Could your childhood be determining how you fare in adult relationships?

Article - source: Body+Soul

Could your childhood be determining how you fare in adult relationships?

20 September 2022
There's a reason you can't see those red flags.

Relationship therapist Lissy Abrahams explains how the events that shape your childhood influence the relationships you form as an adult.
Are you constantly making the same relationship mistakes over and over again? Always seeking out partners that are certified walking red flags? Or maybe – like one sir Anthony Bridgerton – you can’t help but push those you love away.

The good news is you’re not alone, and according to relationship therapist Lissy Abrahams, author of Relationship Reset, there’s no need to blame yourself. You just need to look back through your childhood.

In order to understand why you have the triggers or behaviours you have, or why certain things are deal breakers within a relationship, Abrahams says that reflecting on how you were brought up – and what you were exposed to – can help make sense of them. Here, she explains how your childhood impacts your future relationships – and what you can do to make a change.

How your childhood impacts your adult relationships

I have a client, Jasmine, who quickly breaks up with her latest boyfriend the minute he starts to imagine a future with her. Another client, Amos, rarely shares his emotions with his wife and often feels lonely. Stefano’s partner, Zac, feels smothered by him, like he’s always being scrutinised for mood changes.

So, why do my clients relate to their partners like this? Well, like all of us, they were exposed to thousands and thousands of both positive and negative experiences in childhood that formed their relational templates, often in micro-moments with their parents or caregivers. We all carry these templates throughout life and map them onto our couple relationships.

Despite often sharing some values, our partner will always have a different relational template to us, as the forces that shaped theirs were not identical to ours. These forces might include different messages and experiences from parents and extended family, safe or unsafe experiences, migration, family trauma, religious or cultural influences, parental separation/divorce, school systems and teachers, friends, governments, TV and media, and more.

How does a relational template work?

Our relational template is like a program of our expectations, beliefs, opinions, and rules for how we should, or shouldn’t, behave in a relationship. Much of this is unconscious, so we don’t always consciously have access to what’s encoded. However, our behaviour gives us a clue, just like it does for Jasmine, Amos, and Stefano. To them their behaviour makes sense, which means relationship difficulties are deemed their partner’s fault. They don’t understand the extent of their own involvement as they are behaving according to their own, unique relational template.

Jasmine thought she’d have a partner and children by now. She doesn’t understand that her template encoded thousands of micro-moments of her parents’ brutal emotional conflict where she and her younger sister were terrified. Even though she remembers some of the conflict, she is not in contact with the extent of the fear and terror unconsciously inside her. She dismisses any boyfriend who imagines a future together, preventing any child from being created who could go through what she did.

Amos wants a close and connected relationship with his wife yet often hides how he really feels. Encoded in his template are all the micro-moments where he couldn’t get enough of his parents’ attention and presence as a young child. They were often stressed about being cash-strapped and didn’t have sufficient support. Amos learnt to turn off his emotions as a means of dealing with them. He was lonely, and he’s often still lonely today.

Stefano wants a relationship with desire and engagement, not the constant anxiety he has today. As a child he was both anxious and clingy with his parents. Encoded in his template were thousands of micro-moments of not feeling special enough as he had four other siblings to compete with. Clinging became a strategy of staying close to his parents. The problem is, he applies this same clingy strategy in his relationship with Zac, who then feels suffocated. This causes Stefano to retreat, which triggers even more anxiety.

How to change your relational template

Let’s not forget that just like all of us, my clients’ partners also react and behave according to their own relational templates. This is why couple relationships are so complex, and why so many are conflict-filled, lonely and distressing – and why many even end. In Australia, one in three marriages ends in divorce. In the UK and USA, it’s one in two. Vast numbers of us across the world experience broken dreams and broken homes, and we often have no real understanding why.

Understanding our relational template is vital if we want to create a healthier relationship with our partner and understand why we treat our partner the way we do. For some of us it’s through therapy, a wise friend or elder, books and blogs, online courses, and podcasts. Whatever the method, we need to make conscious what has been unconsciously encoded inside us. This liberates us, our partner, and our relationship from our past, and allows us the opportunity to truly create a respectful and loving relationship in the present.

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