Revisiting Childhood Wounds in the Context of Couples Work

couple sitting on log on sandy beachIn November 2014, I wrote an article titled How Couples Therapy Can Help Heal Childhood Wounds. This article is a response to some of the comments that were made. Some agreed with the piece, while others challenged it, which I appreciate.

It takes two partners being in agreement to pursue healing in a relationship. One person commented that “… having 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!”

We don’t seem to have a choice about old, unresolved issues surfacing in a marriage, as that is the way we are wired. Whatever you have experienced is stored in your neural networks and will show up when activated, especially a hurt or wound. The good news is that it can be reprocessed. And the most effective way to reprocess the old material is through experience, not reasoning.

Whenever you find yourself upset at a 7-10 on a 0-10 scale, it is likely that something in the present triggered an old wound.

One person questioned if these things aren’t better hashed out alone. There is much that can be accomplished in individual therapy, and you may want to meet with a therapist alone in preparation for couples work. But there are many issues that show up only in a committed relationship. A marriage is different than a relationship with a therapist. It brings up different issues.

As an Imago relationship therapist since 1996, I have had many opportunities to witness that just what one partner needed to heal was exactly where the other would benefit from stretching and growing.

It isn’t reasonable to expect your partner to give you what you needed in childhood without identifying and asking for what you need. Our partners are not mind-readers. When you express your need and ask for what you want, it is a loving gesture when your partner cares enough to offer it for your joint benefit. Hopefully, you have a partner who values his or her growth as well.

Safety is a primary requisite for healing to happen. By having a loving partner with whom you feel safe, hopefully you will have the space you need to face any fear about visiting the old hurts. If safety is not present, healing and growth are not likely to occur. Speaking individually to your therapist so he or she can help you formulate how you will communicate your issues safely to your partner may be of benefit.

It is true that emotional needs from childhood that didn’t get met don’t go away just because you have reached adult age. The emotional brain learns through experience, not rational reasoning or time passing. It is through the experience of having the need fulfilled, regardless of your age, that emotional healing takes place.

You can grow and move past the old hurts that keep you emotionally stuck. It would be nice if you had all your personal issues worked out before you married, but that is not usually the case. It is in this intimate marital relationship that old patterns from our relationships with parents or childhood caretakers show up.

As a parent, you will tend to parent the way you were parented; that is what is familiar. Unless you make a conscious decision to do things differently, you are likely to repeat what was done with you with your children.

By parenting your children effectively, you can help heal your childhood wounds. As your children reach certain ages and developmental stages, it is not unusual for you to revisit memories of when you were that age. When you give your children what they need for their emotional growth, you also receive it.

It isn’t fair to ask your partner to bear the brunt of things you experienced as a child, but that’s what your partner will do until your issues are resolved. I don’t think in terms of what is fair; I think in terms of what is. What you haven’t worked trough emotionally will come up in your relationship. There seems to be no way around this except by going through the healing experience.

One commenter on the aforementioned article remarked how this process can “allow you to go back in time in a safe way.” I totally agree that it can be a “very enlightening experience.”

© Copyright 2015 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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  • Jasmine

    Jasmine

    January 23rd, 2015 at 10:08 AM

    I love the reality that there is hope for ourselves as we nurture and care for our children in the way that we should have been nurtured and loved ourselves. That seems like such a healthy way to overcome those childhood scars that you may have tried to leave behind but have thus far been unsuccessful with doing. I think that this is a lesson that will benefit so many families if they can learn to take that pain from the past and turn it into something useful for the present and the future as they learn and grow through it.

  • jeri

    jeri

    January 23rd, 2015 at 11:05 AM

    I think that I have some conflicted emotions about this because i can see that working together as a couple could be very important to some people, but I think that I would rather work through some of my childhood things in private with my therapist only.

    Then when I felt ready I could talk to my partner about everything ad start putting that life back together but I think that at first for me I am going to feel like something need to be said and worked out privately.

  • Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    January 23rd, 2015 at 11:44 AM

    That is fine Jeri – You are always free to choose what works for you. This is just a possibility, a suggestion.

  • jeri

    jeri

    January 23rd, 2015 at 1:12 PM

    Sure I know that and maybe it won’t be what feels right for everyone, I just know how I am hard wired that’s what works best for me.
    That’s what I like about the reading here though, usually it is all about self acceptance and finding out what works best on an individual level, not saying you have to do it like this or it will never work for you.

  • Perla

    Perla

    January 25th, 2015 at 5:47 AM

    If this is a person that you are close to emotion ally and physically then this is a person who is bound to have the capability to help you work through your issues form the past. What more perfect person to be by your side as you start this journey than your spouse or partner? There is no one who knows you better, cares more for you, or has more of an interest in your overall health and well being than this person does. To me it only makes since to make them an integral part of this healing process.

  • MELIssA

    MELIssA

    January 25th, 2015 at 4:13 PM

    I had no idea about the things that my husband went through as a kid until we went through therapy a few years ago. We were having a terrible time in our marriage, had really hit the wall as far as communicating with one another so I thought that going to see a counselor could help us.
    And it literally saved our marriage. I cannot thank our therapist enough for what she did for us, helping uncover old wounds and letting us work together to resolve issues that he had never before been allowed to solve. Together we went back and helped him go through some things form his past that had always hurt him and I think that ultimately it made our marriage stronger to have gone through this together.

  • Mae

    Mae

    January 26th, 2015 at 10:41 AM

    It makes total sense to do it this way because who are you going to impact with the past any more than those family members who are growing and living with you right now? You might not understand how the things that happened to you years ago stay with you but I bet if you ask your spouse or your children, they will know your triggers and they will know that there is something that happened to you in the past that will cause you to react the way that you do about certain things.

  • Jennifer B

    Jennifer B

    January 27th, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    I have no problem admitting that my husband is definitely my safety net and when I am having any sort of problem then usually he will be the first person that I will turn to for help and advice.

    I know that not all marriages are like this and that there are times when for many couples they loom for ways to shield their spouse form the bad, but we married for better or for worse and I think that we do a pretty good job handling both sides of the coin.

  • Pauline

    Pauline

    January 28th, 2015 at 2:18 PM

    Many do not see how those things that happened to them so long ago can still have a strong influence over them today

  • Tara in Va

    Tara in Va

    April 26th, 2015 at 1:28 PM

    Counseling individually and together has deepened our love for each other. It has “matured” as we visit our childhood wounds in the newly formed “safe attachment” with each other. The more securely attached we become the more we can tread individually through those old mine fields. Seeing where each other has come from has brought a new atmosphere of appreciation and compassion to our relationship. We can also better make sense of those moments when the other seems so irrational… for me, prior to counseling, I would have blamed myself because of my own history. Working together has shown me where I am responding from my wounded place to his reaction from his wounded place. These last couple years of counseling have been (literally) life saving.

  • Andrea Bell, LCSW

    Andrea Bell, LCSW

    December 6th, 2016 at 11:43 PM

    Wonderful piece, thanks! Am going to suggest it to my clients.

  • Wanda

    Wanda

    December 7th, 2016 at 5:50 AM

    I couldn’t believe how much we are able to suppress , seems we are wired to bury the hurt instead of dealing with it.

  • Charlotte O

    Charlotte O

    July 1st, 2017 at 3:26 AM

    What is the best therapy to get to go back and heal those old wounds? for good?

  • Dr Marin

    Dr Marin

    July 1st, 2017 at 11:09 AM

    Imago Relationship Therapy

  • Shane

    Shane

    January 16th, 2019 at 8:23 AM

    I’m wondering aobut “feelings” and “wounds.”
    1. We have feelings all day long if someone pulls out in traffic in front of us, our spouse does something that gives us a negative feeling, etc. etc. IS EVERY FEELING AN INDICATOR OF A WOUND?
    2. Would the best indicator of a wound be a REPEATED over-reaction to something someone does or our spouse does?

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