, in positive and less positive ways, and to ask ourselves the very important question: “Do I want to let this influence continue to direct my life and my marriage in this particular way until I die?” For some aspects, such as the positive love and support we carry within us from our childhoods, I think the answer will be yes. But all of us are also carrying influences which did not perfectly fit who our souls needed to become. Not because our parents were bad people. But because our parents, like us, were limited people working with limited resources and falling short of perfection.

I hope I’ve made myself clear that this is not about blaming parents or avoiding personal responsibility. So now that that's out of the way let me say two further things: 1) it’s actually irresponsible not to look more closely at your wounds and limitations from childhood. You’re not hurting your parents by looking. You are hurting yourself and those who love you and live with you by not looking; and 2) many times the reason we don’t want to look at these wounds is because they are buried under so many layers of rationalization that we’ve long since forgotten how much they really hurt when they occurred.

What I have seen, in doing my own work in my own marriage and in working with couples for decades now, is that this stuff doesn’t just go away. I used to think: “Okay, enough already! Enough therapy! Enough focusing on these childhood issues!” But then I started to realize something: all those times we cried as children, all those times we hurt, all those times we forced ourselves to pretend something didn’t bother us that really did bother us: those don't go away. Those experiences are lodged within us, waiting to see the light of day in the form of compassionate understanding from the adults we are today. The process of recognizing these hurts and, through our relationships, coming to a more compassionate understanding of the children we were and the adults we’ve become today, is in my opinion, spiritual work of the highest order. It most emphatically is not being a victim or blaming our parents. It is taking responsibility for our own redemption.

More from Josh Gressel Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today