Robert C. Ciampi, LCSW
Childhood Wounds and How They Play Out in Our Relationships
Childhood Wounds and How They Play Out in Our Relationships
Everyone has Childhood Wounds even if we were brought up in a loving and stable home environment. We are not talking about physical wounds, but emotional injuries that become embedded in our psyche. We all experience "wounds" differently; what may inflict injury on one person may not have the same impact on someone else. These partially healed or open wounds are what lead to our "buttons" that when pushed, cause us to react strongly in certain situations. Psychic injuries do not go away and are often carried into adulthood and into our relationships, especially our romantic relationships. And here, what is called our "unfinished business" is played out. In our intimate relationships between dating partners or spouses is where we bring our wounds that can lead to what may seem to be resolvable conflicts. Unknowingly, couples fight not so much with each other, but with their past as each partners different set of wounds clash with one another. I will attempt to demonstrate how this dynamic works and will borrow information from the great book "Getting the Love You Want" - A Guide for Couples by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.
Many scientists and neurologists believe that we operate with two brains; one is our primordial brain that operates "in the background" and the other is the brain we use in our day-to-day lives. Our "old brain" is primarily used for self-preservation while our "new brain" is conscious of the world around us and is engaged in learning, thinking, and awareness (it's interesting that in my skydiving adventures, I actually experienced both my new brain enjoying the excitement of the moment and my old brain warning me that what I'm about to do is not safe. What it didn't know is that I had an instructor on my back with a parachute on his back). Basically, the old brain is only concerned with the following: nurture, to be nurtured by, to have sex with, to run away from, to submit to or attack. To the old brain, yesterday, today and tomorrow do not exist - everything that was, still is and will be in the future is all one. Emotional experiences that are connected to the above list of self-preservation behaviors have been locked away in the old brain pretty much since birth. These experiences are not conscious to the new brain but there is still a back-and-forth connection to them. And early situations that have caused pain, disappointment, frustration, fear and other hurtful emotions can come tumbling out if the old brain feels that something unsafe is about to happen. Even though the events that caused the early painful emotions are long gone, situations in the present can stir similar feelings in the here and now.
According to Dr. Harville Hendrix, we are very selective in our choice of mates; people who have very specific sets of positive and negative traits. What we are actually doing is looking for partners who have the predominant character traits of the people who raised us. It is theorized that our old brains are trying to re-create the environment of childhood. And the reason the old brain is attempting this is a compelling need to heal old childhood wounds.
As mentioned earlier, everyone has emotional childhood wounds even if raised in a safe and nurturing environment because no parent can respond precisely to every child's needs. It all started in the womb where the environment for the fetus was comfortable and safe. There was nourishment from the mother and all the fetus had to do was float around in a warm, protected space listening to the rhythmical sound of the mother's heartbeat. To the fetus, there was no awareness of boundaries, no sense of itself, and no recognition of where it was. It is believed that on some level the baby experiences a "oneness" with the mother. Suddenly one day, the baby is pulled from its safe home and forced into the world. It is believed that for several months after birth, the baby still has no awareness of its separateness, but slowly the child becomes aware that it is a separate entity from its mother (It is believed that when one enters marriage, there is an expectation that our partners will restore the feeling of wholeness and their failure to do so is one of the main reasons for marital unhappiness). There will come a point in the baby's development that it will realize that its nurturing mother is not always there and the baby begins to become aware of its own separateness. However, the baby still wants to be connected to its caregiver and a "drive for attachment' develops. According to Dr. Hendrix, a child's success at feeling distinct from and connected to its mother will have a profound impact on all future relationships. If the child is fortunate, it will be able to make clear distinctions between itself and others but still feel connected to them. The child will have fluid boundaries that it can open and close at will. A child who had painful experiences in early life will feel either cut off from those around him or will attempt to fuse with them not knowing where one ends and the other begins. This lack of boundaries will be a reoccurring problem in marriage. Although we are now adults capable of taking care of our needs, a part of us still expects the world to take care of us. When our partners are hostile or argumentative, an alarm goes off that fills us with the ultimate fear - death! This automatic alarm system will play a crucial role in intimate relationships.
As a child grows out of infancy, new needs develop which opens up potential areas for wounding. Dr. Hendrix has identified two characterological directions a child can take depending on their parents own insecurities they have surrounding their own earlier developmental wounds. Some caregivers who may unknowingly thwart their child's autonomy, may breed a feeling in the child a sense that they are being trapped or "engulfed" by their caregivers. Dr. Hendrix intimated that these children will later become "isolaters" - those who will push others away because of the need for "a lot of space" and will not want to be pinned down to a single relationship. Conversely, parents who knowingly or unknowingly push their children away by saying "go away, I'm busy" or "go play with your toys" may engender "fusers" who have an insatiable need for closeness. Fusers can grow up to be very sensitive to feeling abandoned if someone shows up for an appointment late, their spouse starts talking about divorce, or cannot be in contact with someone to meet their immediate needs. According to Dr. Hendrix, it's ironic that fusers and isolaters tend to marry each other in which the "push/pull" in their relationship begins. This is one area where the parental effects on a young child can manifest in marital discord.
