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Elizabeth RyanThe Wounds that Bind Us

[A successful parent is one] who raises a child who grows up and is able to pay for her or his own psychoanalysis.

- Nora Ephron


The need to give and receive love is fundamental to emotionally healthy human beings. When we're receptive to the possibility of establishing a loving relationship, we're initially drawn to some people more than others. Consciously, we're generally discerning about the qualities we find appealing and we try to steer clear of people whose attributes we find troublesome. Our relationship with our parents forms a powerful blueprint for our future intimate unions, and underpins our likes and dislikes. We might believe our past is forgotten, and indeed it might be on a conscious level, but our history slumbers deep within our unconscious.

In our search for a potential partner, we look for someone who possesses the positive and lacks the negative qualities of our parents. Our unconscious motivations, however, are another matter. Often it's not until the relationship is well and truly established that we realise that our partner has many of the irritating characteristics of the parent with whom we had more grievances, despite the precautions we thought we took to avoid this undesirable outcome.

In addition to this involuntary selection criterion, we also unconsciously recreate the dynamics we experienced with that parent. A few factors influence this phenomenon. By adopting the same roles in our adult lives as we did in our early development, we unwittingly elicit in our partner the very traits that bothered us in our parents. Thus, we create what we don't like in our relationships. Another arm of this phenomenon is rooted in our childhood coping mechanisms. We all developed strategies to avoid anxiety and foster our survival. Although those strategies seemed effective in childhood, our apparent unintentional adult reversion to them may actually hinder our current relationship.

In the following example, Warren develops the coping mechanisms of denying his feelings and dis-placing his anger (onto the radio and music):

Warren is the fourth child born to parents who struggle to make a decent living. Consequentially, Warren has few toys of his own. When he's six years old, his aunt returns from an overseas trip with a small radio for him. Warren's delight in this gift is interrupted when his aunt leaves and his mother insists the radio be given to his oldest brother, who is going into hospital for leukemia treatment. Warren says, "Radios suk...I hate music!"

Another influence from our childhood is that we tend to assume, misinterpret and arrive at false conclusions about ourself and our partner, based on the inferences we made about ourselves, our parents and the ways of the world – erroneously or otherwise! We retain behaviours, such as sulking, withdrawing, blaming, magnifying, catastrophising and taking things personally, despite their obsolescence. Some such habits may arise from a childhood need for attention while others were developed when our thought processes, due to our young age, were unsophisticated.

Here's an example of how family experiences affect our adult relationships:

Carla's parents separated when she was five years old and thereafter her father, who had moved interstate, had little contact with her. In her adult life, Carla, who interpreted her abandonment by her father as her unworthiness of love, has had a history of unstable relationships. Soon after she mar-ried Noel, she became preoccupied with the possibility of his infidelity because she believed that she wasn't good enough to deserve his love. Little by little Carla withdrew from Noel in attempt to protect herself from the inevitable pain of abandonment. After five years of trying unsuccessfully to get close to Carla, Noel eventually fell into the arms of an emotionally responsive work colleague, and thus Carla realised her worst nightmare. She continued a similarly destructive relationship pattern in three more relationships before seeking counselling to unravel her distressing emotional scripting.

Why do we recreate the painful dramas of our childhood in our adult life? Some theorists claim that we simply do what's familiar. On the other hand, calling this phenomenon "repetition compulsion," Freud proposed that it's an attempt to redress the pain of the past. My own belief is that our raison d'๊tre is woven into such challenges. Accordingly, we're on Earth for a purpose, central to which is learning from our specific early hurts so that we may live more fully. Thus, we continue to manifest such dysfunctional patterns until we've come to terms with yesterday's pain.

As well as our patterns of reacting and interpreting, the habits and customs of our family of origin impact on our choices. For example, how we express our love, acceptance, anger, spirit of cooperation, together with our openness, emotional stability and work ethic are influenced by our emotional history. Our genetic inheritance partly determines our temperament, how we process information, our emotional stability, and how we tolerate stress and anxiety. We also take our cues from the roles we observed our parents enacting. In many matters we automatically do what our parents did. In others we do the opposite. Yet there's 180o of latitude between these two alternatives.

It's important to realise that 30 or 40 years ago access to information about favourable parenting practices was limited. Our parents, who had their own limitations, generally gave us their best. We've both internalised and learned many relationship-enriching qualities from experiencing our parents' love. Furthermore, some of the pain of our childhood results from the immature interpretations and conclusions arrived at that time.

Indicators of the harmful effects of these patterns of thought, emotion and action are that we still of-ten feel and react like we did as children (e.g., powerless, angry, unloved, insignificant, not understood, in chaos, stupid, alone, worthless, rejected, sad, despairing). It can be uncomfortable facing up to painful memories on our own. Re-experiencing disturbing events in the safe environment of therapy can help us change our habitual ways of thinking, feeling and behaving that contaminate our relationships. It's unrealistic to expect to entirely free ourselves of our emotional vulnerabilities. We can, however, liberate our-selves from the power these forces have over our relationships and moreover our lives. Sadly, couples often don't turn to therapy until their relationship has been troubled for some years, and by then much goodwill has been eroded.

If you've noticed that you're still reacting and behaving as you did in childhood, take heart – observation is the key! Gently accept yourself. Self-criticism and/or impatience will unnecessarily distress you and delay your progress. If we focus on our spiritual growth, or the expansion of our ability to love, we'll be disinclined to fall into a sense of hopelessness about ourselves and/or the future. It's prudent though that we release ourselves from the grip of such anguish so that we may enjoy a mature, loving relation-ship. The hand that rocked the cradle doesn't have to rule our world.

Copyright – Elizabeth Ryan, May, 2004 – All rights reserved


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