Here’s what I learned in childhood: Parents can choose to raise us or not. They’re not obligated. My mother dropped me off at her parents’ house “for the weekend” when I was four, and never returned. Two years later my father, not yet the alcoholic he’d become, reclaimed me. The resulting logic is obvious: If the two people tied to me by blood, birth, and obligation could ditch me, then I was someone people left. And like all adult children of adversity and addicts, I grew up hyper-independent yet walking on eggshells in romantic relationships, always waiting for the unpredictable yet inevitable betrayal.
We experienced shame-based parenting and so we have a splintered, dislodged sense of self. Your needs matter more than ours. That’s the code. A deep groove was seared into our cognitive belief system: Be what mom wants or lose her. Be what dad wants or he’ll withdraw his love. Play by the rules of the game called Conditional Love. Be perfect. Don’t make waves, comply, be pliable, be pleasant, and above all, internalize that you’re a piece of garbage that doesn’t deserve nurturing, consistency, or promises.
Until we’ve healed our trauma and worked on coaxing our true selves out into the open, until we’ve recovered and transitioned from self-loathing people into self-loving people, we’re self-less: We defer our needs. We have sex when we don’t want to. We stay in relationships although our instincts say “go.” We agree to marriage proposals when we’re not ready. We say what we think we need to say, what we think you want to hear. We stuff our needs, we sleep off overwhelm, and use up our ultra-high tolerance for inappropriate behavior until we become a powder keg and blow up or shut down.
We have buried our authentic self and its needs for so long that developmentally our brains are different (our brains’ amygdala and hippocampus developed differently than yours, triggering our five alarm fire-level reactions to small “threats”). The cruelest irony is that the hyper-vigilance that helped us survive dysfunctional families fails when applied to adult relationships—the healthy, nurturing, enduring relationships that we so want to have.
Your Partner Needs to ‘Do the Work’
Having a relationship with someone who came from a crappy childhood where nurturing was inconsistent and love was conditional can be bewildering at times. Your relationship has the best chance of longevity and health if your partner has ‘done their work.’ I’m talking about therapy.
This process takes time.
Your partner will eventually learn that you want their true self, not the outer layer of a survivalist’s self. They will learn that expressing needs and fears is necessary, productive, and welcomed. While you can help by being open and communicative, trusting others is a function that your partner must develop alone over time.
4 Ideas to Ease Conflict
Be supportive of your partner, but not a caretaker. Encourage your partner to voice their needs, but ensure there’s also room for yours.
1. Generously communicate when plans change. We can become upset when plans change because in childhood change was chaos. We like to know what’s going to happen, so give us the details and involve us in planning.
2. Support our avoidance of trigger-y or angry scenes. We find anger upsetting. If there’s an angry customer in a restaurant, change tables. If you’re angry, we can only take so much before our systems shut down or we disassociate. Take time, back off, let tense situations cool off.
Remember that your inability to understand how something can trigger us doesn’t make it less real for us.
3. Have you noticed how sensitive to language we are? Get in the habit of using “I” statements when talking about your feelings and needs. That is, “I feel ______ when you ______.” Followed by the fix: “I’d like it if you could _________ instead.” For example, I feel unheard when you’re on your phone when I’m telling you about my day. I’d like your undivided attention. Can you set your phone aside when I come home?
4. Ask your partner what they need in order to feel loved. It’s hard for us to speak up about our needs because our needs weren’t important to our parents. We’re often terrified about expressing our needs. And sometimes we don’t even know what our needs are. Be patient.
On Being a Supportive Partner
How do you know if you’re in codependency territory (i.e., enabling your partner rather than being supportive or the all-too-common communicating in ways you think will influence their actions)? If you begin to feel resentful, you may have crossed a line. Perhaps you’re always giving more than you get, you’re making excuses for their behavior, or suffering silently rather than expressing your needs. The antidote? Speak up. Set personal boundaries and voice your needs. Be sure to watch how Brené Brown defines boundaries.
Remember that when you’re feeling vulnerable and seen instead of powerful and in control, that’s when you’ve entered promising relationship territory.
1. Educate yourself about the effects of difficult childhoods
Your partner may not want to face their emotional inheritance. If you’re the only one in the relationship who has made the connection between your partner’s childhood and issues in your relationship, take great care with respecting your partner’s readiness to face the past. On the other hand, your partner may be in year five of therapy. Either way, it behooves you to find out what it’s like for people who grew up without consistently loving parents.
The memoir An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve, is a great place to begin in understanding what it’s like to endure a childhood without unconditional love and consistent nurturing. Other great books for well-rounded understanding are: Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt, The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, Intimate Terrorism by Michael Vincent Miller, The Highly Sensitive Person in Love by Elaine N. Aron, and The Adult Children of Alcoholics Syndrome by Wayne Kritsberg.
2. Value your partner’s support network
You can’t fix your partner. You’re not their therapist, nor should you be their sole source of reality, reassurance, and support. It’s essential for your partner to have an external network. That may include a therapist, a church, a meditation center, a twelve-step group, and positive friends of all ages and walks of life.
3. Encourage your partner’s daily self-care
Wellbeing comes from being balanced physically, mentally, and spiritually. If your partner needs medication as a tool for managing anxiety (or the chronic PTSD that often accompanies adverse childhood experiences), they should get their meds in order and work with a doctor for check-ins. Physical exercise, particularly running, strenuous walking, and other forms of cardio are the key to managing anxiety and the higher cortisol levels that we tend to have in our bloodstream. For the spirit: Journaling, meditation, and yoga are ideal.
Above all, encourage your partner to do daily acts of self-care, as those acts are manifestations of self-love. Baths, massages, buying flowers, sitting quietly, reading, drawing, going for a walk, stretching, or five minutes of focused breathing are all useful.
4. Practice empathy
Empathy means to feel with someone, to be willing to get on another person’s wavelength, and feel what that person feels. Listen to your partner’s stories. And keep quiet. Put aside urges to advise, explain, or share your own similar experiences. Empathetic listening means that you are feeling the roughness, the fear, the stress, the loneliness, and the anger that the other person feels.
You might sit down on the floor near your partner, which may provide grounding, or sit with open body language (hands at your sides—no crossed arms and no iPhone in view). Open body language says, “I have time and I’m really listening.” There’s really nothing to say, but if you must, you can simply say, “How do you feel about all this?” or just, “Thank you for sharing this with me.”
The most compelling explanation of empathy I’ve seen is this animated short narrated by speaker, author, and researcher Brené Brown.
5. Work on Yourself
More often than not, the partner of someone with a crappy childhood has their own work to do, too. Something drew you to this person, and finding out what will reveal you to yourself. It’s time to find out what makes you tick. Go talk to a therapist who can help guide your self-discovery.
Only a cruel person would leave someone who was the victim of childhood trauma, right? No. Not at all.
You’re not responsible for what happened to them. It happened. It’s their job to seek out ways to heal those wounds so that they can have productive relationships. And each relationship provides practice. No one can do our work for us. You are deserving of a healthy adult relationship in which your partner respects your needs, behaves compassionately, and you two co-nurture one another. If you need to end the relationship, that’s okay. You aren’t further propagating crimes against them by doing so.
If you feel connected in purpose and values with your partner and they treat you lovingly, invest in deepening the relationship. What happened to them isn’t their fault, and it’s not your job to fix it. Enjoy discovering who your partner is. Reveal who you are to them. Respect if not cherish the differences between you. Apply a curious mind and a loving heart to your relationship and you cannot go wrong.
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