One of the most common complaints I hear in my medical practice is the issue of relationship dissatisfaction. People spend hour upon hour, and dollar upon dollar, trying to figure out how to be happy when partnered with others. People do the same when it comes to relating to their children. And some of the most bitter conflict I've ever witnessed has been between adult siblings.
What's the deal with all this struggle? Where does the conflict come from, and what can be done about it?
Researchers, mental health professionals, self-help gurus, and spiritual advisors offer us a wealth of relationship resources. There are hundreds of books, theories, websites, and blogs dedicated to the art of healthy and fulfilling relationships. However, we continue to hear that over half of US first marriages will end in divorce, siblings fall into estrangement over decades-old issues, and parents and their adult children long for authentic loving relationships but settle instead for surface talk, power struggles and hurt feelings.
While I believe there is definitely a skill to showing up for a person emotionally, most relationship advice is essentially telling us that our relationships will be healthy - just as soon as we are.
Did you know that our unhealthiness as adults is almost entirely due to the parts of us that still bear the unhealed wounds of our childhood and early life experiences? So many times I hear therapy clients say, "I really don't want to have to go back into my whole childhood to understand this stuff." I get it. In the moment, you need practical tools and solutions for today. But, trying to understand yourself without understanding the beginning of your own story robs you of the opportunity to truly know yourself, your strength and power.
If you are bearing raw wounds from childhood and don't know what to do with them, being fully present and successful in a close partnership with any other person will be very challenging.
Common childhood wounds are:
Having suffered physical, emotional, verbal or sexual abuse
Having witnessed domestic violence in your childhood home
Having been neglected or ignored by your early childhood caregivers
Having suffered frequent insults, criticism, or been made to feel afraid or powerless in the presence of early childhood caregivers
Having lived in a home with a parent with substance-dependence
Having lived in a home with frequent chaos
Having lived in a home where a parent or major caregiver had poor boundaries with you and discussed their personal struggles in a way that made you feel responsible for them
Having been forced to parent yourself and your siblings
We all struggle with emotional wounds. Some we are very familiar with and others we only recognize when under the microscope of an intimate relationship. There, you are called on daily to be your very best self. The problem is that a lack of insight or a fear of deeply diving inward can make it impossible to reflect on those areas in yourself that are unhealed. But they are there - waiting to sabotage all your efforts in relationships and career and to destroy your self-concept.
They often show up in relationships as:
Problems with loyalty or commitment
Excessive self-preserving behavior (a.k.a. selfishness)
Difficulty with trust
Difficulty with heeding your inner guide/intuition/gut
Tendency to control through word or deed
Being excessively dependent on your partner, parent or sibling
Being unable to take responsibility for your shortcomings
Selecting partners that have the same negative characteristics as your parents or early childhood caregivers
So, my best relationship advice is this: come to the table as a grown-up. Being a grown-up has nothing to do with chronological age, but with having insight into and mastery over the self. If you are in a major conflict with someone you love, it may be because the parties involved are not presenting the complete and healing version of themselves - but instead are subconsciously wallowing and reveling in old habits, patterns and destructive behaviors that originate in childhood dysfunction or hurt.
One of the most painful things for me to watch when working with couples is to see two people whose wounded child parts are the ones clashing and derailing what could be a really beautiful partnership. No, relationship issues are not just about trite ideas like "poor communication." And no, you don't need to fix your partner. Barring an abusive situation, relationships can generally be healed when we close our mouths, open our eyes, ears and hearts, and take a long look in the mirror.