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How much of a role does the past play in our relationships?

 

Far too many times in my practice, I have heard the phrase: “But that was in the past.. there’s no point going there – I’m over that”.

The truth is, our past plays an enormous role in the beliefs or “schemas” we have developed about love, closeness, intimacy, conflict, power and control, affection, having a different opinion, wanting space or privacy, and so on. Without bringing awareness into the messages that we received growing up about attachment and connection, we are bound to repeat these patterns and play out these messages and roles in our adult relationships.

Take an example of a child who grew up in a household with a lot of conflict, yelling and controlling tactics by a parent. That child will learn to become fearful and hypervigilant of even the slightest sign of upset or negative mood in another person. Not only will they develop a strong fear response to other people’s mood, but they will unconsciously make a decision about how to best cope or adapt to this kind of dynamic where another person uses rage to control the other person.

Some children, depending on their temperament, may choose to be compliant and subservient, and figure out how to placate the other person whenever they seem upset. Other children may find other people’s negative moods so overwhelming that they may actually learn how to detach, escape and cut off from their immediate emotions and bodily responses, possibly later using substances as a form of self-soothing. And other children may have the kind of temperament where they feel more empowered when they align themselves with the more dominant parent who yells, and model this kind of bullying and antagonising behaviour in their own relationships later on.

In adult life, our challenge is to examine our own relationship with our chosen mate, and when there are power imbalances, that is, one person’s mood state, needs, opinions and choices dominate over the other person’s mood state, needs, opinions and choices, then work will need to be done to strip away the old habitual ways of relating, to make way for more balanced, harmonious and mutually loving behaviours.

Here are 3 ways that we can start to bring more consciousness of the past into our current awareness in order to create a thriving intimate relationship, by reflect on the following questions:

1. “What messages did I receive growing up about my worthiness, my self-expression, my inner world?”. If we received negative messages about the value of our own emotions and needs, then it is possible that we have ingested these messages as truth and they are spilling over into our current approach to intimacy.

2. “If I were to value my own needs and feelings as equally important and the needs and feelings of my partner, what would I need to request more of for myself, and what would I need to offer more of to my partner?”

3. “What ways did I learn to cope with power imbalances and unmet needs in my childhood, that may not be serving me anymore in my adult relationships?”

If reflecting on these questions brought to light a very entrenched pattern that has had a long-term impact on the way you approach your intimate relationships, then seeking out therapy with someone experienced in integrating the past with the present, such as a Schema Therapist, is likely to be of great benefit to your current and future approach to intimate relationships. Otherwise, a less entrenched pattern can respond well to relationship coaching. With enough awareness and integration, it is entirely possible to create a thriving and loving intimate relationship, even when this was not modelled in the past.

Dr. Tracey Hunterreflective