How Couples Therapy Can Help Heal Childhood Wounds

couple holding hands on beachDo 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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.
  5. “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.
  6. 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

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lizzie

    Lizzie

    November 18th, 2014 at 10:48 AM

    Although it can be hard, I think that exploring our past can really open our eyes to some of the things going on in our own lives in the here and now. It might be hard revisiting some of those past wounds, but to have someone with you who will fully participate in that recovery process with you could be amazing, and what an experience to have the opportunity to do together!

  • D'Andra

    D'Andra

    November 18th, 2014 at 3:32 PM

    You don’t think that some of these things would be better hashed out alone? I mean, if they are your issues then you are the one who will need to work all of that out. Even if you are dragging the relationship down by having those issues, and those things you can work out together, there may be some preliminary work that needs to be done on your part before you can even cross that next bridge.

  • John

    John

    November 18th, 2014 at 4:32 PM

    I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a partner to give us what we needed in childhood. They would have given it before if they could have. We cannot expect others to fill our childhood developmental gaps. We can however make an effort to do for ourselves what our parents couldn’t do for us.

  • paula

    paula

    November 20th, 2014 at 5:51 AM

    The key issue is that we are unaware of the issues we bring into our adult relationships. Only by exploring childhood past can we possibly link it to our present needs.

  • r. h.

    r. h.

    November 18th, 2014 at 10:10 PM

    always thought couples therapy is all about seeing the therapist together and speaking out in a non-conflict manner.the fact that individual counseling forms a part of couples therapy I was not aware of.

    now that I think of it yes it might help to see the therapist individually too. because there are some things we may not want to speak of in front of our partner especially after having a conflict, the very reason why one would go to couples therapy.

    what I’m thinking now though is how does one overcome the fear of facing his or her problems because the person has not been able to do so in years and maybe decades? especially after a conflict situation or when someone’s relationship is on the rocks how does one muster that courage?

  • les

    les

    November 19th, 2014 at 3:45 AM

    I totally agree with you on this one! We are often not aware of how our past hurts play a large starring role in the current issues that we could be having with a partner. But when you go into therapy with another person and they are able to give you an honest picture of the things that they see, then that may help you change your own perspective and give you even more insight into your role in the problems in the relationship. I would never want it to be a game of blame, looking for a way to pin all of the wrongs on just the one person, but I think that in this sort of setting there will be things that both of you can learn about yourselves as individuals and that you can also learn about each other and the way that you function as a couple.

  • Darla

    Darla

    November 19th, 2014 at 11:32 AM

    I understand that some of us may have missed out on something that we needed when we were children, but it somehow seems strange to me to continue to need that same thing when we get into an adult relationship. I guess though if there is that void there then it will always be there until there is something that can come in and fill it, but I would hope that at some point I could grow and move past what those childhood needs were and get to a real and adult point in life. Maybe therapy is the answer for that and maybe it isn’t, but I think that marriage as a whole would be a whole lot smoother if you have all of those things worked out first. Then again, maybe that’s not even possible for most of us? It’s asking quite a lot.

  • Tai

    Tai

    November 19th, 2014 at 5:16 PM

    I absolutely agree with you. I went through some things as a child that I feel had a negative impact on many levels. .. and left me with very bitter feelings about what happened when I was younger and at some point I think having kids made me snap out of it too where I started realizing that at some point I need to stop looking at all those things and the things that happened when I was a child and start living my life and focusing on my kids but yes some people for whatever reason just never get to that point sometimes not even until it’s too late so I could see how someone who could reason with that person/counselor and make them have a different perspective on the life, childhood events, and present relationships.

  • Dave

    Dave

    November 20th, 2014 at 10:59 AM

    Is it wrong that in some ways I think that it is unfair to expect that your spouse should have to bear the brunt of the things that you may have experienced as a kid?

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    November 21st, 2014 at 1:17 PM

    Dave, how can you expect that the person that you are with to be perfect? Are you perfect? None of us are and we all have our baggage that we bring to the table. Now whether you choose to be the one who has to live with that is totally up to you, but I think that if you have chosen someone to be your life partner then you have to take the good with the bad and be there with them when they need you.

  • Logan

    Logan

    November 22nd, 2014 at 2:34 PM

    It could help you develop an understanding of yourself that you may not have ever felt. It could allow you to go back in time in a safe way and trace the person that you have become today and how that connects to the things that happened to you yesterday. Overall I would say that it can be a very enlightening experience.

  • Tracy

    Tracy

    February 23rd, 2015 at 2:15 AM

    I definitely agree that we need to heal our wounds from childhood. I still feel the sadness that my first marriage failed. We both took our unresolved hurts into the relationship. We got on great, but because our attachment styles meant that when I was upset, he was too fearful of engaging in attachment behaviour my need for security was unmet. This meant there was lack of intimacy in our relationship and although we travelled along a parallel path that path never met. The more I pulled closer the more he moved away. We were both insecure, but we both had our different ways of resolving that insecurity. Couple counselling would have been great, but my husband couldn’t engage in this work. I wish I’d had counselling on my own at this stage, because if I’ d been able to heal my inner child I wouldn’t have been so needy and may have been able to provide my husband with the secure base that he needed.

  • Sonja

    Sonja

    February 23rd, 2015 at 8:47 AM

    I love this article. After noticing a negative pattern in my adult relationships, I began looking at my childhood wounds. There really is something to this. We often go into adult relationships fully believing that we have dealt with those past hurts, when all we have really done was acknowledge them. if you had trust issues with persons in your young childhood/early teen years, it is very likely those same issues will show in your adult relationships as jealousy, distrust, secrecy…. It is not for your partner to bear the brunt, but to seek and grow with you..

  • ellen

    ellen

    May 23rd, 2015 at 7:42 PM

    While my husband and I both admit we are flawed and have unhealthy childhood attachments, my unhealthy jealousy has gone full force since finding out about multiple online affairs he’s had. Also his lying about money and keeping secrets like crazy, until I find out and he’s exposed. Of course, therapy reveals all if hus issues with his dad leaving them at age 9. Like he gets a free pass for this behavior because of that. While I understand the pain that has caused, his actions have destroyed me and turned me into someone I don’t know anymore. I’m very stuck :( it’s a HARD thing to live with someone who has a secret life behind closed doors.

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