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Partnering the Inner Child

Making sense of conflicts in partnership.

Artist: Alexander Milov; Photo credit: Vitaliy Deynega
Source: Artist: Alexander Milov; Photo credit: Vitaliy Deynega

On a neighborhood walk one evening, I saw a chair near the sidewalk with a small sign affixed to it: “BROKEN.” Below this, someone had added another, smaller sign in handwriting nearly as poor as my own: “All of us are, in some way.”

It’s a humorous nod to an uncomfortable truth most of us would rather not acknowledge: Regardless of how loved, held, or attended to we were as children, almost certainly we were emotionally wounded in some way in childhood, and almost certainly we carry this wound forward within us—mixed in with our first experiences of what love felt like.

This isn’t the sort of thing you’d put in a Tinder profile, though we might if we were more thoughtful—the truth is that relationships are the metaphorical stage upon which our inner wounded child comes out to play. As a clinician, I have often noticed that couples recreate this stage within the therapy room as they share their narrative of relational distress—while two actors enter the stage for their scene, there are really four actors at work—one partner, another partner, and each’s wounded inner child.

What do I think when I see a couple in significant relational distress? Wounded children. Here. Now. In the leading roles.

Interacting together

Each partner brings with them an emotional inheritance, the vestigial lens through which information about (and communication with) their partner is processed and made sense of [1]. In attachment theory, this is known as an internal working model [2]—although it may be best to think of it less like a model and more like a very selective sieve.

In early romances, the connection between inner children is often called chemistry, with the wounded child within each partner experiencing a very particular form of love in a way that feels right—and information about their partner is interpreted through this filter. In our bravest hope, this filter seems perfect, with each glance, touch, and word culminating in an unconscious familiarity (They smell so amazing to me! They say all the right stuff!).

However, from a basic psychodynamic perspective, this off-the-charts chemistry points to a slightly darker, though workable truth: It’s likely that this newfound partner is sure to both love our inner child and wound our inner child in the particular ways we experienced way back when [3].

When limerence fades, the stage lights turn on, and we come face to face with a partner who appears to have become someone else altogether. This is when the alarms are sounded in numerous scenes—the kind offer from a partner to make us a sandwich suddenly feels infantilizing, or another partner’s longer work hours feel like a purposeful abandonment. Perhaps in early experiences, parental offers of help felt shaming given that they were often commingled with subtle digs at the child’s relative weakness or inability, or perhaps parental work hours were married with childhood feelings of loneliness and the sense that one was somehow not good enough to elicit attention or care.

Conflict ensues—and inevitably, the wounded children in our partnerships dig in, take center stage, and attempt to protect themselves in the ways that seemed to have worked before, as though they’re acting out a well-rehearsed part. Withdrawing. Picking fights. Sulking. Controlling. Shaming. Acting out to stoke jealousy, or to hurt. Preemptively rejecting the other to avoid a (seemingly inevitable and absolutely devastating) abandonment.

Several therapeutic modalities embrace this basic framework (see Sue Johnson’s model of Emotionally Focused Therapy as a hallmark example) [4]. Sorting this out is tough but necessary work for any couple, and therapy could (always) help.

In the meantime, here are three things that might help us navigate these tricky waters:

1. Embrace the concept of “epoché,” the delay between feeling and sense-making.

In a nod to stoicism [1], we’d do well to recognize that our fieriest first reactions are both tremendously important (in that they provide critical information about what hurts or helps us) and subject to our selective filters (in that they may have little to do with the situation at hand—insert a joke about a sandwich not always being a sandwich). Pausing—whether this means taking a break from the discussion to collect your thoughts or waiting a bit before addressing an issue to reflect on how best to present it—allows time to consider where one first experienced these feelings, how one handled them as a child, and work to identify new ways of responding that are both fair to oneself and to one’s partner.

2. Embrace and learn about your inner child—and your partner’s.

Counterintuitively, this is best accomplished in times when emotions run hot, or high, or in situations where we’d be inclined to say, “You always/never make feel this way.” When we or our partners are peculiarly perturbed, we can ask ourselves what the inner-child is experiencing—what do I feel in this situation? Why do I feel this way, in this intensity? Who am I responding to—my partner or my parent? What do I normally do when I feel this? Are there new ways of responding? Is my partner responsible for this feeling, and to what degree?

3. Embrace the role of teacher and learner.

In process-oriented therapy [5], the general model is one in which bidirectional sharing and inquiry assists individuals to understand each other—and themselves—at a deeper level. At its simplest, it can be captured like this: “I feel __________ when you ___________; this reminds me of times when ___________ and some of this is my work to do—though I would like to work together to find ways to address this. What I would need from you now is____________.”

Filling in the blanks depends on the previous two steps, with the result looking something like this: “I feel abandoned when you don’t want to talk on the phone when you’re away; this reminds me of times when my parents wouldn’t be there for me when I was scared, and some of this is my work to do—though I would like to work together to find ways to address this. What I need from you now is some reassurance that you’ll check in with me each day while you’re away, even if just for a moment.” Healthy relationships require both roles, alternating across time—there is always more to learn, and always more to share. Always.

When we join together in partnership with another, we’d do well to remember that we’re not only partnering with their adult nature, we’re also partnering with their particular and almost certainly wounded inner child—the part that exists no matter what their apartment looks like, or how far their career has gone. Real, long-term romantic love requires that we acknowledge and accept our own broken places as well as theirs, and that we should expect to both give and receive this benefit of the doubt (to the degree that this is healthy; abuse or manipulation are never acceptable).

We don’t create our partner’s inner-child wounds, and nor do they create ours—and even so, loving others deeply calls us to tend to their inner world as they are likewise called to tend ours. If a trash pile in LA can contain so much complexity in such a small note, might our partners not also, in the emotional notes they send us along the way?

Partnership means being teammates in the never-ending journey to decipher these notes and rethink the older roles we no doubt feel compelled to play in the present, all in the service of comprehending the complex person before us—not only as an adult, but also as a unique, wounded (and undeniably loveable) child within.


[1] The School of Life. Self-Knowledge. (2017). London: The School of Life.

[2] Bowlby, J. (1980). Attachment and loss: Vol. 3. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

[3] The School of Life. Relationships. (2018). London: The School of Life.

[4] Johnson, S.M. (2004). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating connection. New York. Brunner/Routledge.

[5] Naaman, S., Pappas, J.D., Makinen, J., Zuccarini, D., & Johnson-Douglas, S. (2005). Treating attachment injured couples with Emotionally-Focused Therapy: A case study approach. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, 68(1), 55-77.

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