When you are someone that grew up with a difficult, unstable, or perhaps in some ways abusive childhood in which your primary caregiver is someone who instills in you fear, insecurity, doubt, pain, or any similarly negative experience, then chances are you are someone like myself who has a difficult time creating, maintaining, and fostering healthy intimate relationships.
The old cliché image of a patient sitting in a therapist’s office comes to mind here.
Patient: “Doctor, I have trouble with getting into and staying in healthy relationships”.
Doctor: “Hmm… interesting. Tell me about your relationship with your mother.”
It was only recently that I began to take a more serious and less sarcastic look at the connection between mothers and sons – and how this primary relationship can become the bedrock and foundation upon which all future intimate relationships with female partners would be built upon.
We understand now that the first 7 years of a child’s life are a critically important time in which the child begins building the framework for their future, often times establishing in these early years the habits, principles, and overall worldview that they will later embody into adult life. (See the series “Parenting – Perfecting the Human Race” for details)
But what happens when during those first 7 years, a child’s life is one of instability and emotional distress? How does this influence that child’s development in terms of their self confidence, their worldview, and their ability to communicate and establish intimacy with others? May I present to you Exhibit A: Yours truly.
Our First Love?
One of the most important relationships that we have is the relationship with our primary caregiver. This relationship sets the tone for what it means to relate to another human being. It sets the starting point of what to expect and defines to rules of how to communicate your needs and have your needs met. But more importantly it sets the foundation for whether or not we regard others as being trustworthy, dependable people and whether we should develop ways to reach out to them, or whether we need to develop protections and evasive defenses to protect ourselves from perceived hostility.
My mother was someone who would be very emotional. Her tempers would be erratic, unpredictable, and very intense especially to the eyes of a young child. I remember living day to day in fear of her next outburst which could come without notice, and how she would express her anger and frustration toward me in a way where I would not understand why she was angry, why I was being yelled at or regarded as though I had done something wrong, and never understanding what I was or was not supposed to do – because often it was not about me at all, but rather things that she was going through in her own personal life that she did not have the tools or the awareness to work through, and so would spill over to the next closest target – which happened to be her son.
My mother’s method of coping was such that she would externally act out the things she was facing internally – and unfortunately this would come out in the form of physical hitting/beating and verbal abuse through name calling, making hurtful/spiteful statements, etc.
The point here is not to blame my mother – I am giving context here so that I can explain the design of me as a person who grew up under those conditions and the various ways that I developed as means of protection towards what I felt was a hostile environment.
Growing up, what began to become a repeating cycle in me were thoughts of anger and feeling powerless towards my mother – and what made the experience more intense was the fact that I felt that I was not allowed to express my anger or frustrations while she had free reign to become angry and yell and beat me. As a young child, we are fully at the mercy of our caregiver – we are without defense from physical harm from the ones who we depend on for protection.
And so began the process of me developing the defensiveness, timidness, and insecurity that would become my method of coping – but would also become part of the challenge I would face in my future intimate relationships.
Feeling unloved and that there must be something wrong with me – feeling that no matter what, the female that I am most intimately close with will abuse me or abandon me or take advantage of my trust while still being the only source for support and comfort is not an easy thing to process as an adult – let alone as a child.
So what would happen in my future intimate relationships would be the very same defensive mechanisms I used to cope with my mother would come up – where I would find myself playing out the same trauma, the same fear, the same insecurity and inferiority that eventually snuffs out whatever spark originally brought about a new relationship in my life.
While in a relationship, at the back of my mind would come the same thought patterns like a record stuck on repeat:
“I am not good enough. She is going to leave me for someone else.”
“I cannot measure up. She deserves someone better.”
“I don’t know why she is settling for me. She will never be happy with me. I can never be enough for her.”
And to add on top of that, would be an element of constantly imagining and projecting the worst case scenarios and reading into every little thing to see if my fears were in any way valid. If my partner spends some time with an ex I go into a tailspin and wonder why she isn’t creating a distance between herself and him. Or if she does not want to be physically intimate with me all of the time then that must mean she is tired of me and wants me gone and is already thinking about leaving me.
Another pattern that comes up is when I would sometimes irrationally distance myself and accuse my partner of being “cold”. I would at the same time want them to comfort me, reassure me, but also at the same time I want distance from them and to retreat back into a safe space alone.
Suffice to say, these patterns make it nigh impossible to sustain or foster openness, trust, intimacy, sharing, or giving my partner the space that she needs when I am constantly in a state of fear of loss and needing constant reassurance – which by the way is a major turn off in a relationship especially when it comes to the male.
The funny thing is – we don’t often get what we deserve. But we very often get what we expect. Each of us deserve to have a supportive and nurturing intimate partnership with someone. But if we constantly expect for things to not work out, then we find ways to make that expectation true.
Understanding the System
“While our primary caregivers do play a vital part in how we will create the relationships of our future, there is one more relationship that is even more important. And that is the relationship we have with ourselves – with our fears, our insecurities, our judgments, and our defenses.”
The good news is – for anyone thinking this is a post about giving up on creating a stable relationship or how we cannot overcome our past – that the condition of insecure attachment is NOT permanent, nor is it unchangeable.
Being able to understand how we have set ourselves up this way is the first step. If we cannot be self-honest with our relationship patterns and the story we have been telling ourselves about our self-worth, then how can we expect to develop a relationship with someone else?
We do not have to continue reliving the same traumas of our past. And we do not have to keep waiting for relationships to come about in order to face those traumas.
While our primary caregivers do play a vital part in how we will create the relationships of our future, there is one more relationship that is even more important. And that is the relationship we have with ourselves – with our fears, our insecurities, our judgments, and our defenses.
We can learn to give ourselves the things we perceive we need and can only obtain from others. We can stop the cycle of compromising ourselves, our values, in order to please someone else enough that they will not leave us and manifest our own fear of loss and fear of loneliness. We can develop ourselves to become whole and abundant instead of desperate and broken. We can transform the relationships we create with others if we are willing to transform the relationship we are creating with ourselves.
How exactly does that work?
Developing self-awareness and self-honesty through writing and the tool of self-forgiveness. This is not about getting ourselves to “feel better” when we lose a relationship so that we can create another one just like it. This is not about “transcending” relationships and never going into another one again. This is about getting to the core of why those of us who struggle with creating lasting intimate relationships tend to create the same situations over and over – and to release those unresolved traumas of our own past so that we can be free to truly create the future we want instead of recreating the past we still haven’t let go of.
That is exactly what I am doing now – and that is what I will continue sharing.
For anyone struggling with relationships, I highly recommend the series “Relationship Success Support“ which goes very deeply into all dimensions of relationships – whether it is intimacy, sex, jealousy, or deep seated issues that we may never have considered before. Do yourself and your partner (or future partner) the gift of empowering yourself in relationships so that you can be and share the best version of you possible with your significant other, or with your relationship with yourself.