Reflections of Your Past

It is no coincidence that the romantic relationships that we find ourselves in trigger us from time to time.  When was the last time the person who you are in love with drove you crazy!  In addition, do you ever argue about nearly the same topic over and over again without any resolution?  Or maybe you haven’t been arguing, but there are things that seem to consistently bother you about your partner?  If you are answering yes to any of these questions, rest assured you are not alone.

To the best of my knowledge, I have not yet met a nonhuman in my practice.  I don’t ask if someone is a nonhuman during my intake assessment, but I do ask about what it was like growing up.  Through that, I have learned that humans and nonhumans all have parents.  With parents, comes triggers.  Many parents try to raise their child to the best of their ability.  However, there aren’t any proverbial instructions to help guide a parent into raising a child successfully and issue free.  Even the most attentive parent is going to inflict some level of trauma on a child.  Trauma is all in the mind of the person who experiences it, so what is not traumatic to you as an adult may very well be traumatic to a little kiddo.

For instance, let’s say you are a toddler and you want your mom’s attention.  You mom is having a stressful day and is consumed with the task of making dinner for you and your siblings.  While your mother is focused on the activity of making dinner, she is also mentally juggling the stress from work, relationships, finances, etc.  She is tired and stressed.  Because of her state of mind, she isn’t attentive to your needs at this time.  Due to this, you feel rejected and angry.  The feelings are felt physically, and you don’t have the ability to put these feelings into words so you cry and act out.  At this very moment in time, a part of you becomes stuck.  Your brain catalogs this very moment and places it into you unconscious mind.

Now let’s fast forward into your mind 30s.  You are standing in your living room with your significant other.  You are explaining something about your day while your partner appears to be listening but is internally distracted.  You ask a question.  You receive no response.  You feel annoyed.  In this very instant, you don’t feel heard.  It feels like your partner isn’t paying attention to you.  What happens next happens very quickly and seemingly without any choice, you begin to act out like you did with your mother when you were a child.  Your unconscious mind, the part of the brain that can’t differentiate past and present, triggers an internal dialog of “No one ever pays attention to me.”  Now verbal statements are spoken.  “You never listen when I talk.”  The fear of rejection of when your mother wasn’t giving you the attention you so craved as a child begins to feel as if it is history repeating itself.  Anger starts to swell.  You are not aware of the unconscious historical connection, but you are feeling the results.

In that example, regardless of how you respond; whether it be aggressive by yelling and blaming or passive by walking away and internalizing, it begins a process that sets the stage for an emotional wall to be built.  The wall is designed to protect the hurting part in your past.  At the same exact time, or in rapid succession, your partner is experiencing a very similar response.  “Why are you yelling?  I always listen to you.  In fact, I never feel like I get a chance to talk.”  Or, “What’s your problem?  Why do you always walk away without me getting a chance to respond?”  If they are feeling insecure, the thought of them once again not doing something right begins to be created and anger within them is felt.  Your partner is experiencing the same unconscious triggering and recalling familiar feelings from their past as you are.  The wall is now being build by both parties, and the rift only gets wider.

Another example might involve chores in the house.  You always ask your partner to pick up their socks.  You get annoyed because they are picked up for two weeks, and then they are left out again.  The cycle continues week after week.  You ask, you get angry and yell, their behavior changes for a couple of weeks; rinse wash repeat.  The socks mean something deeper than clutter.  The socks may represent your not feeling heard, respected, appreciated, or cared for.  Just like when you were a child and your parent would disregard your feelings and your desires.  The feelings are the same in the present, but the scenario has changed.

Meanwhile, your partner is getting angry as well.  They make a change to appease you, ultimately falling back into past patterns of behavior because the meaning of the socks is lost on them.  They get angry too because they feel like they are getting nagged.  Parts of them remember not doing anything good enough when they were children, and now they believe they are repeatedly being remind of their deficiencies.  They are also living in the past and are responding to you with passive aggressive behavior.  All the while, both you and your partner are trying to achieve a healing of your past, are both but inviting conflict instead.

I can go all day with factitious examples of events and conversations that illustrate the point that I am trying to make.  In the end, both you and your partner are living in the past, and each of you are reminding one another of experiences that have previously caused pain.  The rub here is that we find ourselves in relationships with those who remind us of our previous pain.  We are unconsciously trying to heal that pain from the past in the present moment.  However, we are actually setting ourselves up for more pain if we are unaware of the process at hand.

In the examples provided, your partner has traits that are similar to your mother, father, or a combination there of.  The traits surround subtle behaviors that they may have.  Maybe your parents carried themselves in a certain manner.  Or they spoke to you or others in ways that your partner similarly does.  Regardless, your unconscious mind has found itself attracted to them due to potential unresolved issues that block you from feeling like a whole person.  If you can resolve those issues, then you will feel more complete.

This is the stuff that movies are made of.  A man falls for a woman who is controlling and domineering.  A woman falls for a man who is emotionally unavailable.  All the while their opposite gender friend who wants to be with the main character is the person who embodies all of the traits that the main character is desiring, but yet the main character is not attracted to them.  Name that 80s movie.  More often than not, it probably has Molly Ringwald cast in the lead role.

So, now you may be asking yourself how to improve this state of affairs?  Good question.  I was hoping that you would ask.  Quite honestly, if you hadn’t, I wouldn’t have anything else to write.  But since you were kind enough to ask, here are a few suggestions.

- Be aware that this is one of 3 common triggers in relationships. The other two focus on repressed parts of yourself: 1) your partner awakening parts of yourself that you have repressed, and 2) your repressed parts being projected onto your partner.

- Remember that we need to remain present in order to resolve conflict. Your partner is not your parent.  What has happened in your past is in fact not happening before your eyes right now.  Despite your body making the past feel real in the present, it is still the past.

- Your partner has some of these 3 components happening internally as well. That means, the pain your partner is feeling is not personal to you.  It is their pain, not yours.  They are experiencing their past in the present time, therefore you are not the source of their pain.  This also applies to your feelings.  Your partner is not the source of your pain either.

- Consciousness if key. Remain grounded in the present moment.  By doing so, you will remain calm and allow yourself to be able to think more clearly so that you will be less likely to take your partner’s feelings personally.

- Own your emotions. Your emotions live within you.  They are in your body, no one else’s.  You are the only one who is feeling them.  Communicate your ownership if your feelings.  Don’t blame someone else for the feelings that are within you.

- Pick up a copy of Getting the Love You Want, by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D.

- Give me a call and we can engage in couples therapy using Imago Relationship Therapy.