One of the greatest joys in my life is my 36-year marriage to Carlin. But it wasn’t easy for either of us getting to this time in our lives where we feel fully engaged in our relationship, feel loving and in love. Each of us was married twice before and have children from our previous marriages. Both of us wondered whether there was something in our lives that was preventing us from having the joyful, long-lasting, relationship we both wanted. Like all couples, we’ve had our ups and downs, deep connections and times where we felt estranged, periods of ease and periods where there was great deal of dis-ease.
One of the things that was very important in understanding the ups and downs in our marriage was looking honestly at the past and the impact of childhood trauma on our health, well-being, and marriage. As a therapist for more than forty years, I like to look ahead. I don’t want to get caught up in endless recriminations about what people didn’t get from their mothers or fathers or the trauma they may have experienced as children. Yet I’ve found we do need to heal the past if we’re going to have a healthy relationship that lasts. But we don’t have to take years mucking around in our troubled past. We can do it relatively quickly and easily and the effort is worth it.
Here’s why. According the new research on the science of love, understanding the wounds most of us experienced from the past is essential to having a truly healthy, loving marriage that lasts through time. I’ve found that most of the problems I have in my love life have roots that go back to unhealed wounds from my family life.
Marriage and family experts Harville Hendrix and his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt offer the following summary in their book, Making Marriage Simple: 10 Relationship-Saving Truths, “About 90 percent of the frustrations your partner has with you [and you have with your partner], are really about their [and your] issues from childhood…Love delivers us into the passionate arms of someone who will ultimately trigger the same frustrations we had with our parents, but for the best possible reason! Doing so brings our childhood wounds to the surface so they can be healed.”
One of the main complaints I’ve had about my wife, Carlin, is that she withdraws and closes down emotionally, when I’m feeling vulnerable and needy. In response, I become panicked and angry, which causes her to withdraw even more. Our responses to each other often triggered fights which left us both feeling uncared for and unloved. I would get more manic and depressed and she became increasingly sad and in pain.
Generally, we got along well, but there always seemed to be a few recurring issues, where something I said or did triggered strong feeling in her and vice versa. My first clues about the connection between childhood losses and adult health and well-being came when I read the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Studies. For the first time, I understood the connection between my mother’s withdrawal and constant worry and how it contributed to my fears of abandonment and ongoing beliefs that I wasn’t safe. I wrote about what I was learning about my mother’s preoccupation of death and my fears of abandonment in my recent article, “A Little in Love With Death: My Healing Encounter with Pierre Grimes.” I showed how these early experiences can actually contribute to our calling in life in “The Souls Code: Embracing My Destiny as a Man.”
The impact of our family history on our love lives can go back even further than the family we grew up in. There can be significant impacts that go back to our grandparents lives. In his book It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How to End the Cycle, Mark Wolynn says, “For many of us, our greatest yearning is to be in love and have a happy relationship. Yet because of the way love is often expressed unconsciously in families, our way of loving can be to share the unhappiness or repeat the patterns of our parents and grandparents.”
When I looked back on my family history, lost fathers were evident. My mother’s father died when she was four years old and my grandmother, my mother, and her sister were forced to move in with my mother’s grandmother. Growing up, my mother never talked about her father, the loss she felt, or how it impacted her life. But the presence of Johnny, my mother’s deceased father, rippled through our family.
I was named after my mother’s lost father. My full name is John Elliott Diamond. I changed my name to Jed in college because it felt more like me. But growing up I always felt I had to take care of my mother after my father left. Without being consciously aware of it, I fell into the role of my namesake, my mother’s father.
When I met and married Carlin, it never occurred to me that we were carrying generations of loss with us. I thought it was simple. We loved each other and wanted to build a life together. But Carlin had also lost her father when she was young and we both grew up with slightly depressed, emotionally distant, mothers.
Before we became aware of the impact of the inherited family trauma we lived with, we would often blame each other when we didn’t feel we were getting what we needed. I would get angry at her when she didn’t nurture me the way I had longed to be nurtured by my mother. She would withdraw when my irritability and anger triggered memories of her own absent father.
Without the understanding of our family heritage, I just saw her as withholding the love I needed the most and she would see me as being angry and blaming. There were times I felt I needed to get away from this woman who didn’t want to love me and she wanted to get away from this angry man who was out to hurt her. With the understanding of the family dynamics involved we’ve developed more compassion of ourselves and each other.
We recognize that by healing our past we can continue to have the love we’ve always wanted. And by getting the love we didn’t get as children we can forgive our parents. When I could appreciate my mother’s wounds at losing her father, I could have compassion for her and let go of the blame I felt at her emotional distance and her unconscious desire for me to care for her in way her husband and father could not do.
Carlin and I wrote about our experiences in The Enlightened Marriage: The 5 Transformative Stages of Relationships and Why the Best is Still to Come. If you are having trouble in your own relationship, I suggest you check out the 4 free videos I created to help you better understand what is going on and how to get your relationship back on track. I look forward to your comments and questions.
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