Another example of how a childhood wound could develop also comes from messages given to the child from their caregivers.
For example, due to the parents own unmet needs, comments such as "Joan, you are not as smart as your sister so you better marry well so your husband can take care of you" or "Bill, you need to get a job with good benefits and forget college" can "stunt" ones emotional and psychological growth. These kinds of messages from caregivers can set a course of action that can affect children for the rest of their lives and form a belief pattern that they should't have high expectations for their future. These "false" beliefs can be carried into their adult relationships in which partners may struggle in their marital roles. In addition, children hearing these messages from the people they trusted, can make a child believe that there is a part of them that is not okay and that they are not a whole person. Children who think this way will grow up believing that they are missing a part of themselves and will forever be searching for someone or something to fill that "gap." Children can also pick up messages from their caregivers behaviors and form their own beliefs on what is right or wrong or good or bad which may or may not be true. In many cases the child will see themselves as "damaged" and less than whole and will search for a partner to fill the void. When couples find one another and form expectations that the other person will "complete" them, they may become extremely disappointed when their partner is not "completing" them in the manner they want to be made whole. The internal or external dialogue may go something like this" "I picked you as my partner because I thought you and I were a good 'fit' (that you would fill my missing part the way I want it filled so I don't hurt anymore), but I have discovered that we are really not compatible and that you have let me down." The other partner may be in the dark as to why their partner is saying or thinking this and ongoing arguments may ensue. The partner who did not meet the expectations of the other partner did not know what her role was supposed to be and will find the "blame" offensive. I believe that most couples will never understand what their "roles" are to their partners and, over time, their "differences" may be too great to overcome. Sigmund Freud developed a theory called the "unconscious perception." He believed that as intuitive people, we take in much more of our environment then we think we do especially in regard to people. We quickly analyze and judge people by the way they are dressed, how they speak, if we want to get closer to them at a party or avoid them. According to Dr. Harville Hendrix, our powers of observation are especially acute when we are looking for a partner because we are searching for someone to fulfill our fundamental unconscious drives. We subject our potential mates to intense scrutiny and wonder if this person will help us recover our lost selves.Our motivation is in seeking a mate who will help to heal our childhood wounds; however, if we do find who we are looking for, they may resemble our caretakers to the extent that they may reinjure already sensitive wounds thus creating even more conflict.
According to Dr. Hendrix when a couple meets and there is interest in each other, what is unwittingly happening is that each person feels they have found the part of them that was cutoff in childhood - their lost self. For example, someone who is introverted will partner up with someone who is very expressive. A silly person may find a mate who is more serious. And someone who may have been repressed sexually may find a partner who is more adventurous in the bed room. Having found this "special" person can engender a sense of wholeness and a feeling of freedom from their repression. In marriage, a couple can transfer responsibility for their well being from their parents to their partners. All is well with the couple while they are together, but if the relationship doesn't last, a person can go back to feeling "fractured" and lost. After a couple begins dating, a sense of denial is played out by both partners in that there is a tendency to minimize the negative aspects of the person and build up the positive elements. This distortion of reality occurs especially if the couple believes they have found their "missing piece" that they don't want to lose. Later the couple may find themselves arguing with one another, especially if they find out over time that their "missing part" isn't what they believed it was. At this point the negative characteristics are amplified and the positive traits are minimized which may actually be another distortion.
Two psychic dynamics may also play out in our relationships called transference and projection. Transference occurs when we transfer our feelings about someone (perhaps our early caregivers) onto someone else (for example a spouse). If we do a good enough job in finding a partner that resembles our caregiver, we may actually transfer our old feelings from our caregiver to our spouse. For example, if we feel that certain childhood needs were not met and if we experience similar feelings in our current relationship, those "old" feelings may be transferred to our spouse. Those feelings are probably not "warm and fuzzy", but in all likelihood disappointing or anger provoking that our "perfect" spouse is not so perfect after all. Projection is a little different in that we may project our hidden emotions onto our spouse and then blame them for evoking negative emotions in us. An example may be looked at as being hurt or angered in our childhood, but not being able to express those emotions for fear of further wounding. Later in our relationships we may unconsciously feel the same way and not want to openly express how we feel, but will project our feelings onto our spouse and blame them for getting us angry. To make things even more problematic, one spouse can project an idealized image of the other spouse and then when the spouse does not meet up to the idealized projection, the relationship may start to wither.
The above mentioned dynamics that not only Dr. Harville Hendrix has written about, but many other psychologists have explored essentially come down to several aspects - there is a believe that our partners were selected as a perfect fit to "complete" our missing selves by satisfying our unmet childhood needs, fill in lost parts of our selves, nurture us in a consistent and loving way, and to be eternally available to us. Anything short of meeting that criteria for us will begin to chip away at our relationship to the extent by which it may never recover. When the reality of our relationship pushes up against our "fantasy" or idealized version of what we may want our relationship to be, trouble can ensue. I think that every couple should read Dr Harville Hendrix's amazing book "Getting the Love You Want" - A guide for Couples to help couples to understand why they entered into the relationships they are in and how to view the relationship when inevitable problems develop.