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How would you describe your relationship to yourself?
When you ask yourself this question (one I often ask of clients), it’s easy to quickly respond with a sweeping declaration of self-love, indifference or self-hatred. But such statements don’t really capture the complexity of our relationship with ourselves.
And then there are those of us who would scratch our heads in bewilderment when asked this question. The idea of a self-directed relationship is something that’s completely overlooked.
But whether we think about it or not, we cannot escape ourselves completely.
How our relationship with ourselves shapes our intimate relationship
The origins of our self-relationship
The journey into adulthood isn’t a smooth, linear process, even under the best of familial conditions. The relationships we are born into and the ones we later co-create throughout our lives profoundly shape our life’s journey—on the plus side, our relationships steer us, giving direction, mirroring and supporting our natural inclinations while challenging us to reach beyond the thresholds that define us. On the negative side, certain relationships aren’t a good fit between what we truly needed as children and what was offered.
A poor fit between what we are needing as children and what is offered to us can run the gamut from mild to severe; from temporary to chronic.
During such mismatches (especially those that are chronic), we must learn to shape ourselves in order to fit what our parent/caregiver requires rather than what is truly emerging from within us. A self-contorting process takes hold as we create a version of ourselves that matches up the external demands of others.
The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott described how a false-self emerges under these conditions. Genuine self-expression and spontaneity are compromised in an effort to maintain the relationship we so desperately need with our caregivers.
The vulnerable child will find ways to shape his unfolding self in order to maintain this vital relational connection to the other. This, of course, is a difficult process since the child under these conditions is left to deal with his/her own emotional reactions without the benefit of an attuned other-connection that helps the child learn emotional regulation.
The roots of self-judgment
When empathic failures become the norm, surpassing moments of emotional resonance in number and scope; when the child’s needs continuously go unnoticed or are supplanted by the needs of his/her caregivers; when traumas overtake and shatter the child’s emotional core…under these and similar relational conditions, the child is forced to forgo him/herself by disconnecting from his/her own internal world, a world consisting of unmet needs, longings and desires.
Why would a child slowly dislodge herself from her own inner world of feelings, needs and desires, even when faced with unresponsive or chronically mis-attuned parenting?
The need to be protected and loved by our parents is all-consuming, and this need takes precedence over our emotional life. In fact, we may even turn against ourselves in order to keep this parental connection alive. Sometimes we mistakenly learn that we are the problem, that certain self-experiences and reactions do damage to our primary relationship.
And over time, the positive and negative dynamics that play out between us and our caregiver may at some point get internalized and play out within our inner world—in other words, you may start to react to your own self-experiences (to aspects of yourself) in a fashion similar to the ways in which your caregivers reacted.
For instance, you may minimize or turn away from certain feelings; or you may move into self-loathing for simply having needs that make you vulnerable, a vulnerability that was judged by someone you looked up to.
What does this all mean for your marriage/relationship?
Intimacy (whether sexual or emotional intimacy) involves the ability to be open and accepting of your spouse/partner. Deep and authentic connection occurs along a psychological pathway that is clear of emotional debris, a pathway that allows us to see each other — even the parts of us we wish didn’t exist.
To be intimate is to meet and make contact with each other’s rich and varied internal world, even when this world creates discomfort within us.
- How can you remain open to your spouse when you remain closed off, in some fashion, to your own emotional landscape?
- What if your partner requires you to show the parts of yourself that went into hiding during a childhood?
- And what if your spouse’s/partner’s emotional reactions remind you of the very reactions that threatened you in childhood?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Rather, allow these questions to settle within your emotional center and notice what your immediate and delayed reactions are. Also, if it feels safe to do so, use these questions to dialogue with your spouse/partner about what emotional intimacy looks like for each of you.
Remember, a good starting point to overcoming internal emotional blocks is to look inward in order to develop a more intimate relationship with yourself (with the full range of experiences and feelings that make up the multi-layered person that you are).
Here’s to a deeper, lasting connection with your partner!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Psychologist & Marriage counselor
(Featured courtesy of Adamr/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)