Could taking a close look at our old wounds with a partner be the best way to learn how to love each other?
The single most disgraceful moment of my adult life, when hissing snakes erupted from my flipped out prefrontal cortex and my lizard brain took control of my mouth, was the day my lover of eight months returned from his errands without the York peppermint patty I’d requested. After I stomped down the hallway screaming that I’d asked for “One fucking thing!” he calmly made dinner for us both and went to bed without speaking to me. The next morning, reversing his earlier request that we grow old together, he packed up my things and escorted me from his life.
In my defense, I was recovering from minor surgery and constipated from the narcotics, enough to make anyone crabby. And clearly my outburst had set off an equal and opposite reaction in his lizard brain. But I’d never been as nasty as I was then to someone I loved, or even someone I didn’t. What shocked me was that my marginally repressed conviction that I wasn’t lovable could be expressed as incandescent rage. The therapy required to get me off the couch and functioning again took months, during which my therapist convinced me we’d have to go all the way back into my childhood to understand why being dumped by a man I’d dated for less than a year felt as though he’d orchestrated a firing squad to riddle my body with pain bullets.
Having accepted that yelling at people does make me difficult to love, I’m becoming even more forensic about all the small ways I was influenced by my earliest experiences. How, in my family, a man could remain devoted to a woman who routinely shouted at him, which carried through to my own marriage to a man who was every bit my equal in the decibel department – yet was never going to leave me. Being rejected by the man I yelled at for not scouring the city for a specific piece of candy caused my tectonic plates of relationship norms to catastrophically shift.
Photo by Khachik Simonian on Unsplash
Though I still think about this relationship on occasion, and will forever credit EMDR therapy for dissociating the pain from the experience, I had a new forehead slapping moment while listening to Oprah Winfrey interview Harville Hendrix on her podcast Super Soul. Hendrix, who wrote with his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt, the mega-seller Getting the Love You Want believes the reason we so often act like petulant children in our love relationships is because we are attempting to heal our very earliest wounds through the partners we choose and not getting the result we want. Unconsciously and ironically we choose partners that remind us of the caregivers who wounded us in the first place. Then as adults, we regress into “old brain” behavior that mirrors our past as the screaming or withdrawn kid who felt ignored or misunderstood.
What Hendrix said in the interview that made me sit up in my beach chair was that marriage (or a partnership of any kind), should be a place where we can heal our wounds together. This doesn’t mean the relationship is so happy and tranquil that we become passively rehabilitated. It means we go to the mat with our partners, dredge up the big and small moments that have hurt us from as far back as memory takes us, and admit that this stuff is a factor in how we interpret behavior and conduct our own, particularly during times of conflict. Then we endeavor to empathize with that pain, even if we can’t understand it. It’s a wound. And it matters. Hendrix and Hunt call this the “Imago Dialogue” and it allows couples to move from blame and reactivity, to understanding and empathy, so they can create a deeper and loving connection with each other.
This is scary stuff. We may be convinced the person who bears witness to and reflects upon all our accumulated damage should have an advanced degree and be monetarily compensated. I’ve been operating under the belief that I need to sort myself out by myself before I can be a good partner. But maybe we don’t have to. Hendrix and Hunt believe that the primary component of the Ten Characteristics of a Conscious Partnership is You realize that your love relationship has a hidden purpose – the healing of childhood wounds.
It’s not easy, nor as satisfying, to acknowledge our deepest wounds during a fit of pique. Our media entertainment cues have taught us that the acerbic put down is the preferred method of engagement. I’m still irritated that the afternoon soap operas I watched as a teenager convinced me that love was practiced through manipulation, back stabbing and withering dialogue. Now that I have some understanding of Imago, I wonder if I’ll be able, during future moments of anxiety, to say to my partner, “What you’ve done has triggered in me an irrational fear – which I’m now projecting upon you and is based on my inadequate parental affections – that you really don’t love me.” rather than what I did say recently which was, “Go find yourself some other vaccinated pussy.” And maybe, by having the conversation about what makes us crazy before we go crazy might result in a partner who can respond, “I’m not going to take that personally. Let me give you a hug.”
