I can’t begin to tell you how many patients have asked me, “Why do you have to go into all my history? Who gives a darn about what my childhood was like, what my parents did or didn’t do? I’m a big boy/girl now. What I’m concerned about is my situation in life, my marriage, my job, my problems, not what went on in my home 20, 30 or 40 years ago. I think it’s just one of those things that psychologists do in order to fill in the time and make money.” My reply is, “You may think so, but it really isn’t true, because where you are today is directly related to where you came from.”
Let me give you an example. Carl and Michelle came to therapy after they were married less than six months. Actually, initially only Michelle came to therapy. Carl didn’t know she was coming. Nor had he been told that she had seen me earlier in her life. Both these facts provide some insight, with regard to the communication problems they were experiencing. But let me tell you about Michelle. She is an extremely attractive woman, college educated, very creative and articulate, except during periods of stress. On those occasions, her voice sounds more like that of a child, who demonstrates acute signs of insecurity, indecisiveness, and hysterical behaviors.
Michelle grew up in a home with a father who spoke all the time. He went on at length in front of others, disallowing anyone else to talk or to be heard. He always required those around him to hear his thoughts and to validate his opinions. This excessive need to speak reflected his way of coping with his emotional insecurity, which resulted in his having difficulty with any period of silence. Thus, he needed to fill any empty space in a conversation. Although this narcissistic behavior helped him cope, at least for the moment, it also demonstrated a lack of sensitivity, with regard to the feelings of others, which severely humiliated his daughter.
I might add that her mother felt the same way as Michelle about father’s continuous chatter. Her reaction, however, was to rarely speak, never express her thoughts or views except, on occasion, when she’d raise her eyebrows in exasperation during those times when her husband was talking over others, hogging attention and making everyone feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t that he was a bad man. It’s just that he was an insecure man, or an inadequate-feeling man, which resulted in overt behavior that totally embarrassed Michelle and caused her to rarely invite friends to her home.
Carl’s home was exactly the same, but opposite. His father went through life rarely speaking and even when he did, he only uttered words of a monosyllabic nature. All the while, his mother chatted on incessantly. Although not as severe, it’s apparent that both Michelle and Carl emulated each of their father’s behaviors. Carl said little, seemed totally consumed with his computer, and when he did respond, it was with brief phrases, such as, “I understand”, or , “I’ll try”. Both phrases were expressed in exasperation, with little affect or sincerity. It was no wonder that Michelle instantly ranted about feeling alone, never being told what was going on in her husband’s life, either business-wise or personally, and stated that she was beginning to have doubts regarding whether their marriage would work.
Without ever realizing it, both of them, on the one hand, recreated the marital relationship their parents experienced and, on the other hand, each one figuratively married their mothers. The result was that, in therapy, it was difficult to determine how much of their feelings of aloneness, irritation and anger at each other was the result of hurts experienced in childhood or from feelings of anger and resentment stemming from events in their recent marriage, or both. It was only much later, in therapy, after they were able to recognize the roles they emulated, the marital relationships they had recreated, and the part each of them played in their present interactions that they were able to more fully comprehend the emotional dynamics in their marriage.
Intellectually, neither Michelle nor Carl wanted to be the parent they emulated, or to expose their future children to a relationship similar to the ones they experienced as children. As a result of honestly visiting their pasts, Michelle and Carl discovered in each other a partner with whom they could learn to create a new relationship, based not on emotions from childhood, but on what they intellectually wanted in the future. Because of the knowledge they gained from therapy, and their insight into the parental roles they emulated in their marriage, they were able to begin growing emotionally and to discover how to love one another as adults, instead of as two emotionally crippled children.
It’s the same for all of us. If we understand where we’ve come from, why we react the way we do, and then decide the way we want to be. We, similar to Michelle and Carl, will be able to effectively face our present problems, because we accepted the notion that change can only occur after you’re aware of where you’ve been, which will allow you to consciously determine where you want to go.