Couple’s Therapy Lesson 2: Getting to Know Your Partner’s Inner Child

October 7, 2010 2 comments

How can you get to know your partner’s inner, wounded child?  Often your partner’s behavior will appear unfathomable.  Why does he seem withdrawn when I most need to talk to him? Why does he seem to be
smoldering with anger when I haven’t done anything wrong? Why does she give me these constant judgmental looks when I am doing the best that I can?

Surely, an inner child would be more accessible and not so intimidating.  The problem is that the wounded child, disappointed by early, parental attachment figures, has basically decided “I am mad and I am not going to take it any more!” As a result, she learns a variety of self-defense mechanisms that, when utilized by the adult, often antagonize subsequent relationships rather than cultivate intimacy.

These coping mechanisms usually take the form of “acting out” or “acting in.” For instance, the adult, whose emotions and needs were ignored as a child, when faced with a similar situation from her partner, will either become very demanding and critical (“acting out”) or very withdrawn and uncommunicative (“acting in”).  Or the adult, who experienced verbal or physical violence from his parents, will when feeling powerless in a romantic relationship, explode with anger as a way to reassert control (“acting out”) or smolder with internal anger and resentment (“acting in”). As you can imagine, this behavior does not naturally cultivate a response of “Gee, I would like to get to know THAT person better…”

So how do we push through our partner’s negative defense mechanisms to find the vulnerable child within?  First, you must pursue the relationship with your parner’s inner child.  Second, don’t be dissuaded by the acting out or acting in behavior.  And third, realize that this takes time and dedication (best devoted when both you and your partner are not triggered or upset).

In his book “Getting the Love You Want,” Harville Hendrix suggests a useful exercise. Summarized briefly it works like this:  You and your partner write a short narrative in which you describe what it was like to live in your parents’ house.  How did you spend your time?  What things did you like about living at home?  What things did you not like? Describe your interactions with family members.  Imagine walking around the house and approaching each family member and telling that person what it was like living with him/her.  Did they affect you positively and negatively?  What do you wish they would have done more of?  What less? What caused you pain? Sadness? Worry? And what brought you happiness? Comfort? A sense of security?

When you finish with this exercise, trade narratives with your partner.  Read and study the description of your partner’s childhood. Then, reconvene when you have time to talk together intimately and at length.  At that meeting, each person retells from memory the other’s story.  When you are finished, ask your partner: “Have I understood your childhood?  Is there anything I have missed?”  When they answer that first part in the affirmative, you have gotten to know your partner’s inner child.

In my next blog, I will elaborate on how this information can be beneficial to a relationship.  How couples can deescalate arguments and work through anger by addressing the inner child.  And how making room for the wounded child’s past can heal and even prevent problems from occurring in the present.

“Getting the Love You Want, A Guide for Couples” by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D can be found on Amazon:

Categories: Couples

Couple’s Therapy Lesson 1: Taking Care of Your Partner’s Wounded Child

September 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Here is one of my best pieces of advice for couples:  Take care of your partner’s inner, wounded child. Who is this inner child, you might ask?  Let me explain.

We all have “emotional baggage.”  In other words, on our journey through life, we carry with us wounds from previous relationships.  And these wounds still ache, fester, and sting.  So, for example, the child who suffered his father’s wrath is, as an adult, very sensitive to other people’s displays of anger.  The child whose mother was very distant gets very distressed when intimates remove themselves emotionally.  The child whose parent was very critical is hypersensitive to others’ judgment.

In other words, we have a tendency to experience the present through the prism of our emotional past.  Imagine that your partner has a sore spot on her body which is sensitive due to previous injury.  Your relationship behavior, which, perhaps, might only be slightly annoying to someone who doesn’t carry the same “wound” or sensitivity, really hurts your partner because it pokes that wound and triggers unpleasant memories she experienced as a child.  And the rub is that your partner may not even be aware of this wounded child within.

Why is it so important to take care of your partner’s inner child?  The first answer is simple caring.  Who has the ability to address that which hurts your partner the most?  You do.  As your partner’s most intimate relationship, you are in a unique position to take care of, and heal him, like no other.  Your relationship can be a corrective emotional experience to everything that happened before.

The second reason is more selfish.  What happens when your partner’s inner child gets upset?  Things can get ugly.  The unhappy, inner child lives in an adult’s body – and this person can make your life miserable.  Getting  angry, withdrawing emotionally, becoming defensive, and going on the critical attack are just a few of the tactics the angry inner child will avail himself of when upset.  Who would you rather deal with – the vulnerable part of your partner who yearns and waits to be protected and nurtured, or your partner’s angry self who perceives she has been treated negatively?

So, how exactly do you take care of your partner’s inner child?

First, get acquainted.  Know your partner’s emotional and family history intimately.  What was it like for your partner growing up at home?  What was her relationship like with mom?  How did dad treat him?  What upset or saddened her the most?  How did he react or behave when disappointed by those close to him?

Second, use that information to make a healing gesture everyday.  If she suffered from feelings of critical judgment, take a moment to praise her.  If her mother was loud and angry, talk to her in a soothing voice.  If his father was unavailable emotionally, spend time asking about, and listening to, his feelings.  Every day.

Getting to know and nurture your partner’s inner child will yield positive benefits for your relationship.  So reassure, talk to, and comfort that child.  Every day.

Categories: Couples
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