Yet I have a distinct sense that a fair few of us, especially after the war wounds of earlier failed relationships, are suffering Peter Pan syndrome, a pop psychology term used to describe those who avoid taking on personal, emotional and financial responsibilities. Many men write on dating sites they want their dates to come with “No drama, No baggage” which is code in my mind for I don’t want to deal with any of your past shit, or experience you losing your shit, nor do I want you to call me on my shit. I quite enjoy dealing with shit on occasion and appreciate a man willing to do the same. It helps me understand our dynamic. I’ve written in my own dating profiles, “I’m a middle aged woman. Of course I have baggage. But I don’t expect you to carry it.” Now I wonder if I should amend that to read something like, “We’ve all got baggage. Let’s unpack it together.”
One way to start this kind of conversation with a partner without reading the book would be to watch “The Wisdom of Trauma” a deeply affecting documentary highlighting the work of Dr Gabor Maté, a family physician with an intense interest in childhood development and trauma. Though many of the people in the film are suffering from horrible childhood abuses that have resulted in drug addictions and other tragedies, Maté is convinced that even the “benign” neglects of parents taught to let their babies cry behind closed doors or who spent years doling out “helpful” criticism, results in a kind of wounding that imprints upon us the unreliability of those who are our original source of love. This carries over into our sense of self and affects not only our ability to express love and compassion but might be at the root of many of our chronic health problems. I can’t recommend this film enough, though have a hanky at the ready when you watch. The next streaming event happens October 4-10.
Another concept I came across while listening to Hidden Brain – When Did Marriage Become So Hard? is the Michelangelo Effect, the idea that romantic partners influence or ‘sculpt’ each other and over time the effect causes individuals to develop towards what they consider their “ideal selves.” Again, this speaks to the possibility of becoming a better person through collaboration, not insularity. The episode carries an audio clip from the movie Sideways when Miles explains to Maya why he prefers the fussy, difficult to grow Pinot to Cabernet. “Only somebody who really takes the time to understand pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression.”
Yet does it really make sense to get this fused with one partner? I can’t fault those who don’t want marriage to be a repeated sifting through their past indignities. Eli Finkle, author of The All or Nothing Marriage, believes we expect too much from our partners and should rely instead on a bevy of grape tenders. In response to the wine analogy he says, “When there’s the right grower…the flavors are just haunting and brilliant and subtle and ancient. [But Pinot] is a high-maintenance grape. It takes a lot of work. And if you aren’t careful and attentive, you’re going to be disappointed. But if you work hard enough, you can have something truly exquisite. And that is where we are today with the all-or-nothing marriage.”
I’m not criticizing anyone who wants to grow their relationship like a Pinot. But to avoid deep disappointment in a partnership, Finkle advocates “social diversification,” in other words a bevy of grape growers, a larger number of people that we go to for different sorts of needs. People who have a wide network of support have been shown to have an overall higher-quality life. Of note is that Finkle includes sex to be one of the things that can, for some brave souls, be sourced outside a marriage.
I understand why people want their romantic relationships to be fun and easy, and to leave them when they stop being so, why Cabernets might be preferable to Pinots. Plenty of us get through life without confronting shame and emotional trauma by pouring our energies into a tidy home, well educated children and comfortable retirements while avoiding our feelings. And though I certainly rank having fun and lovely sex among my top criteria for mate selection, I don’t want to avoid the tough stuff. I’ve seen such outwardly beautiful and unexcavated lives act as the façade that hides addiction, depression and infidelity.
Self-awareness and non-defensive dialogue with the people we love has got to be the foundation on which we can build a good life. But we may need to look deep into our pasts in order to achieve this. For some of us, wading through the muck together will make us stronger and more fulfilled. For others, the result will be feeling unnecessarily sullied. It’s a personal choice, of course. But I can’t imagine going on a journey with a man who doesn’t want me to bring any baggage.