Why couples need to parent their own inner child

Only you can re-parent your inner child. No-one can do it for you.’

–       Lucia Capacchione, author of Recovery of Your Inner Child

A common theme in couple therapy is when each partner criticizes the other for the same thing. They may complain that their partner is too ‘needy’, not loving enough or too controlling.

When you actually look beneath the surface, however, it often turns out that both partners share similar feelings of low self-worth. Deep down they don’t feel lovable and don’t trust that their needs will be met.

They also feel shame in acknowledging this to themselves, let alone to the other person.

What can then transpire is that they, unconsciously, seek to get their partner to be a ‘parent’, giving them the unconditional love and understanding they lacked in their own families. When they don’t get this idealised love they feel disappointed and angry with their partner.

A useful prism to view these relationships through is that of the inner child. For many, more skeptical, people the concept of the ‘inner child’ has become a cliché of therapy. But in my work with clients I find it an extremely valuable way of helping people understand their behaviour and feelings.

So, what or who is this inner child? He or she is that part of you that feels like a child and can behave like one – in both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ ways. The inner child is often a part of us that we are uncomfortable with and that we can disown. This is because it can represent our more vulnerable and sensitive feelings.

But rejecting this vulnerable part of us also means rejecting our spontaneity, passion and playfulness.

A relationship in which both partners are, without realizing it, carrying a wounded inner child is one that will usually feel unsatisfying and frustrating to both parties.

This is because each partner is not really taking responsibility for looking after their own inner child. They aren’t listening to what its needs are and finding appropriate ways to meet those needs. Instead they are looking to their partner to be the perfect parent they never had.

The first step in healing this dynamic is for each person to become aware of their own wounded inner child.  With this new knowledge they now have an opportunity to grieve what they did not receive as children.

Often a person with a very wounded inner child grew up in an environment in which basic emotional needs were not met. Part of the process of nurturing one’s inner child as an adult is to grieve what was missing from one’s childhood.

Paradoxically, getting in touch with the sadness, anger and grief over what one did not have as a child can open up the possibility of coming into relationship with that loss and moving on.

Therapist and author John Bradshaw describes the ‘original pain work’ that people with wounded inner children need to do. What he means is feeling the sadness and anger of the child who was not properly cared for.

He says: ‘Grief is the healing feeling. We will heal naturally if we are just allowed to grieve.’

Further reading

Homecoming – Reclaiming and Championing your Inner Child. By John Bradshaw

Recovery of Your Inner Child. By Lucia Capaccione

Embracing Each Other. By Hal Stone and Sidra Stone

Healing the Child Within. By Charles Whitfield

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2 thoughts on “Why couples need to parent their own inner child

  1. I agree with you fully, Patrick, that the concept of the “inner child” can be extremely powerful and important in therapeutic work. While some do treat it as a cliche, I think that it is more appropriately regarded as a reflection of what Jung would call an archetypal reality. It is only by coming into contact with the woundedness of the inner child that we are able, in many cases, to comprehend what happens on an emotional level in situations where we feel trapped, defeated or “stuck”. Thank you very much for this post, Patrick.

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