How Our Past Affects Our Relationships
So why are relationship and marriage difficult? Why do many couples struggle?
Suppose that daddy spoiled his little princess by giving her everything she wanted. When that little princess grows up, she may believe that a husband who loves his wife buys her lots of gifts and provides an extravagant lifestyle. But what happens if she marries a frugal man? He may love her deeply but express his love through washing her car, listening patiently when she is upset, and taking her on inexpensive outings like a picnic lunch in a delightful spot. Even though these are thoughtful, even romantic gestures, a woman looking for extravagance as proof of love may not feel loved.
Most of us start out romantic lives believing that love is something that just happens to us. We fall in love and we live happily ever after. It's that easy, right? That's what fairy tales teach us. That's what movies often portray. It's one of our most pervasive cultural myths. The hard part is supposed to be finding Prince/Princess Charming, the perfect match for us, and after that, it's smooth sailing.
Many of us stop believing in that myth pretty early in a relationship—unless we keep looking for a perfect partner in multiple relationships, insisting that our Prince or Princess Charming is still waiting for us. But there's a second kind of myth that trips most people up again and again: our personal myths.
We each come into a relationship with a personal story that we believe in, just as much as we can believe in the cultural myth of Prince/Princess Charming. We all have misconceptions about love, and we all have unfinished business from the past. Let's look at some myth busters.
Or suppose that a boy grew up with a mother whose life revolved entirely around him and his needs: she was a full-time mom, always working to create a cozy home or cooking delicious meals. If he marries a woman who works full-time and is tremendously fulfilled by her career, he may feel ignored and come to resent her.
Or suppose that one partner grew up with tons of praise and is used to verbal validation. If he or she marries an introverted person who grew up with no parental feedback or with constant criticism, the introvert is unlikely to provide the positive feedback the partner expects.
Your Perfect Match Is Also Your Invitation to Grow
You get the picture of how challenging relationship can be. Far from EZ, and far from the perfect match we were looking for! But is the trio of relationship, attraction, and love just the roll of the dice? In listening to hundreds of couples over the years, I think not. One strong magnet that brings us together is a complex formula created and calculated unconsciously that draws us to the person who really is our perfect match—someone who can help us grow by challenging us to be our best and to heal those parts of ourselves that are in need of wholeness. But we first need to stop pointing the finger at our partner with all their foibles and faults and realize that what annoys us is a key to what we need to develop in ourselves.
Revisiting the scenarios above, let's look at them with this understanding and a whole new playbook. The princess who's been spoiled by daddy needs to look for and find evidence of all the ways her husband shows his love in his own unique way. And she will need to learn to value his frugality as a counterbalance to her father's extravagance and possible overindulgence, learn to be grateful for simple pleasures and quality time together.
As for the boy who was the center of his mother's universe, he will need to begin to grow the muscles of self-reliance and see this stretch as an opportunity for self-development, not as a deprivation of his partner's affection. He needs to release the illusion that he is a favored child and entitled to 24/7 attention from his partner. And he could also see her devotion to her work as a way she contributes to the larger world and to the financial stability of their family, not as something he must compete with for mommy's attention.
And last, a person who grew up with a lot of positive validation but marries a person deprived of it as a child has landed a perfect opportunity to free himself or herself from depending on external praise and to build internal encouragement. The relationship is a perfect reminder that all true self-esteem comes from within. And an added bonus would be learning to be more aware and compassionate of the need of others for validation, instead of looking for validation themselves.
Taking responsibility for our own happiness and our impact in relationship will make all the difference. Love isn't always easy, but it does flow easily if it's unobstructed by cultural and personal myths. The fascinating thing is that once we stop pretending that marriage is a happily-ever-after story and roll up our sleeves and get to work, we can and often do make our relationship one of fairy tales.
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