Is your childhood keeping you from building healthy relationships?

Posted on: November 23, 2015 by Chris Kingman

childhood affecting relationshipsInside and outside of the psychotherapy office, it’s not unusual to hear someone say, “The past is in the past.” Actually, when it comes to relationships, the past is always present. In this regard, the important question to ask yourself when attempting to build healthy relationships is: HOW is the past present? Is it present in an integrated and conscious way that enhances your current relationship—or—in a fragmented and unconscious way that perpetuates friction and negative patterns?

couples therapy isn’t just about “communication skills”

The phrase “communication skills” has a technical feel to it, like something you can learn in a continuing education class at NYU. And that’s accurate, in a sense. There ARE technical aspects, and much can be learned about communication in an instrumental setting and from reading about it, etc. And it’s also true that I work overtime helping relationship partners to replace non-constructive communication patterns with constructive ones.

But if you truly desire increased emotional safety, connection and teamwork in your relationship then you’re going to have to go deeper. Deeper into what? Your own (and your partner’s) emotional history.

effective couples therapy involves an archaeological dig

I’m no Freudian. Not by a long shot. However, it’s still the case that one essential dimension of effective couples therapy is a review of your emotional history. And not just in an intellectual way. Feelings must be accessed and worked with. The reality is that all families are extremely complex and almost always contain lots of good stuff as well as lots of emotional pain/conflict of one kind or another. It’s unavoidable. Life is just that way. Add to that the fact that families are notoriously bad at dealing openly and constructively with emotional injuries/conflicts and you have a recipe for the development of some dysfunctional relationship patterns.

This is normal. All of us have SOME dysfunctional relational patterns. The important question is: Do we regularly acknowledge, own and work constructively on our own negative patterns? If we do, then our negative patterns actually become assets. Why? Because revealing our vulnerabilities, to ourselves and our partners, is the basis for a very deep, authentic and enduring type of connection.

questions I ask during relationship therapy and marriage counseling sessions

When partners find themselves repeatedly fighting and unable to repair the ruptures that occur, we can say with confidence that the past is (and has been) present in a destructive way. I’m not saying that’s the ONLY issue at play, but it’s a central one. When you find yourself guarded and uncomfortable talking about your own historical emotional difficulties, it simply means that these experiences are insufficiently processed and insufficiently integrated into who you are. They exist in your life as rust, which is sad because historical emotional challenges, when dealt with effectively, can exist in your life as gold (i.e. points of connection between you and your partner).

When we are insufficiently aware of how the past is influencing the present, negative historical patterns will literally cause chaos without us understanding why certain toxic patterns keep repeating themselves. As they say in political theory, “Those who fail to understand history are doomed to repeat it.” Thus, when I work with couples, I inevitably end up asking partners questions such as these:

    1. What was the emotional culture of your family when you were growing up?
    2. What positive and negative emotional patterns did your parents engage in—with each other, with their own parents, with you and your siblings?
    3. Given that depressive, anxious and fearful feelings are universal—how were these feelings dealt with in your household?
    4. How did your parents relate to you when you were feeling most upset, angry, insecure and vulnerable?
    5. In what ways did you and different family members act out emotional pain, rather than talking it out constructively?
    6. When did the emotional environment in the family feel most unsafe to you?
    7. What methods of coping, self-soothing and self-protection did you develop during your childhood to deal with the emotional pain/discomfort that you experienced?

cookie cutters are not good therapy tools

The above questions are jumping off points taking us deeper into the actual history and inner world of each partner. That said, it’s important to note that my approach to therapy has zero resemblance to a cookie cutter methodology. Every human being has a complex history, and when I work with someone, I seek to understand that unique person and his/her own unique history—to find out how, over time, the past has informed the development of current patterns of thinking, feeling, relating and behaving.

The good news is that when people do the work to truly understand how they have been shaped by their own and their family’s emotional history, they have a whole new set of very effective conceptual and practical tools to work with in the service of building healthy and mutually satisfying relationships.

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