“Who knows what all of us have in us, not just of our parents but of their parents before them, and so on back, beyond any names we know or any face we would recognize if we came upon their portraits hanging on an antique shop wall?” — Frederick Buechner, “Telling Secrets”

Our generational family patterns have shaped us. While we may struggle to make sense of our behavior and emotional reactions, we can transform both our visible and invisible patterns by recognizing how they have influenced us. Connecting our past with the present helps us understand the power of these patterns, giving us the courage to change that which might be keeping us stuck. Relational recovery is an ongoing practice, demanding tools about which we know so little. Our family of origin and our ancestral map impact us in ways that are often out of our conscious reach. Our partners can unintentionally activate our triggers, evoking reactions we believe are in the moment yet are actually coming from our past. Our self-image and the expectations and beliefs handed down from our parents and previous generations, as the ‘language’ of our family, are what we’ve internalized.

So how does this impact our intimate relationships? As much as we might have done exceptionally well growing up in a chaotic environment, possibly feeling sad, lonely, or neglected, we did exactly what we needed to do to keep ourselves healthy. Yet, what was adaptive in our childhood years can be maladaptive now. Those survival skills don’t necessarily work well in our intimate relationships. How we navigated in the past to protect ourselves from a boundary-less, overbearing mother, or from a distant, raging father, we bravely learned for our own protection. Whether we adapted by manipulating or lying to preserve some autonomy, that’s just what we needed to do back then. However, as we’re no longer those young children, we now have the resources to heal what we and our parents couldn’t at that time.

Our partners are not accountable for our bad behavior, or for healing our childhood wounds. When we are emotionally dysregulated, it’s not their responsibility for regulating, or “fixing,” our overwhelming feelings. We lose sight of that whenever our past “triggers” are activated, shining the light on the other person as the cause of our discomfort or pain, and often with the expectation that it’s their job to heal us. The wounded parts of ourselves belong to us, thus they’re our responsibility to soothe. This is not to say that our partners shouldn’t be kind, loving, supportive and compassionate when we’re in distress. Our basic human need is to be seen, heard and understood. Our partners can witness our pain, holding a tender space in which we can process our feelings without judgment or criticism. (Example: “I may be able to influence how you feel, or react, if I change my behavior, although I can’t control your feelings or behavior.”) When we’re overwhelmed, our persistent hope is that our partner will give us what we never received in our childhood. Healing comes when we stop repeating the same patterns, when we avoid the drama of our family of origin and move into our functional, present, adult selves. If we can connect to that little child deep within us who may have felt abandoned, lonely or sad, we can better understand how we adapted in ways that helped us survive and keep us well. Although we can no longer be abandoned as adults, we can experience rejection, distancing or being shut out, which easily reactivates those wounds.

The challenge is whether we intentionally work on our healing, reshaping our story to be fully present, or whether we replicate either what our parents did to us (the good and bad) or what our parents modeled. We have the opportunity to choreograph the dance steps in which we want to engage, to own and correct our part in the relational missteps. Blaming and shaming our partner, expecting repair without contributing to the attunement, only builds more barriers. There needs to be a collaborative conversation. Taking the necessary action to address our own trauma, we should first expect that any pain we experience could be triggered by our past. Being curious about our childhood background helps us connect our distress to its historical roots. Pay attention to what belief was internalized, resulting from that experience: “I’m stupid, lazy, I’ll never be good enough, I don’t matter to anyone, etc.” It’s never too late to label this belief as “past” or “expired,” allowing room to transform the old belief into a new, more positive, adult acceptance.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana