Stings from the Past
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 2013 (edited 2018)
When Histories Interfere in the Present
Traumatic pasts place strain on the present. If finding love has been painful, we begin to respond defensively with new prospects. We can reprogram and graciously and intimately love.
As innocent children we gleefully frolic in the clover, feeling the joys of nature. But an awkward landing and a painful sting that sends us into anaphylactic shock changes the experience for ever. The once joyful play yard transforms into a mine field of dangers. The past projects its dark light onto the present and changes experience forever.
Thoughts, experience and accompanying feelings intricately intertwine to create perceptions; we project the perceptions outward through behavior. Behaviors spill over our boundaries and impact others. This is the complex web of living. Personal experiences aren’t self-contained. The stings creating our perceptions become integral parts to our relationship with the world.
Working through painful experiences (real or perceived) diminishes happiness. Those close to us respond to our projected feelings. A return to the childhood clover patches evoke powerful emotions, motivating response before thinking ever begins. We are primed for action. Biological programming insists we respond to fear, unfairness, and loss. The emotions warn the body that something isn’t right, and we need to act—NOW.
The motivational system is functional. The emotions proceeded conscious thought in the evolutionary development of the brain. The world is populated by living organisms that survive--and even flourish—without conscious thought. Our well-being is reliant on emotions. Complex living systems have emotions because they have a strong serviceability for survival. The emotional system signals good, bad, and dangerous preparing the organism to receive or resist. Many emotional responses are innate—a baby feels hungry and cries. But other emotions arise from learning, we associate things, places and people with the past; when a past was chaotic, present perceptions will be chaotic. The feelings of normal interaction will be littered with bursts of emotions breaking through and interrupting bonds. The stings of the past interrupt the present.
After my divorce, I was dating a nice gal. We both were recovering from painful relationships that left marks on our emotional lives. One night, while we were cooking dinner, she made a gentle correction, “The pan is too hot, you need to turn down the heat.” Because of my past relationship with harsh corrections, the simple remark stung. I responded with a disapproving glance. Because of her past, the disapproving glance stung, reminding of abandonment and rejection. The evening slowly deteriorated into uncomfortable silence. Small events in the present brought us back to the meadows of our past, evoking implicit memories of hurt, and inciting protective emotions.
"Many emotional responses are innate—a baby feels hungry and cries. But other emotions arise from learning, we associate things, places and people with the past; when a past was chaotic, present perceptions will be chaotic."
The larger the hurt, the greater the emotion. Dominant emotions burst through with robustness, giving more importance to triggering event than it deserves. We biologically prepare for a sizable threat when the correction or disapproving glance were harmless. An impoverished and hurtful childhood typically forges intense protective emotions that were adaptive to the child but problematic for later connections; the traumatic childhood memories imprint relationships with danger. The adult burdened by brawny emotions is always guarding against the fears of unpredictable and chaotic connections. For some, any feelings of closeness spark unnerving fear of abandonment.
These dreadful patterns continue to haunt in the present. The powerful emotions influence thoughts and direct behaviors and ultimately alter the environment. Many unrealistic fears become reality; not because we accurately detected a threat but because our reactions placed a heavy burden on a budding connection, overwhelming the relationship; the emotions become self-fulfilling prophecies.
A person’s fear of closeness prevents closeness. The victim of painful pasts often acts in ways that inhibit closeness, leading to the likeliness of another painful ending. Each failure perpetuates the painful legacy, confirming that relationships are painful. The fear increases and motivates stronger alienating behaviors. The glance or the correction is attacked. The partner, the target of attack, must protect their own ego through their own defensive reactions, that further ignite relationship anxieties. All the moving pieces—reactions, emotions and reactions to emotions—spread and strengthen, as the relationship repeatedly moves through this dynamic cycle; eventually the relationship is destroyed. Another loss smolders in memories, combining with the past, increasing vigilance for hurtful threats with the next attempt at love.
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 need better responses to interrupt the destructive cycles of a crumbling relationship. When fear and anger rule, the impending doom looming just beyond the next horizon overwhelms, magnifying emotions and dimming creative thought. Young couples, unaware of accumulating small hurts, miss opportunities to intervene, preventing another ending. The hope accompanying new relationships blinds the lovers. As the relationship progresses, they neglect the small things that build. As they become more invested and dependent--old fears resurface.
The strongly felt emotions spur thoughts to explain the disruptive emotions. The mind dredges up the past to explain the present. The young couple, just emerging from bliss, is unprepared for the emotional road ahead. The mounting frustrations, hurt, and unrest taint interactions. Underneath the conversations lie a growing fear: you don’t love me. The returning ache of childhood is felt and invades the soul. Disagreements remain unresolved because meaningful discussion is replaced with the poison of defensiveness. Love and intimacy is never found here.
When we task a partner to relieve painful relics emerging from the past, we become frustrated when love fails to extinguish the pain. Perhaps, we are expecting too much, driving caring and considerate others away. The process is recycled with each new connection; joy is replaced with fear, magnifying anxiety, and motivating attempts of control to prevent the inevitable. Overloaded emotions stimulate hysterical responses—even neutral triggers cause us to jump. The partner we hoped to fulfill needs, we unconsciously treat as a threat. The slightest word, facial expression, or gesture triggers powerful emotions. Our dear partner, once loved, has transformed into the enemy. If we miss the signs of deterioration early, the damage may be irreparable.
There is hope. We can untangle these relationship-destroying patterns. With recognition, we can change directions, avoiding familiar pit falls. Healthy relationship changes require knowledge, skill, and empathy; and most importantly—patience. Strong emotions, unfitting to the experience, are embed deep in the fabric of our psyche. Quick solutions to break long existing patterns seldom work. Reconstructing a broken relationship requires more than stumbling through a new technique.
Relationships can be healed. We can be resurrected from the depths of sorrow. Broken relationships require a healing atmosphere. We must confront the automatic responses and emotional reactions together with our partner. Relationship friendly skills must be invited into the circle. Mastering skills of compromise, cooperation and follow through, establishing trust and security. We must also forgive. We all have imperfections. Flaws are easily exploited and deemed at fault for a lack in closeness.; we must avoid blaming a partner’s peculiarities and take personal responsibility for the health of our connections. Compassion must be displayed in our words and felt in our hearts.
If we fail to take responsibility, we will continue to blame our partners for the internal disruptions caused from the stings of the past. A partner may trigger emotions but not be the sole cause—the cause is much more complex. Emotional disruptions are a relationship problem not a partner problem. We must accept personal accountability for unhealthy behaviors, recognizing the programmed emotional responses.
Over-time, we notice subtle changes from the accumulating positive interactions. As we respectfully work through disagreements, trust increases. Some problems are resolved; others continue. When we approach issues with patience and understanding, we find solutions. Our partner’s differences may annoy but with skill we artfully differentiate serious problems from normal irritations of connection. We learn to integrate the personality differences without demanding change. As partners cultivate healthy skills of relating, they find welcomed relief from those bothersome stings of the past.