Adult Children as Husbands, Wives, and Lovers
By Steven Farmer, M.A., M.F.C.C.
Love, Sweat and Tears
How would you like to have a truly fulfilling relationship, one in which you can really be yourself, one that is supportive and energizing, where love and tenderness are expressed easily and occasional conflict is accepted as part of the deal? How would you like to be in a relationship where you and your partner truly are friends, welcoming personal changes in each other and integrating those changes into your continually evolving, growing relationship?
Sound like a fantasy? It's not. It is possible I'm not talking about an ideal or perfect relationship; there is no such thing. Every relationship has problems - you can count on it. Instead, I'm talking about a healthy, real relationship, one that is satisfying for both partners. One that has vitality and meaning, one that grows and expands right along with you and your partner.
Everyone yearns for such a relationship. However, if you grew up in a home where there was abuse, alcoholism, or dysfunction of any kind, then as an Adult Child you face some special problems in your relationships. You had a poor start in learning about what it takes to create healthy relationships. When you come from a childhood lacking in healthy models, and the "Father Knows Best" images you saw on television contrasted sharply with the reality you saw at home, it may seem impossible that you could ever have a healthy relationship. But given your willingness to let go of the past and your commitment to learn new ways of relating, you can.
Out of necessity you constructed some defenses that worked to help you survive your childhood but now serve you poorly in creating and sustaining a loving, intimate, committed relationship as an adult. Your early training in co-dependency taught you to shut down your internal sensations and rely heavily on external cues to define how you should feel and act. Without an ongoing awareness of your internal sensations, it's hard to know what your feelings are at any given moment - let alone how to express them. When you rely on something or someone outside yourself, such as your partner, to define your feelings and actions, it's hard to be honest and direct with your feelings - you're still feeling and acting the way you think someone else wants you to. As long as this pattern of denying yourself continues, it will be hard to have the kind of relationship you want. And that's exactly what this book is about: breaking these old habits and replacing them with relationship skills you didn't have a chance to develop while you were growing up.
In my previous book, Adult Children of Abusive Parents, I defined and described in some detail the basic issues and attitudes Adult Children experience as the result of childhood trauma and outlined a program for recovery and change. In this book, I focus on what it takes to make a workable, healthy relationship when you are an Adult Child. In each chapter I'll first pinpoint how the problems you had in childhood have affected your adult relationships, then I'll offer specific solutions to your current relationship problems.
The book will cover in detail six of the primary issues that are present in any relationship but are apt to be more challenging for Adult Children: emotions, control, boundaries, intimacy, conflict, and commitment. Each chapter starts with an example of how this issue is played out in an unhealthy relationship, followed by an example from a healthy relationship. The chapter then goes on to identify the source of that particular issue and why it's such a "sore spot" for most Adult Children, and establishes how your present-day problems are rooted in your childhood history. Throughout you'll find other individuals' and couples' stories that illustrate particular points. Although names have been changed, these anecdotes are drawn from clients' and friends' actual experiences. I've also included observations based on my work as a marriage and family counselor specializing in Adult Children issues, as well as vignettes from my personal life and my own recovery as an Adult Child.
Once we've established the source of your present relationship difficulties, we'll look at precisely how your relationship today is affected. Most important, each chapter will offer some retraining exercises you can work with to develop new relationship skills that will fill in the gaps in your earlier co-dependency training. Once you start consciously using these skills and ideas as an integral part of your recovery program, you can't help but develop a healthy, workable relationship.
If you are in a committed relationship now, I'd encourage you and your partner to read this book and do the exercises together as much as possible. If you're not presently in a committed relationship, this material will still be helpful in understanding what went wrong in your past relationships and preparing the way for your next one. Many of the exercises are designed so that you can do them with a close friend, and many of the skills will be useful in any close relationship. Whatever your particular circumstance, the number one requirement for growth and learning is that you will be willing to risk, and to risk in safety. Risking in safety means not to risk blindly or foolishly, but to risk in ways where you stretch your comfort zone without being hurt.
As you're working with your relationship and your recovery, please remember that you do not have to have it "all together" to start developing new and creative ways to be involved with your partner. A healthy relationship is a process. It is not something that just happens, but something that requires continual attention. While you cannot deny the effects of the past, you no longer have to be ruled by them. You can have a healthy relationship. To do so requires risk, commitment, humor, patience, and lots of forgiveness. This may seem like a tall order, but as someone once said to me, that's what a relationship consists of - love, sweat, and tears.
My warmest regards in your journey.
All you do is nag, nag, nag!" shouted Tom to his wife, Tracy, as he slammed his fist down on the kitchen table. "Damn it! Get off my back!"
Tracy jumped at the sudden explosion. Tears welled up in her eyes as she looked at Tom with astonishment. "All I was saying was that Matthew needs help with his homework. He's been having a hard time with his math and I thought you could help him out. I don't think that's asking too much. After all, he it your son!"
