couples therapy
imago therapy

The Past is in the Present

I notice in my therapy practice, that it doesn't always occur to people that the present is a continuation of the past, and early life experiences still have power over our thoughts and behaviors, especially in intimate relationships. In my own case, I've had to think back a lot in trying to understand why the underlying fear that affects me in my marriage is fear of abandonment. I experienced it just yesterday. I came home from a long day on my own and my husband wasn't yet home from his. Right away I got worried, 'where could he be?' I allowed myself a cigarette reserved only for anxious moments, and by the time I smoked it, he was home. Sometimes when I'm walking up the block toward home, I'll think, 'what if something happened and he won't be there'. I could give many examples of tiny, unwarranted, pangs of panic.

Where do I come off worried about being abandoned? I was a first child, loved and secure. I picked a husband who is not the abandoning type. As a matter of fact, looking at the history of my adult years, if either of us has abandoning tendencies, it's me. Yet my worries didn't come from nowhere, so I've tried to figure out their source. I suspect that two events were pivotal.

When I was 10 years old, with a younger brother and sister, my mother's parents were killed in an automobile accident as they were driving to the Bronx from Scranton to visit us. I remember the phone call. My mother was 30 years old, and dependent on her parents. My sister remembers that Mom was unavailable and inconsolable for a year. I blocked it out. It was a first abandonment, and I reacted by steeling myself and refusing to care. As I got older, I watched my father succumb to the fatal curse of drink and fade away from us, slowly, but surely. An extremely painful abandonment, and one that has influenced my choice of men, I'm sure. So, as an adult, I look, and am, strong in my relationships, but even now, underneath, I feel scared that ultimately, things will take an unforeseen turn and I'll end up alone again.

People don't easily see these continuing patterns in their lives unless they look for them, yet examples are everywhere. A colleague friend had a very judgmental mother who never took the time to try to understand or appreciate her. Even after a successful marriage of 35 years, my friend feels unseen and unheard by her husband when they discuss problems. In her professional life, she has trouble appreciating how good a therapist she is. A man of 50 wonders why he has so little self-confidence. He was a middle child of six with a father who must have been suffering from severe depression or anxiety since he isolated himself almost totally from everyone, and a mother who valued the kids most when they didn't cause trouble. When he married, he didn't expect, nor did he get, much more from his wife. A young woman was brought up to be the center of the family's universe, lavished with anything she wanted, with a mother who agonized over her happiness and did whatever she could to solve her daughter's problems for her. Now, she has trouble keeping a relationship because her expectations of what a partner should be are unrealistic.

Once its recognized that patterns from the past are replaying in the present, however, they lose the power to cause unconscious, self-defeating feelings and behaviors. We become aware, and work on moving past them. Even better, we can explain to our partners how the past still sets off certain reactions in us, and ask them to be more sensitive to our vulnerabilities and find ways to make it easier for us while we're trying to grow. We, of course, will do the same for them. When partners are willing to care for each other in this way, the relationship is therapeutic. Love and appreciation grow.

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