While most parents do the best they can, they cannot be perfect.
All of us, I would argue, have some degree of emotional wounding from childhood and the particular wounding we bring will be triggered in our intimate relationships.
While that may sound negative, and can cause lots of problems in relationships, it is also potentially positive because when we can acknowledge our own wounds – and become more aware of our partner’s – a healing can take place in the relationship.
Unfortunately, many adults are unaware of, or have buried, their emotional wounding. So, when their wounds are activated in their relationship they blame their partner for it.
For some children the wounding they receive from parents, or others with power over them, is severe – emotional, physical or even sexual abuse.
For many others the wounding may have been less traumatic. It could have been a parent who was not able to meet your needs because of a busy job or other commitments. Or perhaps having a sibling who seemed to get more attention or approval from one or both parents.
Some children will have grown up with a parent who was quick to anger or was controlling in other ways.
In some cases the child may have got the message that they were valued more for their achievements – their academic grades or sports performance – than just for themselves.
How it is triggered by our partner
As adults we take these earlier wounds into our relationships with partners, where they often get activated in a painful way.
Here are some examples:
- Karen grew up with an angry father who sometimes scared her. She picked a husband who seemed very calm, but he seems annoyed more often and she feels afraid and panicked.
- As a child Peter felt that his mother often disapproved of his behaviour, even though he tried to be a good boy. He now finds that his partner seems often disappointed in him and feels that he can never get it right for her.
- Sarah’s father abandoned the family when she was a girl. In her adult relationships she finds herself with men who, for different reasons, seem to let her down and whom she finds it difficult to trust.
These are just some examples – there are many more.
Acknowledging and staying open to our wounding
One of the opportunities in couple therapy is for both partners to recognise and acknowledge – often for the first time – the wounds that they may be carrying from childhood.
Therapist John Welwood, in his book Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships, says that when we find ourselves shutting down in our relationship it is often because our partner’s emotional wounds have triggered our own wounding.
So, our partner may be angry about something but because we associate that anger with rejection, we shut down when they are angry. Instead of shutting down, when our partner triggers our wounds, we can try and stay open to what we are feeling and to what is going on for our partner.
“If my partner and I can learn to speak together about the wounded places that give rise to our emotional reactions, this will also help us remain more awake when the wounds are triggered,” says Welwood.
My experience in working with couples is that when they are both able to talk about and feel the feelings of that earlier wound, something can shift in their relationship. Each is able to soften slightly, and to offer their partner (and themselves) more understanding and compassion.
“Coming to terms with our woundedness helps us navigate the complex emotional dynamics of human relationship and gradually bring a more all-embracing love into this world,” says Welwood.