Do you want to build a case about how your partner is wrong and defective or do you want to repair the relationship? So many people come to my office wanting to convince me how wrong and/or bad their partners are. They are so busy focused on their partners’ flaws that they don’t pause to look at themselves and what their part in the relationship might be.
A version of the Serenity Prayer that I like is:
God grant me the serenity to accept the people I can’t change,
The courage to change the one that I can,
And the wisdom to know that is me.
Emotional hurts or traumas experienced in early childhood—we’ve all been there to greater or lesser degrees—stay with us, but they can be overcome. Our opinions of ourselves and others are formed by these early experiences. These are what become familiar. Unconsciously, we are seeking the comfort of the familiar even though it may not be good for us. Often we deny and overlook these early experiences, as we don’t want to remember the hurt and bad feelings.
Unconsciously, we attract partners who feel familiar, and often they are more similar to our most unresolved relationship from childhood. Most of us aren’t consciously aware that this is what is happening.
So how does all this happen?
I maintain that the best individual therapy happens in the context of couples therapy, where each partner holds up a mirror of sorts for the other, giving each partner the opportunity to see themselves more clearly. When we don’t like what we see, it becomes easier to blame our partners and point out that they are flawed. Bringing up these old feelings and looking at ourselves takes courage.
Rather than saying, “You did this or that wrong and therefore you are (insert negative label here),” we can focus on ourselves and what is going on within us.
It is helpful to say:
- “When (whatever the situation that has caused upset) happens, I feel _______.” Ask yourself what your primary emotion is. Sometimes we think we are angry, but we may actually feel hurt, with anger as a secondary emotion. Try to identify your primary emotion. If someone scared me, I could get angry that they did this, but fear would be the primary emotion.
- “What this reminds me of from childhood is _______.” Now you start to become aware of your childhood wounds and disappointments. As the old saying goes, if you can feel it, you can heal it. Don’t take too much time to figure this out; just notice the first thing that pops up—it’s usually the correct response.
- “What I tend to do when I feel this way is _______.” Your response is likely to be what you did when you were a child to protect and defend yourself. It worked for you then, and you think it will work for you now, but it might not.
- “I react this way to hide my fear of _______.” This is when you are likely to feel vulnerable, but it is the vulnerability that leads to intimacy. We all have fears, and we need to identify them so we can work to alleviate them at a conscious level. When we don’t, we tend to act them out defensively in an unconscious way. Once they are identified and labeled, we are better able to make conscious choices as to how we respond.
- “What I want and need is _______.” What was it that you wanted and needed in childhood that you didn’t get? It is likely the same as or similar to what you want from your partner, but you might not even be conscious of wanting this from him or her.
- And finally, to your partner: “Would you please _______?” Our emotional brain heals through experience. When we experience receiving what we truly need, we begin to heal. Hopefully, you have a partner who will do this for you, just as you would be willing to do it for him or her.
Emotional intimacy involves two people entering into a conscious relationship with an agreement to support each other in healing their childhood wounds. When we do this, we evolve into mature individuals and have healthier relationships. We are then able to blossom into expressing the fullness of who we are as individuals. A relationship at this level is an example of an interdependent relationship. The more the old issues resolve, the more enjoyable a relationship will become.
© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marian Stansbury, PhD, therapist in Milford, Connecticut
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