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The effects of the past

Published 24.02.2022 - Produced by Väestöliitto the Family Federation of Finland in collaboration with the Finnish Association of Couple Therapy , psychologist Lotta Heiskanen , Family Federation of Finland
In this episode, we will take a look at the effects previous relationships have on a love relationship. Our experiences in our past and present intimate relationships influence us. We all have both good and bad experiences.

We carry our past with us

If we have received enough love, safety, care, admiration, and appreciation, it’s easier for us to believe we are worthy of love and that it’s safe to trust other people.

People who didn’t feel safe in their childhood often find it more difficult to trust other people. It’s hard for them to believe that they are good enough for their partner. We all have experiences of both safety and insecurity brought on by people close to us. Some people have more experiences of safety than others.

A person can feel physically unsafe and threatened, for example, due to past violence. That may lead them to feel unsafe in other relationships too. For them, it may represent an experience of not being understood and accepted but, instead, being rejected and unimportant.  Unpleasant experiences in past relationships may manifest themselves as a pronounced fear of being abandoned. It does not feel safe to let others come too close.

A young child is completely dependent on their parents. A child sees their parent as a source of safety. If the parent is frightening or causes the child to feel unsafe, they are simultaneously the problem and the solution to the problem for the child. The child must find the best ways to adapt themselves to the ambivalent situation.

The child may learn to cope with situations that make them feel unsafe by numbing him or herself emotionally and by avoiding the feelings the situation brings up in them. In a rocky moment, they may protect themselves by withdrawing and adopting the approach “I can manage on my own” as a guiding principle. Emotional distance gives them a safe opportunity to feel close to someone. In adulthood, a coping mechanism like this may feel like indifference and rejection to their partner.

If a child’s parent is sometimes present in a safe way, but often not, the child may learn to cope with the situation by getting upset and becoming demanding. The child punishes their absent parent and reacts by clinging on and protesting. They try to have an impact on their parent in any way they can. It’s as if the child is pleading with their behavior: be safely present to me! Change! Offer me a different kind of a world! Sometimes the child’s perseverance is rewarded. Sadly, often this kind of behavior irritates the adults looking after the child. In adulthood, the same way of acting may push their partner to withdraw.

People who have grown up in an unsafe environment are more susceptible to stress than others. Arguments a couple may have are particularly frightening if you have not seen arguments safely resolved. The model your parents set for you in your childhood is your first model of a love relationship. It’s difficult to know how to act in a love relationship if you have never seen a healthy one up close.

The coping mechanisms and expectations of relationships you learned as a child can follow you to adulthood as automatic behavioral patterns. The stronger the emotions that come up for you in a relationship, the more the scripts for relationships you learned as a child emerge to guide your feelings, interpretations, and behavior. That’s why people may act in very different ways at work and with friends than in their love relationships. The more aware you are of your own behavior and what you’re thinking and feeling, the better you will be able to assess and change them. New and healing experiences of relationships will help you change the ideas of yourself and others that you learned early in childhood. A love relationship is a new opportunity.

Exercise

For discussion:

  • What kind of memories do you have of your childhood family? Did you feel safe at home? Did you feel unsafe?
  • As a child, did you have someone you could turn to when you needed safety and support? Who did you turn to?
  • What kinds of memories do you have of receiving support and safety?
  • Were there circumstances in your childhood family that made it difficult to receive support and safety from the adults in your family (such as illness, substance abuse, the death of a family member, divorce, financial difficulties, etc.)?
  • If you feel that there was no one to turn to and lean on, how did you cope with these situations?
  • How do these coping mechanisms manifest in your relationship today?
  • How do you think your experiences in your childhood family have influenced the person you have become?
  • How did the members of your childhood family show their emotions? What kind of a model of a love relationship did they give you?
  • What kinds of methods, resources and burdens did your childhood family give you that you continue to carry today? What about your previous love relationships?
  • How do you think your experiences in your earlier relationships have affected your relationship with your partner today?

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