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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

How the Unfinished Business of Childhood is Played Out in Relationships

One of the strangest, most potentially depressing but important realisations we can ever make about relationships is that, without any awareness of the fact and with no directly mean intent, a great many people play out in them what we can usefully call the ‘unfinished business of childhood.’

Beneath a layer of adult day to day concerns and logical behaviour, something far more complicated – and usually far more destructive – is liable to be at work, and if we want to stay safe in love and not waste too much of our lives in groundless squabbles, we need to know what it might be and how we might best handle it.

A sizeable share of the population, as much as fifty percent or perhaps even more, did not enjoy the sort of childhoods that we would have wanted for them. There could have been a father who was gravely inadequate, or violent, or distant, or hopeless, or depressed, or sexually uncontained. And maybe a mother who was not ideal either (or also): she might have been sadistic, vengeful, in very low spirits, focused on a sibling, absent or jealous.

We tend to think that we can bypass all this, especially when we’re young. Sometimes, on an early dinner date, our future partner will – with charm – lay out the bare bones of their early story. Dad was never there. Mum was pretty nasty. There was a father who drank too much. Someone killed themselves. A parent was hugely critical. It can all sound extremely poignant and there may be a seductive subtext too: ‘Please do better…’ And why would we not try, especially when the person seems adorable and has such a winning smile too? 

But at this point, if a ministering angel were present, they would want to whisper something urgently and sternly in our ear: ‘Be extremely careful.’ There is a near-iron law of relationships that we must never lose sight of: whatever pain someone was made to feel in a relationship with a parent, they will in time almost certainly bring to bear on their partner. If they were ignored, you will be ignored. If they were made to feel very uncertain, you will be left feeling uncertain. If they were cruelly judged, you will be cruelly judged. If they were not cuddled, you won’t be cuddled. If they were left to doubt their worth, you will be left to doubt your worth. If they never knew where they stood, you will never know where you stand. You will end up as the recipient of all the partner’s most traumatic and indigestible childhood emotions. 

Furthermore (if this were not scary enough), you will repeatedly end up as the recipient of messages intended for the parent that were never allowed to be sent, because the parent was too frightening or indifferent, callous or absent, flighty or dead. And the message may well be extremely tough: ‘I hate you for dying…’ ‘I can’t believe you were never there for me.’ ‘Fuck off for betraying me all the time…’ ‘You stupid waster who broke my heart…’ 

In other words, our partner won’t just be seeking a relationship with us, they will at the same time, in another lane, be seeking with concerted vigour to punish, communicate with, and recreate a scenario with a powerfully unfulfilling, disappointing but (always) beloved parent. 

It can take a very, very long time indeed before we realise something as fundamental as this could be at play. To believe it, we have to start to entertain the curious notion that there might be unconscious motivations in operation, stuff that people are doing without quite knowing they are doing, an active legacy of a childhood that we can’t see or touch beneath the day to day. 

In response, we have to do some extra thinking that doesn’t seem like it is really ours to do; we have to imagine that: ‘Despite what this argument appears to be about, something quite different might be at stake’. We have to develop a robust courage to send certain messages back to their senders: ‘Despite what the partner is saying to me with great intent, despite my sincere wish to listen to what is being said to me, this is not a message for me…’ By this time, we might have been married for twenty years and been the veterans of hours of furious rows that we couldn’t untie with a person whom we love and whom – this makes it even more peculiar – may love us a lot back.

To improve the health of our relationships, we should wonder more actively at moments of distress: Why might they keep having affairs, if it’s not about me? Why do they keep turning sex down, if it’s not about me? Why do they keep doubting my love, if it’s not about me? Why do they seem so disengaged, if it’s not about me? Why do they belittle my achievements, if it’s not about me? The answers may be simpler to discern than we could ever have imagined.

How to proceed from here? We must refuse the acting role. We must say, as it were: I am sorry your father ignored you; but stop overlooking me. I am sorry your mum went missing; but don’t go missing on me. I am sorry you only got noticed when there was conflict, but I don’t like fighting. I am sorry your parent neglected you for their work; but I like a close and direct relationship. It pains me so much that you were let down, but stop putting spokes in our wheels. And, ultimately: I’m sorry you have unfinished business, but please, please stop playing it out on me.

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