Childhood Wounds May Be Sabotaging Your Adult Relationships
The missing key to loving – and being loved.
We thrive most in relationships when we feel appreciated, accepted, and connected. When we feel rejected or devalued, we’re likely to feel hurt, sad or ashamed.
Research shows that people in healthy long-term relationships live longer, happier lives.
This is why attachment theory provides so many benefits to couples. Understanding the four attachment styles (which we call LoveStyles), and learning how childhood wounds affect adult romantic relationships forges a powerful path toward improved intimacy and stronger bonds.
The four types of LoveStyles are:
- Secure: Secure types are confident in their love. They feel at ease giving and receiving love.
- Insecure-Anxious: Insecure-anxious types often feel uncertain and afraid of being abandoned. They need consistent connection and reassurance.
- Insecure-Avoidant: Insecure-avoidant types often fear being flooded or invaded, so they need space, understanding, and patience.
- Insecure-Traumatized: Insecure-traumatized types fear repeating their original traumas. They can trigger easily when something mimics their past, and they need lots of reassurance that they are safe.
Unfortunately, the majority of people reach adulthood without learning what healthy love is, or how to love wisely.
Your own parents and grandparents were probably not great role models — simply due to differences in cultural beliefs and values between generations. They may have had no clue how to love you – or each other – with mutual care and respect.
They did the best they could with the awareness and skills they had, just as you do the best you can with yours.
Most of us are confused about love, and because of this, we unintentionally cause ourselves and others pain.
Our lack of wisdom leads to irrational behavior, uncomfortable feelings, and reactivity. It can impact our ability to make or keep commitments, resulting in anxiety, withdrawal, abandonment and betrayal.
Confusion about love creates unhappiness, so the key to finding happiness is learning what you need in order to feel fulfilled.
Our motto is: “Confused above love? Get Clear, Become Wise and Feel Secure.”
Research on the neuroscience of relationships shows that secure functioning is the key to successful partnerships.
Secure love feels positive and empowering. Feeling cared for opens us up to more passion, releasing anxiety and fears while bringing peace and confidence.
It allows us to quickly repair when one person triggers the other.
Healthy relationships create a shared reality in which you both feel supported and loved, while dealing with the stresses and difficulties of daily life.
Most people yearn for this in their intimate relationships. But despite how intrinsically human this desire may be, it is often missing, because we never learned how to create it.
Deep inside, we know how love ought to feel.
Infants innately know what love feels like. When a baby cries, she needs to be picked up, held close, and soothed by gentle touch, a loving voice, and caring eyes.
To the infant, this feeling is love.
We all retain this psychological need to be comforted in a tender way. We never outgrow our desire for emotional and physical safety.
Attachment theory is a psychological model describing the ways human beings respond within relationships when hurt, separated from loved ones, or perceiving a threat.
Research in this area clearly illustrates that childhood bonding patterns shape the relationships we have as adults.
When children receive safe, predictable care from their primary caregivers, they form secure attachment bonds. When they don’t, they develop insecure attachment bonds.
Because we never outgrow this need, when we get into reactive fights with our adult partners, it’s common for many of us to feel like small children once again.
We may feel hurt, helpless, hopeless, disempowered, unworthy, or even unlovable. These feelings are usually reflections of unresolved pain from childhood experiences, echoing the distress and disconnection we felt in our youth.
Understanding these triggered reactions equips us to build bridges back to love.
Doing this requires that both partners commit to learning how to repair those wounds in a positive way as soon as possible.
Mutual sensitivity and understanding restores the loving connection we crave.
Following the initial heat of an argument, try saying something like this:
“I’m sorry I reacted that way. When I heard you say ‘You’re wrong’, I suddenly felt like I did when I was young and being spoken to harshly by my judgmental mother. I felt hurt, and that made me angry. I can understand why my anger would have then reminded you of your raging father, and why you responded to me as though I was him.
“I know you love me, and that we both get hurt easily. I’m aware I have this filter, and I’m working on clearing that up on my end. I’d appreciate it if, on your end, you could try to remember that I have this sensitivity to feeling judged when you share your feelings about something I’ve done.
