Your Partner Is Not Your Therapist
Nobody emerges from childhood completely unscathed. Intimate relationships can be a wonderful container in which childhood wounds and sorrows come to light, are met and held with love, and release their power to cause us pain.
However, when childhood wounds are deep and serious, or when there is a trauma response, it is not reasonable to expect a partner to have the skills and emotional resilience to give us everything we need to heal. Serious wounds require serious treatment and rehabilitation.
Warning Signs of Serious Childhood Injury
How can we know whether our emotional baggage is too much for a partner to carry?
The problem for most people is that we grow up thinking that whatever we experienced as a child is normal. It can take outside input to open our eyes to the possibility that our childhood had some problems, and that we may have some unhealthy coping strategies as a result.
Here are some clues to look for, in ourselves and our close friends, family, and partners.
Needing constant reassurance, finding separations unbearable, anxiously watching for return text messages, intense fear of abandonment, possessiveness and jealousy, trying to control partners, especially in how close they are to other people emotionally.
Avoidance or Extreme Detachment
Feeling uncomfortable, even “invaded”, when relationships become emotionally intimate, avoiding sex and intimacy, keeping emotions out of sexual relationships, pushing friends and partners away when upset, reacting to uncomfortable situations in relationships by withdrawing, or even leaving the relationship.
Unbalanced Focus on Self
While it is healthy to have a good awareness of our own wants and needs, it is important to give equal weight to the wants and needs of others, especially those who are close to us, either physically or emotionally.
If people are regularly letting you know that you are appearing selfish, or not listening to them, or not taking them into consideration enough, it is worth checking whether you have the right balance of self vs others.
This may manifest as people every now and again unfairly abandoning you for reasons you don’t understand, or getting very angry at you when you don’t think you have done anything wrong.
Unbalanced Focus on Others
Focusing on others can be a delightful gift, but not if you lose contact with yourself in the process.
Are you aware of your own needs and wants? Do you regularly express them to the people who are close to you, both physically and emotionally?
Or do people seem to take you for granted, and exhaust you with their constant needs and demands?
Are you afraid that if you don’t take care of everyone properly, their reactions will be even more unbearable than the constant low level frustration and exhaustion that you usually feel?
We may not have an addiction to a substance like alcohol, opiates, or illegal substances, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have an addiction at all.
Any activity which causes us to get a hit of dopamine can become addictive.
Many people are addicted to more subtle “drugs”, like gambling (which includes high risk activities like day trading, commission-only sales work, and some forms of entrepreneurial activity), or sex (which can also include addiction to the dopamine highs of infatuation), computer games, or food.
Even socially-valued activities can be addictive – there are many workaholics out there! Working out at the gym, going to church, gossiping with friends, fixing up old cars, building dollhouses or computer programs, doing crosswords, and just about any other hobby can become an addiction when we are using it to escape unpleasant emotions or avoid difficult conversations.
These more socially acceptable addictions can combine with other items on this list, such as avoidance, zoning out, and mood swings, so watch out for combinations!
Losing time, or not noticing what is happening here and now, can be a sign of trauma. This is a particular red flag if it happens during emotionally difficult conversations, but it can also be a habitual way to get through life. If our life as a child is emotionally difficult, one coping strategy is try as much as possible to “not be there” while life is happening.
It often goes together with not remembering much about childhood before the age of 6-8 years old.
Some days are great – you’re on top of the world, you get a lot done (or start a lot of things), and you feel ten feet tall and bulletproof. Other days, you don’t even want to get out of bed. You curse yourself for the promises you made when you were feeling great. There is no clear cause for the great days or the terrible days.
And some days start out great, but then something happens – someone rejects you, or something doesn’t go to plan – and for the rest of the day you feel awful.
If the swings happen slowly – over weeks and months – you may have bipolar disorder. But if you are having wildly different moods within a single week, you don’t have bipolar disorder – you have emotional dysregulation, which is usually a result of childhood emotional neglect.
Extreme Sensitivity or Empathy
Can’t walk by a group of people without getting a “hit” of someone else’s emotions?
Find crowds and public spaces draining and exhausting?
Can’t feel happy when your partner or housemate is feeling down?
You are likely to have some childhood wounds or trauma to explore.
Generally, children focus on their own world, and tune out the adults around them until they need something. But if life was difficult, upsetting, or painful, and the adults around were the cause, some children learn to be hyperaware of the emotional state of others. It is a coping strategy, a way of at least having a few seconds of warning before the bad thing happens.
Yes, That’s Me (or My Partner) – Now What?
Untreated childhood wounds tend to resurface over and over until they are healed. The most common way they emerge is by having us subconsciously recreate the situation where we were wounded.
We are most likely to do this in our intimate relationships, which is what makes intimate relationships so uniquely painful.
The number one reason that I have seen relationships end is because one or both people can no longer tolerate the pain of their childhood wounds resurfacing over and over.
This is often a tragic result, because the people concerned love one another very much, and have the potential to support one another in healing – that’s usually what attracts us, at a subconscious level.
But navigating the interlocking childhood wounds of two people in an intimate relationship is like picking your way through a minefield – you just never know when things are going to blow up and cause a whole new type of trauma.
It is really important that you have outside support through this process. In severe cases, one or both partners may benefit from individual psychotherapy. Often, though what people really need is a neutral third party who can let them know when they are stuck in a childhood coping strategy, rather than being present and responding to the current situation.
This is where a relationship coach can be invaluable. Not only can they provide useful strategies to improve communication, and mediate difficult conversations, they can also keep you on track with your individual healing, and your support of your partner’s healing.
Remember – we are here to help. If you’d like personalised coaching at any time, just fill in an application form, and we will schedule a short real-time call to see whether we are right for each other.