Childhood lasts a thousand years; the rest of life passes in a blink of time by comparison. Thus, an adaptation made to our particular circumstances long ago may live on in adulthood as cringing around conflict, a habit of self-reliance, barriers against intimacy, set ways of doing things or any number of iterations and expressions of what happened during that thousand-year period. The key is the astonishing persistence of the past. Until we become aware of these adult manifestations of former experiences, they may keep re-playing in a kind of timeless ether.
Who is most aware of what we have carried forward with us from childhood? Our partners. Intimate relationships are the contexts where these old reflexes are most likely to emerge and even dominate our current experience. In fact, what's hardest for our partner to deal with is almost always something from this domain that we have not recognized or examined, but have instead blamed on them.
Wounds from childhood often come disguised. For example, a man in his forties who was bothered by his inability to set limits with his young son nevertheless was often outraged at what he saw as his wife's cold strictness with the boy. He insisted that his tender, flexible and compassionate approach was the best way, while his wife accused him of being excessively indulgent and making her play the role of rule-setter, the "bad guy." Then, while describing how his own father had left the family when he was 7 years old, never to be seen again, he fell silent. "I'm trying to be my fantasy father," he said, suddenly seeing how he had been enacting the old ache in his heart. From that point forward, he became more observant of the power of his own boyhood yearnings and began finding a middle ground with his wife on discipline issues with their son.
In contrast to this man's fruitful introspection, many people put the past aside and make their way through their middle years as though the years spent with their family of origin simply have no bearing on the rest of their lives. To be in a relationship with someone who has taken this stance can be quite painful. A partner may see clearly that an old family pattern is being played out, but any attempt to name what is going on in this way is met with staunch denials and hurtful accusations.
Similarly, a parent who refuses to draw these connections to a troubled past might reach their sixties or seventies still shutting out adult children who are ready or even eager to hear the story of their parent's early years. Usually, the more painful or traumatic the parent's childhood, the less willing the person will be to revisit these years and take stock of what has been unwittingly carried forward to the next generation. Parents who managed to harm their own children in the ways they themselves had been wounded may be especially fearful of embarking on such a reckoning, not realizing the profound relief that can come from doing so.
Here's the great privilege: Whether or not a partner or parent is willing to look back, anyone can seize this opportunity as an individual choice. These kinds of growth-producing revelations can happen at any point in the lifespan. It is never too late or too early to take a look back and see which aspects of the past might have become operant in one's adult relationships. Whether at age 27 or 67, one need only be willing to accept the fundamental fact that childhood experiences have longstanding impact. Sometimes, doing this introspection in a concerted manner and taking responsibility for one's own reactivity in certain situations can inspire a partner or parent to do the same, perhaps on a smaller scale.
Having compassion for the child we once were, the innocence and sensitivity, along with recalling how a year was an eternity and how dependent we were on what adults around us did and said, can help us see which components of ourselves were formed then that may still be contributing actively to our emotional reactions. For instance, it takes determination and sustained attention to notice that a flash of anger with plenty of justifiable causes in the present still contains elements that do not belong to the current situation. Such ongoing self-awareness then allows us, one occasion at a time, to veer away from re-enacting the past.
Copyright 2014 Wendy Lustbader. Adapted from Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older, published by Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.