Saving our Relationships from the Emotions of the Past
Thinking significantly influences experience. Thoughts and experience are intricately intertwined both exerting and being influenced by the other. Working our way through some painful experiences grinds on our resolves and diminishes happiness. Some experiences evoke powerful emotions before thinking ever begins. The thoughts following emotion can magnify or diminish the original hurt, anger and sorrow. Biological programming insists we respond to fear, unfairness, and loss. The emotions serve as a built in warning system reminding us that something is not right.
The emotional system is functional. The emotions proceeded conscious thought in the evolutionary development of our mind. We are surrounded by living organisms that survive---and even flourish—without conscious thought. Our well-being requires a familiarity with the emotions. A complex system—such as our emotions—doesn’t haphazardly become part of an organism without strong serviceable to survivability. An over simplified understanding of the emotional system is that it signals good, bad, and dangerous. Most emotions are responding to a biological need or a learned association to a need.
The larger the emotional reaction, the more important the trigger is recognized as a benefit or danger to well-being. A person who suffered painful childhood abandonments are more likely to have stronger emotional warnings in the present. In more serious cases, feelings of closeness can spark the fear of abandonment.
A dreadful pattern of overwhelming emotions continually disrupts the lives of those with painful past. The powerful emotions influences thoughts, thoughts then influence behavior, and behavior then influences their environments. Many fears of abandonment are realized because of the tremendous stress these fears place on new relationships; self-fulfilling prophecy. A person’s fear of closeness prevents intimate relationships from developing. The victim of a painful past often acts in ways that inhibits and destroys present relationships. Each failed relationship continues the painful legacy of abandonment and confirms the hidden belief that relationships are painful. The fear motivates behaviors that alienate partners. The partner’s defensive, angry or fearful reaction to the alienation further ignites the victim’s anxiety. All the moving pieces of reactions, emotions and reactions to emotions continue to expand until the reactions destroy the relationship. The new loss smolders in memories increasing vigilance for new threats.
Aaron T. Beck in his classic book Love is Never Enough wrote:
If our thinking is straightforward and clear, we are better equipped to reach these goals. If it is bogged down by distorted symbolic meanings, illogical reasoning, and erroneous interpretations, we become in effect deaf and blind. Stumbling along without clear sense of where we are going or what we are doing, we are destined to hurt ourselves and others. As we misjudge and miscommunicate, we inflict pain on both ourselves and our mates and, in turn, bear the brunt of painful retaliations.
This kind of twisted thinking can be untangled by applying a higher order of reasoning.
We might not have the inner-resources to face the challenges of a crumbling relationship. They are very emotional. The deep emotions intrude on clear thinking. Unaware of the accumulating damage of small hurts, significant damage to trust occurs before a problem is recognized. The hope that accompanies new relationships is blinding. We are oblivious to the value of the small interactions. As two people become more invested, they become more dependent. Old fears of abandonment resurface. The strong emotional reactions demand interpretation. The mind sorts through pasts to understand the present. The young couple is unprepared to face the new powerful emotions. The mounting frustrations, hurt, and unrest taint interaction. Underneath many topics of conversation lies a destructive hidden theme: you don’t love me, or I am the victim. New disagreements remain unresolved because meaningful discussion is laced with emotional attacks. Love and intimacy is never found here.
When a current relationship is continually tasked with relieving painful relics of the past, we become frustrated with new prospects of love. With the magnifying anxiety, attempts of control strengthen. Overloaded emotions stimulate hysterical responses—even to neutral interactions. The partner we once hoped would fulfill needs is now unconsciously treated as a threat. The slightest word, facial expression, or gesture triggers powerful emotions. Our dear partner transforms into the enemy. Relationship disintegration quickly moves from exciting to beyond repair. If we don’t notice the signs of deterioration early, the damage may be irreparable.
There is hope. We can untangle relationship-destroying patterns. When we recognize patterns early and change directions, we avoid the familiar abrupt dead-end of relationship-destroying conversations. Healthy changes require knowledge, skill, and empathy. But most important, they require patience. I wish relationships problems resolved easily with a few simple techniques; but often problem embed deeply in the fabric of the relationship. Quick solutions seldom work. Reconstructing a broken relationship requires more than stumbling through a new relationship technique.
Relationships can be healed. They can be resurrected from the depths of sorrow. Broken relationships require a whole atmosphere. Concerned partners must confront the automatic responses and emotional reactions. New relationship friendly skills and personal characteristics—patience, commitment, sensitivity, generosity, consideration, loyalty, responsibility, and trustworthiness—must be developed. Mastering relationship--friendly skills of compromising, cooperating and following through with joint decisions—are the means of expressing positive personal characteristics. In addition, couples must learn forgive partner’s flaws. All our partners are imperfect. We all have easily exploitable peculiarities that can be blamed for the struggling relationship. Compassion and understanding must be displayed our words but also felt in our hearts.
If we can’t take responsibility for our emotions, we will blame our partners for all disruption. A partner may trigger emotions---relationships are emotional bonds. These emotional disruptions are a relationship problem not simply a partner problem. We all need to accept accountability for unhealthy behaviors. But in order to analyze the problems, we must first recognize distorting labels and emotional responses programmed from past experience before we can accurately process a present problem.
Healthy relationship interactions are complex. We must sort through complex emotions—some triggered from the outside and some from the inside. We must appropriately take responsibility for our involvement in sour interactions. And only then can we more appropriate judge our partner’s actions. But usually in unhealthy relationships the only step taken is blaming the partner for our discomforting emotions.
Relationships are work. A lot of work. All the relationship work must be accomplished with compassion and patience. Two imperfect partners forming a bond exposes the imperfections previously hidden. By working towards intimate communication, we establish new underlying themes of love and acceptance. The fear of painful rebukes softens and openness begins to form. The diminished fear allows for difficult issues to be addressed without fear of abandonment.
Over-time positive the positive interactions accumulate. As we respectfully work through disagreements, trust increases. Some problems are resolved; others will continually be faced. No person automatically changes because we don’t like a certain behavior—partners have core differences that won’t smoothly integrate into the relationship. But when we approach these issues with patience and understanding, we can find temporary solutions that aren’t destructive to security. Our partner’s differences may annoy us but we don’t see them as the enemy. We can integrate profound differences by occasionally addressing the differences in a compassionate manner. As both partners cultivate healthy skills and characteristics of relating, they will find relief from the painful stings of the past.