Is the shadow of your past hurting your relationship?

To explain how our developmental past—the long arm of our childhood relationships—impact our current way of relating and connecting with people, psychologists theorize that something about these early relationship prototypes gets “internalized” in our psyches and is carried over into our adult relational world. While the language used to explain this carry-over differs (concepts such as: object-relations;  internal working models; relational schemas), most developmental theories acknowledge that the quality of our childhood relationships (especially with our parents) sets the stage for how we engage with others later on. 

If this is true, then to some degree your marriage or relationship is being played out on two stages:

1) The stage that existed long ago that continues to shape you (for good or bad): the stage created by your parents who used their own scripts of how you should be in the world. In this regard, our primary caregivers were the early directors of our life—impacting us in ways that profoundly influence our capacity to love openly, share emotionally and connect with others;


2) The current stage where you and your spouse/partner are the co-directors of your marriage/relationship. On this stage, you both set the agenda, giving direction that may overlap with the old (which is fine if the old works for you both), or you may be attempting to create new relationship scripts together that significantly diverge from the old scripts you learned in childhood.     

Relationship Help: Breaking Free from Old Patterns

The challenge is that it isn’t always apparent to us if and when the old influences from our past are creeping onto center stage of our marriage/relationship. Sometimes we’re being held back by the negative relationship scripts that were internalized from our caregivers without realizing this is the case. Clearly, not being mindful of past/present influences complicates matters.  In essence, we are being held back or steered in directions that may not be in our relationship’s best interests. 

The ideal, of course, is to live more fully and consciously in the center stage of your relationship with both feet firmly planted in the present—rather than mindlessly repeating old patterns. This takes work. This takes self-understanding. And this understanding, I believe, starts with you questioning and challenging yourself.

Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • What were some of the major unhelpful patterns that I witnessed between my parents/caregivers that I don’t want to repeat?
  • What were the helpful, loving patterns I’d like to hold onto and bring into my relationship?
  • What might be my emotional Achilles’ heel because of my childhood experiences (for instance, getting angry easily when I’m not in control; the tendency to experience others as withholding when I’m in need; pulling away emotionally when my partner needs something from me)?

Being aware of the unhelpful residue you carry around from your family of origin is a big step in taking greater control of the stage directions of your marriage/relationship. But once you realize the ways in which you do not want to be with your spouse/partner, it then becomes important to write new scripts and give yourself new opportunities to act differently (even if these new scripts or behaviors feel unfamiliar or unnatural). One of the problems with old, ingrained patterns, even the most dysfunctional patterns, is that they are automated and can actually feel natural.

This is why change takes time and effort, but once you practice these new ways of being, the new starts to become familiar and a natural part of your relationship.   

Until next time,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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