You might think that your love life happened because of Cupid’s bow, but did you know that both of your parents are silent manipulators in your marital system?
When Kristina met Matt, they were both working at the same Internet startup and bonded at the end of 14-hour days over late-night pizza in the conference room. They were smitten.
“On paper” they were so right for each other — similar family backgrounds and the same education levels — but a year after their wedding, Kristina noticed that Matt seemed secretive about some aspects of his life. When she questioned him about his day, he was dismissive.
Matt, on the other hand, felt that Kristina didn’t keep their apartment as clean as he thought she should, and she seemed to be nagging him a lot. In fact, she started to remind him a whole lot like his mother: a busy single career woman who would come home from work late and unload on him.
Things had changed in the bedroom, too. As expected with long-term couples, sex was less frequent, but what happened after sex had Kristina worried. After his climax, Matt would literally jump up and leave the room. He would grab a beer and hunker down in front of the living room television as if nothing had taken place.
Alone in their bed, Kristina missed the after-sex cuddling they once shared. Gone was the after play of intimate whispers. Kristina didn’t know what was wrong. She worried that Matt was cheating on her and she couldn’t put a finger on what she was feeling, but it sure reminded her of a longing she once felt as a little girl with her father away in the Navy …
Our Blueprint for Love
Love is a complicated thing. Parts of it is physical lust primed by triggers from our early development — a familiar scent or vocal tone, the angle of a jaw, or certain swerve in a walk — but part of it is psychological, too, and that psychological aspect is often harder to understand. The mechanisms of attraction often live outside of our awareness and the psychological piece is often a silent hand that drives our behavior. Psychologists have learned that everyone has a specific attachment style that plays out in romance.
Most modern parents have heard about attachment parenting: the idea that skin-to-skin contact, emotional mirroring, and consistent caregiving creates a feeling of security within a developing brain. Babies who have a secure attachment to a reliable, primary caregiver grow up to trust love and, in adult life, they seek out relationships that bring those familiar feelings of security.
But attachment style isn’t only modeled after the kind of attachment a mother has with a baby. Our romantic attachment style is a multi-layered composite of the three relationship systems we experienced as a child:
- the relationship we had with our mother
- the relationship we had with our father
- the relationship we witnessed between our mother and our father
Thus, there are actually six people in every relationship; both partners’ parents act as psychic ghosts in their marriage.
But what does this really mean? Well, if both of you are one of the estimated 20 to 40 percent of Americans who grew up with a secure attachment to both parents, your relationship problems might be benign, run-of-the-mill kinds of conflicts: toothpaste cap battles, who takes out the trash, or who changes a diaper.
But if one or both of your parental relationships was marked by trauma — abuse, neglect, or blurry boundaries — you can bet your bottom line that you will unconsciously go back to the scene of the crime, seeking out a partner who will enliven those familiar feelings from your childhood. It’s an unconscious handshake that dating partners, with their awareness clouded by lust, make together: “I’ll treat you like your daddy if you treat me like my mommy.” And in this new incarnation of old attachment patterns, lovers attempt to right the wrongs from the past, solve conflicts that are only shadows of their old selves.
Matt’s problem with Katrina isn’t that she was a bad housekeeper or that she was too clingy after sex. Matt’s problem with Katrina was that in her, he saw his single mother, too busy to be a good housekeeper and too unaware to have clear emotional boundaries.
In turn, Katrina’s problem with Matt wasn’t that he was dismissive about her emotional needs, but rather that she had no healthy model for consistent love from a man and thus no way to recognize her need or communicate it in a way that would get her needs met.
In short, Katrina and Matt are the perfect storm of attachment styles.
The Fix: Motivation, Emotional Insight, and Communication Skills
The good news is that our adult romantic relationships are a fertile ground for healing. Think of a love life as a gym for the mind and your partner as a kind of personal trainer. With a physical fitness program, you need motivation, body awareness, and exercise skills.
Gaining psychological strength is no different. You need motivation to change, emotional insight, and communication skills.
Motivation to improve your relationship is simple, especially if you have a child in the house. Attachment patterns are intergenerational and helping your baby or toddler find supportive, loving relationships is the ultimate outcome of your own personal growth. (Remember, you’ll be one of the six people in your own child’s marital bed!)
Insight is something that can be learned in personal or couple’s therapy. It is the practice of becoming aware of your own feelings, realizing that no one has the power to “make” you feel anything, and accepting responsibility for your feelings. Your feelings are valid, they are there, and they belong to you. It’s not your partner’s job to make you feel happy; it’s up to you.
Emotional communication is the art of attaching words to feelings and expressing them in a non-threatening way. It’s probably the most powerful skill that humans can learn, and it’s something that can be used in all areas of life. The basic formula for successful emotional communication is to first open up the listener with a compliment, then express your feelings, and finally ask calmly for a slight behavioral change from your partner that will help you better manage your feelings.
In Katrina’s case the communication might go like this:
“Matt, I love making love with you, but when you need your space right afterwards, I find myself feeling lonely. It reminds me of the loss I had as a kid when my dad wasn’t around. I was wondering if you could help me find a strategy to better cope with my feelings while still giving you the autonomy that you seem to need sometimes.”
Matt’s communication could be:
“I love you, Katrina, but sometimes I get the urge to run away when we get too close, like I’m running from a controlling mom. I know it’s not your fault. Is there a way that I can help you feel loved and cared for without feeling like I’m being smothered? Let’s come up with ideas together.”
The relationship mind gym is all about emotional awareness and good communication. Ready to work out?More On