RELATIONSHIPS: Dealing with the Source

By Steven T. Padgitt, Ph.D.

Last month we found our couple, Eric and Heather, establishing an intimate relationship and explored how their increased closeness brought out the destructive elements of former relationships being transferred onto their newly developing relationship. This brought the beginning of the disintegration of their relationship and subsequently couples therapy. This month we will continue to explore how old childhood emotional connections influence our intimate adulthood relationships.

Once Eric and Heather discovered that former relationships, including the relationships with their parents, were influencing them negatively they were in a position to do something constructive with that information. In their couples therapy they learned to make sense of their respective histories and remove feelings such as shame and guilt. Next they were able to eliminate the old automatic and problematic responses (behavior, emotions, and thoughts) and replace them with responses that fit more with the current day.

Our story continues as they are discussing relationship issues during a therapy session. Eric discovers that some of his recent feelings can be traced to his relationship with his parents, particularly his father. This discovery leads to the realization that each time particular kinds of events occur with Heather, he begins feeling as he did in childhood. For example, when Heather becomes extremely focused on her work and less tuned in to Eric, he feels emotionally abandoned. He instantly begins behaving as he did at similar times in his childhood. He becomes sullen and pulls away into himself. As Eric talks, it becomes clear that his withdrawal from Heather is an automatic response learned during childhood and repeated throughout his life, in response to the emotional unavailability of his father. From Heather's perspective, each time Eric withdraws, she feels rejected and desperate, and pursues him in order to re-establish their emotional connection. This results in his further irrational withdrawal and so the cycle goes.

An extensive and in depth discussion about their thoughts and feelings helped to defuse the intensity of emotion that blocked them from intimacy. Following this phase of exploration concerning the developmental and causative factors related to their emotional stress, they were more receptive to the formation and use of intimacy building tools.

Within this context, they were encouraged to verbally cue one another so as to signal the recognition of a potentially difficult emotional exchange and in this way prompt each other to be non-defensive. These signals served to remind the other that history was repeating itself in a way that could pull them apart. Using this tool allowed them to become very unlike their respective families of origin and support each other richly and warmly, while learning a new set of automatic behaviors, emotions and thoughts.