You’ve probably heard the age-old line about how we all tend to marry our mother/father in some way. Maybe your mom was bossy/demanding, and you’re starting to notice that your wife can be pretty controlling and you never measure up. Maybe you had your dad wrapped around your little finger and you picked a husband who does everything you ask, but doesn’t seem to have any ideas of his own, and now you’re feeling bored.
The problem with these kinds of relationship dynamics is that they’re great at first. We love to feel comfortable in relationships, so we often end up dating and marrying people who make us feel things we’ve felt before. We seek what we know. And once we get comfortable, it’s hard to change things, even if it’s for the better!
Comfort in Discomfort
I can’t recall where I first heard this, but I can’t tell you how many times it rings true with my clients: “People tend to stay the same until the status quo becomes more painful or scary than trying something new.”
What this means for our adult relationships is that we likely had a particular way that we felt in our early relationships that we’ve carried into our romantic relationships. The feelings are not always good or bad. They can be anything- fear, comfort, apprehension, security, longing, inadequacy, etc.
Let’s take fear as an example. If your relationship with one or more of your parents consistently involved fear, you likely try to avoid fear at all costs. You may settle for someone less than ideal simply because s/he is not overtly threatening. Maybe your fear leads you to avoid being truly vulnerable, no matter how sensitive, gentle, and inviting your partner is around you. Maybe you take a more active approach and your fear has led you to be controlling in relationships, making sure that you manage minute details of the relationship (e.g. your partner’s schedule, their messaging habits, their social life, etc.). Whatever the behavioral response, it’s important to recognize where it may be coming from.
Emptying Your Suitcase
We all carry around a relationship suitcase from childhood. The trick here is to recognize what feelings or patterns you’ve carried around in your adult relationships, and be intentional about seeking something different and healthier. Staying present with your partner is a great first step. If you think you can trust them to be on your side and to be invested in improving the quality of your relationship, however poor your combined communication skills might be, ask them to monitor some behaviors for you.
Tell them about the old family baggage you found in your relationship suitcase, and that you’re trying to get rid of it for the sake of your relationship. Tell them the ways that you are trying to improve/adapt/change, and ask them to gently bring it to your attention when you start sliding into old habits. I tell all of my therapy couples that it’s important for them to start letting go of their history and start telling a new story. This requires forgiveness, eventually, and a good way to start down that road is to focus on personal humility and collaborative problem solving around these suitcase issues in the present moment.
No Shaming Allowed
When they call your attention to a problem behavior, they should only bring it to your attention, not judge you. There should be a collaborative feel to the whole process. No shaming allowed (by either of you). This is an opportunity to come together over a shared goal: having the most amazing relationship you can! The things you share in a vulnerable conversation are not allowed to be used as ammunition in future disagreements.
For that matter, past hurts/flaws are unhealthy forms of ammunition as well (again, history is a dangerous weapon!). Heck, if we’re calling it ammunition, let’s just put down our relationship guns and work together. Each of you should think of your job as being whatever your partner needs at any given time, and the work gets a lot simpler. If your focus tends to be on each others’ needs, negativity tends to diminish.
Suitcases Can Show Up Anywhere
Our family suitcase baggage can show up anywhere, but we tend to unpack most of our baggage with the people we’re closest with. This is often our spouse and our children. You might not notice it, but you probably have some similar relationship dynamics with your children as you do with your partner. Some of these may be good/helpful/healthy, and some might need some work.
If it’s a pretty mild problem, there’s a chance that you might be mainly responding to a recent difficult situation, and the problem may resolve once the situation changes. If not, and you happen to notice some unhealthy/unhelpful patterns in any of your important relationships, it’s time to do something about it.
Depending on how severe the problem is, you might just want to talk to a friend about it, or you might want to find a book, podcast, workbook, or perhaps more blogs like this one to give you some basic pointers. I recommend just about anything written by John Gottman that deals with successful relationships (e.g. What Makes Love Last?). For those looking for a religious/Christian perspective on healthy marriage, I recommend Tim Keller’s, The Meaning of Marriage.
Will This Go Away On Its Own?
The reality is, however, that most relationship patterns don’t tend to go away unless we do something intentional about them. If the problem is severe enough, meaning that it’s having a significant impact in some major area of life functioning (work, marriage, friendships, parenting, finances, self-care), it may be important to reach out for some professional assistance.
If you think you might need professional help, that’s okay! No matter where you live, there are trained professionals who can help you through the change process. Try to think of therapy as an investment in not only you, but in your relationships and your future happiness.
If you haven’t noticed what’s in your suitcase, it’s probably sitting in your closet waiting for you to open it. Your loved ones probably already have a good idea of what’s in it. If you’re feeling brave, you might just ask them about it! Whatever you decide to do, do something. Who is going to be your first text/email/call? It’s never too late to start having better relationships, and you might as well start now!
Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.