“I’m here, I’m not going away, and I want to repair this rupture so we both feel safe and respected.”
The goal of this approach is to return to a sense of calm, loving-kindness as quickly as possible.
Whichever partner remembers this first should lead the way. In a healing partnership, each of you is responsible for doing what it takes to reassure the other that you are allies, not enemies, as soon as you are emotionally ready to do so.
Quick repair soothes our limbic system’s’ fight-or-flight reaction.
Tense muscles relax and breathing slows as we return to facing our partner with an open heart. Feeling embraced and reassured, our primitive fears of abandonment and rejection dissolve, and we return to a sense of trust.
We can feel it at our core: “The threat has passed. I feel loved by you, and you feel loved by me. We are safe and secure again.”
Many couples fall into repetitive cycles of reactivity when triggered.
This may happen for a variety of reasons, but most upsets we feel are driven by our subconscious mind — the unhealed primitive parts of us buried deep in our brains.
The good news is that you can heal these patterns with dedication and practice. You can learn how to get your aware, “adult self” back into the driver’s seat, leading the repair in a productive way.
Reactions such as blame, judgment and yelling are particularly clear indicators that “wounded child” feelings have taken charge of your emotions and rational awareness. These automatic patterns block access to loving adult responses that can optimize the resolution of even the most difficult conflicts.
Your inner child needs to be cared for in the very same way as a hurt child is cared for by well-trained, loving parents.
Often, when we react to our partner’s mood, behavior, or words, we can become agitated. We may escalate into throwing tantrums like a toddler or running away like a rebellious teen — childhood defense strategies we have yet to properly resolve.
Our behavior with our partner either creates an upward spiral toward secure love, or a downward spiral into insecurity and mistrust.
Your particular attachment style determines, in large part, whether you are oriented toward security, anxiety or withdrawal in relationships.
Discovering which of the four LoveStyles you and your partner have helps you understand how you each approach relationship. This is the critical first step toward establishing a happier, more fulfilling relationship.
For example, if you have an anxious attachment style, you may feel the need to walk on eggshells, avoiding conflicts that seem unresolvable, or you may unconsciously intensify conflicts to get your needs met.
If you are more avoidant, you may feel the need to give up and resist connecting because you feel hopeless anything can resolve.
Or if you feel you are paralyzed or exploding with emotions that seem illogical, you may be feeling some scar tissue from unhealed traumas.
Healthy relationships feel secure and safe, but that does not mean they are conflict free. Most couples fight from time to time, and conflict does not determine the health of a relationship. Couples in a secure relationship commit to limiting their threatening behaviors, and repairing as quickly as possible, so they can reset to a place of positive connection.
Neuroscience shows that when either person in a relationship feels unsafe or threatened, neither can bring out the best in the other.
Under such circumstances, subconscious defensive strategies you developed in order to survive childhood repeatedly hijack even your best intentions.
Secure love feels dependable!
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do you tolerate feelings of mistrust, abandonment or rejection in relation to your partner?
- Do you feel unsafe, but endure in silence because you’re afraid of losing the connection?
- Do you frequently minimize chronic insecurities, believing they’re normal in relationships?
All partnerships have challenges and fights. Partners who feel secure may get upset, but they are capable of returning to loving feelings within minutes because relieving each other’s distress is a high priority.
It takes some work, but you do have the power to reprogram and release outdated patterns you learned from your family and culture.
When you dedicate yourselves, you can renew the loving bonds that first brought you together. And from there, you can build the healthier, more loving relationship you’ve always wanted.
Carista Luminare, PhD
November 10, 2018
Carista Luminare, Ph.D. has worked with individuals, couples and families for over 40 years, integrating her lifelong research on childhood attachment and how early bonding patterns profoundly affect adult relationships. In addition to working with clients, she has successfully used her attachment approach to rewire her own family and relationships from insecure to secure love, including with her partner, Lion Goodman. Visit her website for additional information and to take the free LoveStyle™ Profile Quiz.