Look Back on Your Childhood: The Better Marriage Project Par

The subconscious impacts of early relationships can undermine your marriage.

Posted Mar 14, 2012

Elizabeth Weil, author of No Cheating, No Dying

This is Part II in my series of postings about building a better mid-life marriage based on the book No Cheating, No Dying by Elizabeth Weil.

Elizabeth Weil describes with remarkable candor and delightful humor what happened when she and her husband Dan, as they enter their midlife years, decide to devote themselves to exploring for a year how to make their good marriage even better. Toward this goal they delve together into multiple marriage therapy and marriage education programs.  

Most marriage therapy includes a component that explores subconscious impacts of family of origin interactions.  That's because therapists generally assume that it can be helpful to bring to conscious awareness, as Weil writes, "how our relationships with our parents and our other baggage from childhood influence our marriages."  As Freud put it, "Where id was, let ego be."

Encouraged by her marriage coach to close her eyes and allow images to appear from her childhood of her mother, Liz sees her mom "standing, happy but rushed—her usual mode—eager to race off to the grocery store and Captain Marden's fish market to buy the ingredients my father had posted on the bulletin board."

That brief visualization already said much about Liz's own ways of being a wife.  She too tended to rush busily through life, sometimes moving too fast to fully enjoy her husband and the simple pleasures they might otherwise indulge in if she had less on her To Do list. 

Liz then allowed images of her father to emerge.  "He's warm and gentle, but I've frozen him out," she realizes. "I don't feel known or understood. I appreciate that he loves me, but I feel scared that he loves me too much, that I don't deserve it, that his love is based on a fantasy. I also feel ashamed that I'm not very nice to him. I've been pushing my father hard--ignoring questions, slamming doors, leaving rooms—in hopes that he'll get angry and demand I give him his due respect. But this is not his nature... I don't like being so unpleasant to my father, but I don't know how to stop..."

This image too enables Liz to see more clearly ways in which she has at times treated her husband Dan with similar distancing, similar distrust in his love, similar pushing until he stands up for himself.

Try this exercise yourself. Close your eyes and allow yourself to observe your mom and your interactions with her. Then allow yourself to observe images of your dad and how you used to interact with him. What do you discover you have been carrying over from this earlier patterning into your marriage?

Some people repeat mainly their interactions with one of their parents in their adult-to-adult marriage relationship. Others repeat elements of their patterns with both. 

Note also that some people treat their spouse like they treated their mom or dad. Others take on the patterns that their parent(s) showed toward them. Growing up we all learn both sides of our parent-child interactions. 

Lastly, note what images come to your visual screen if you think about how your parents interacted with each other. To what extent are you repeating their ways of being in partnership? If they bickered, do you engage in bickering? If they were standoffish about physical contact, occasionally affectionate, or often lovey dovey, do you do the same? Sometimes also it's important to check out if images emerge of how you treated a sister or brother. You could be repeating ways of interacting that you learned in this relationship as well.

In one of Liz and Dan's marriage therapy workshop experiences, an Imago workshop based on the work of Harville Hendrix, their workshop leader encouraged the couples to have one partner play him or herself as a child, and the other to role-play that child's opposite-sex parent. The two then have an encounter session. 

"I'm your father. What's it like living with me?" and then later, "What do you need me to know about your life?"

"I'm your mother. What's it like living with me?" and then later, "What do you need me to know about your life?"

Beware. This exercise can be emotionally potent. At the same time, gaining an adult's perspective on the childhood relationships that have formed templates for your adult marriage relationship can be very helpful. Equally important, allowing your spouse to listen as together you both explore these early experiences can further deepen your empathic understanding of each other. 

Bravos, kudos and thank yous to Elizabeth Weil for opening herself up to bettering her marriage, and even more so for sharing her learning so openly with her readers. As one of my blog readers commented in response to Part I of this series of postings on Weil's book, Weil's writing makes for "illuminating" reading. The light this author sheds on her own personal and marital midlife growth spurt offers guidance to all of us.

 ---------------------Susan Heitler PhD is author of The Power of Two book and workbook and the online marriage education program based on these books called PowerofTwoMarriage.com.