Note: This is the first of a two-part series.
Dear Neil: My ex-husband was emotionally unavailable. After 20 years of marriage, I called it quits. But he has also been emotionally unavailable to our children. Will this affect their intimate relationships? And will this get passed on to their children?
Doubly Hurt in Wellington, New Zealand
Dear Doubly Hurt: Yes. To have a relationship with another person means you are also having a relationship with that person’s past—and his/her lifelong experiences, pains, hurts, angers, fears and disappointments. And usually, the type of relationship we had with each parent—and the type of relationship your parents had with each other—is the most significant training we receive on how to have an intimate relationship ourselves once we grow up.
Most women think that, in adulthood, they become attracted to men who act like their Dads, and most men think they are attracted to women who remind them of dear ‘ole Mom. Instead, most of us choose intimate partners in adulthood who are similar in behavior, personality traits and demeanor to the parent with whom we have had the most unresolved issues. That would be the parent who let you down the most, and gave you the least amount of time, love, approval, acceptance or affection.
We grow up with the hope that someday we will find a way to get approval or love from that critical, distant or withdrawn parent. Thus, in our adulthood, we will find a critical or withdrawn intimate partner, fall in love—and then try to get that partner to be close, engaged or approving. So if you didn’t get much attention from your father, you’re likely to choose a preoccupied, cold or emotionally unavailable partner who doesn’t give you a lot of time, attention or affection. Your recurring pattern from the past is to try to connect with and be close to an emotionally unavailable person, and you will wind up feeling the same emotions as an adult that you felt as a child with your father.
On the simplest level, the way we approach our intimate relationships demonstrate whether we’ve learned if people are safe and trustworthy, or whether being close to others is dangerous because we are likely to end up getting hurt.
Most people don’t know that their issues in childhood carry over into their adult relationships, and especially into their intimate relationships. But if they haven’t dealt with issues from their childhood, they will have large obstacles in the way of being close to someone in adulthood.
People who grow up feeling rejected by an unavailable ate to people in adulthood in guarded, armored, self-protective ways. They crave love, but are afraid to love very deeply, because of their childhood associations of being hurt by those they love and depend upon. And as is the case all too often, if they find a loving and accepting partner, sadly they may become distant and critical themselves, rejecting the thing they most want, because it feels unfamiliar and foreign to them. So they become afraid to connect on an intimate level, and therefore their adult intimate relationships are not going to be very close and loving. Unless we have healed the trauma and made peace with our pasts, we will recreate and re-enact our pasts in our current and future relationships.
I will address how to heal these issues in next week’s column.