Couples and Childhood Emotional Wounds, July 19, 2011
What Went Wrong with Your Loving Relationship?

About 4 in 10 marriages end in divorce. On a purely statistical basis, marriage is a risky venture. What leads to this breakdown? How does love turn into anger and hate? There are various factors that can cause marriages to fail, but the emotional baggage we bring from our families of origin is the most common barrier to a satisfying relationship.

Of course, not all marriages are made equal. Partners who come from emotionally healthy family backgrounds, in which their parents enjoyed a happy union, and in which they felt valued when growing up, have an edge when they enter a long term bond. If you and your partner were raised in a dysfunctional family, in which there was conflict, violence, or childhood maltreatment or neglect, the likelihood is increased that you will run into relationship difficulties.

Arguments in relationships are often about the children, money, work, sex, or how time is spent. However, the real root of the conflict usually has little to do with these practical types of issues. Underneath these surface disagreements are feelings of not being valued or understood by the other person.

Marriages or common law relationships do not usually fail because partners made a “mistake” in their selection or have “nothing in common.” There are many relationships in which people have a whole lot in common and yet the partnership falls apart. And conversely, there are relationships in which partners have little in common in terms of main interests, and yet the bond flourishes. Often the problems that couples have in their first marriage are repeated in their second or third, as reflected in the divorce statistics, which show that second and third marriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages. We tend to take our problems with us from one relationship to the next.

When relationships are mired in conflict, often each partner will point a finger at the other one as the “problem.” Finger pointing, or blaming, never solves anything—it just perpetuates the misery and hurt. A guaranteed way of not finding happiness in the relationship is to just keep on doing the same thing. In truth, both partners usually are contributing their share to the hurt and lack of understanding in the relationship. Both partners feel misunderstood by the other.

When we come from family backgrounds in which there was lack of love or understanding, the chances are great that we carry emotional wounds with us into adulthood that affect our way of being intimate. That is, we come into the relationship with attachment styles, ways of relating emotionally, which can result in conflict. These attachment styles develop in our early parent-child relationships as ways of protecting ourselves from feeling hurt, misunderstood, and not valued for who we are.

Research has shown that relationship styles fall along two dimensions: attachment-related avoidance and attachment-related anxiety. Individuals who tend to be avoidant in their attachment style experience discomfort with closeness and depending on others, and have a preference for self-reliance and emotional distance. These individuals tend to have difficulty opening up to their partner.

Individuals who are anxious in their attachment style have fears of rejection and abandonment, have a strong desire for closeness and protection, and have worries about how they are valued by their partner. Worries about their partner’s love and commitment tend to occupy their thoughts. Anxiously attached individuals focus on trying to get their partners to pay more attention and be more emotionally responsive. Although even couples who are emotionally healthy may have some differences in attachment style, when the styles are extreme and inflexible, conflicts and unhappiness arise.

If you would like to have some idea where you and your partner fall along the two attachment dimensions, I recommend taking the brief on-line attachment style test. My suggestion is that each of you takes the test without the other partner hovering over your shoulder. Then after you are both done, you can compare results. Be honest with yourself in answering the questions, and promise each other that you will not be critical of the other’s way of answering the test.

For those of you who are experiencing conflict in your relationship, there was once a time when you both loved one another and enjoyed each other’s presence. Something went wrong. When we choose our partners, we are often attracted to someone who shares traits with our parents, whether we realize it or not. Our partners often have both the positive and negative traits of our parents. Initially, the traits that our partners have are enjoyable, since they complement our own traits. For example, if you tend to be reserved and logical, you may have been attracted to someone more emotional, spontaneous and outgoing, and vice versa.

Over time, however, those traits that you once liked in your partner can change from positive to negative, they can become irritating or unwanted, because they end up activating emotionally painful feelings you experienced in your childhood. The source of these automatically activated feelings is often long forgotten. For example, the husband may have initially enjoyed his wife’s warmth and desire for closeness since this was lacking in his family, but after a while he may come to experience his partner’s closeness as controlling and intrusive because it activates old feelings of his mother’s emotional manipulation.

Or the wife may have initially liked her partner’s coolness and calm, since she looked on this as a sign of strength and dependability, but as time went on, his distancing became resented because it activated feelings of rejection like those she felt from her critical or emotionally distant father. These are unconscious ways of responding embedded in our emotion regulating brain circuits when we were young.

In couples therapy the goal is to have each partner in the relationship feel valued and understood. The goal is to once again become allies rather than enemies. This means being concerned about the other’s needs rather than your own. Achieving this goal can be challenging, since old patterns are usually more comfortable even though they work against what you want. These old patterns developed in the first place as self-protective way of not being hurt, and so what maintains them is a fear of being hurt and misunderstood. If partners are willing to commit themselves to being allies again, then chances are good that old fears and hurts will be replaced with real love—the kind of love in which each partner is concerned about the other’s well-being.