Tom narrowed his eyes and gritted his teeth. "Knock it off!" he growled. "I'm tired of you telling me I don't do enough with the kids. I do plenty for them. I work my tail off so they can buy their Nintendo games, and what thanks do I get? I don't need to hear about how I'm supposed to be doing more and more. I'm sick and tired of how you constantly complain!"
"All I'm asking is for you to spend a little more time with them, Tom," Tracy retorted, "especially Matthew. The least you could do is spend a few minutes each day with him on his homework. You've never even opened a book with him!"
"That's it! I've had it! You can take your accusations and shove 'em!" Tom lurched out of his chair toward the door. As he grabbed the doorknob he turned and said spitefully, "I'm sorry 1 ever married you. I don't even know why I'm still in this marriage."
As he stormed out of the house, Tracy yelled out, "Well, you can get out any time you want! The children and I will do just fine without you!"
Mary sat down on the sofa and heaved a big sigh. Roy put down the newspaper he was reading and asked, "What's wrong, honey?"
"Oh, Jillian's teacher called today and said that she wasn't keeping up with her reading and spelling. She's been doing fine until this last quarter."
"I'm sure it's no big deal. It'll pass."
"I'm sure it will pass," Mary declared, "but I get irritated when you say it's no big deal, like it doesn't matter at all."
"So it seems like I'm just tossing it off?" Roy inquired.
"Yes, it does, Roy. I really think something's bothering her. .Could you talk with her tomorrow and see what you can find out? I've got a feeling that it has something to do with your travels this past few weeks - I think she really misses you."
"Oh, I see. It's my fault, eh?" Roy began to get defensive
"No, no, no," Mary stated emphatically. "She told me a couple of times lately that she really misses you and wishes you weren't gone so much. I'm not blaming you. I don't like the fact that you've been working so much, either, but I know it's only temporary. I just think Jillian needs some of your attention and a word from you. Maybe some special time together on a weekend when you are here. What do you think?"
"Well, I don't like that I've had to be working so much," Roy said. "This project's just about finished, and I'm ready for it to be done. I get mad that I have to be gone all the time I really miss you both. And I will talk to Jillian in the morning."
Emotions are the heart of any relationship. They are your life's energy. The pulse of the relationship depends in large part on how you and your partner manage and communicate your feelings. This requires honesty, openness, and lots of tender, loving, attentive care - care for your feelings and for your partner's.
In Tracy and Tom's relationship this kind of care is lacking. Both are Adult Children, and both have brought into their marriage all the attitudes and behaviors from their childhood that cause them to mismanage and miscommunicate their feelings, often at the cost of hurting themselves and each other. Because of their childhood training, it's difficult or even impossible for them to see any other way to work with their feelings. The only resolution they can see when emotions get intense is to break up.
Mary and Roy are dealing with a similar situation regarding their daughter Jillian. While they are certainly not June and Ward Cleaver, it's obvious that they are dealing with their emotions more clearly and directly than are Tracy and Tom. They state their feelings and acknowledge them without a lot of blaming They have a healthy dialogue about their daughters need for extra attention, and in the process they come to understand each other's feelings and arrive at some resolution of the problem.
Emotions are at the core of all the other issues - control, boundaries, intimacy, conflict, and commitment - that you have to contend with in a relationship. These other issues have one thing in common: They require you to pay attention to and communicate your feelings and to listen and respond to your partner's feelings. To build a healthy relationship in all other areas, you must develop healthy ways to deal with your feelings.
The emotional exchange between Roy and Mary is one example of the kind of dialogue that can take place in a healthy relationship. When there is emotional honesty in the relationship and in turn in the family, the children benefit. They see their parents expressing feelings without using them to coerce, manipulate, or abuse. In a healthy family, parents acknowledge their children's emotions and encourage them to express their feelings in healthy ways.
However, this was not the case for you. You grew up in a family where you had to follow certain unspoken rules that encouraged you to deny and repress your emotions. These family rules prevented you from learning how to deal with your feelings in a healthy way and in turn have made it more difficult for you to have an adult relationship that works. To understand how you were affected by these rules, let's look at how your family handled emotions.
Your Family's Rules: Don't Feel and Don't Talk
In your family, denial was the order of the day. Your parents were masters at it. They taught you well how to deny your feelings through their example and by the way they treated you. You concluded that there were two main rules in your family: don't feel and don't talk. You were not supposed to feel anything that was unacceptable to your parents, and you were definitely not to talk about your feelings. If you did break the rules and express an unacceptable feeling, Mom or Dad came down on you hard.
Janet recounts die consequences of having talked back to her mother: "I was always put in charge of my little brother Michael, who was five years younger than me, and I had to watch him all the time, to take him with me if I went and played. One day when I was about eight or nine a friend of mine was supposed to come over to play with our new dolls. My mom told me that I had to be with Michael that day because she was going shopping or something. I freaked. I was so upset, I cried and told her that I was tired of always having to watch Michael and I didn't think it was fair. I'll never forget that look in my mother's eyes. It was so hateful. She started yelling and spewing out all this venom, telling me I was selfish, no good, a crybaby, and how could I hate my brother so much. I was so humiliated that I never once questioned her again about having to take care of my little brother."