As a therapist, I have worked with a number of couples, some of whom were able to turn things around, and some who ended up parting ways. It is always sad when a relationship ends, but sometimes, it is in the best interests of everyone involved, including children. Being raised in a house full of conflict, fighting and sadness is never an optimal environment for a child. Yet so many parents claim that they are staying together “for the children."
It is my belief that this excuse to stay together is just that: a cover-up for a deeper reason. Perhaps it is the fear of the unknown, or a belief that no one will ever love them, or a concern for financial issues. Even deeper, though, lie subconscious beliefs about oneself that we rarely dare to explore.
When we are young, we are constantly absorbing cues from the world around us, and we learn who we are from these cues. Families have expectations from life and these are wordlessly passed down from generation to generation. How much happiness can we expect from life? What are the limits of success? Of failure? What are our eating habits? Are we rich or poor? How smart are we? Do we have harmonious marriages or conflictual ones?
I call these beliefs “boxes of expectations." There are numerous categories of boxes that define who we are and what we can expect from life, and according to our subconscious mind, those boxes set the limits of what we can and will experience on our human journey.
Most of us don’t realize that we have boxes of expectations, and even more importantly, we don’t realize that we can re-examine and re-define the contents of these boxes if we know how to open them and re-work the contents.
As children, we primarily swim in the waters of the imagination, the senses and the emotions: the qualities of the subconscious mind. We are unable to rationally figure things out until around the age of seven or so when the conscious mind begins to develop. Until then, the subconscious mind is like the bottom of a murky lake whose bed is lined with a sticky substance that absorbs absolutely everything that happens to us.
And as we have these experiences, we are making childish deductions such as, “Oh, I see, this is who I am and what the world is!” based on our very limited experience. Over time, more and more boxes form as a way of organizing and understanding the world. Living within the limits of these boxes becomes our comfort zone. And because the boxes define our expectations, we attract to ourselves what we think we deserve from life and from our relationships.
So if you find yourself in a conflictual relationship, you might ask yourself, “On some deep level, do I expect to be abused? Do I see myself as someone who is neglected, betrayed, victimized or misunderstood? If you look deeply enough, you may discover that your dysfunctional relationship actually works for you in some way, that is, it fulfills a childish and unexamined expectation.
It is very common for couples to blame each other for their problems, and indeed, it is much easier to see the other person’s “stuff” than it is to see your own. Because of this, it may be helpful to seek the guidance of a therapist who can take you through an exploration of your subconscious expectations and help you redirect toward your conscious goal of a harmonious, healthy and supportive relationship.
Short of seeking outside help, here are some questions for you to ponder if your relationship appears to be problematic for you:
- What was the model of relationship you saw as a child? What did you make up about relationships as a result of observing that model?
- What hurts did you suffer as a child? Do you see a pattern of these hurts continuing into adulthood? In what situations have you re-created the hurts of your childhood in your adult life?
- How to you perpetuate unhealthy patterns in your relationships? What expectations do you overlay on the people you am close to? In what ways do you contribute to the continuation of unhealthy patterns?
- What role to you assume in your relationships? Are you a needy or rejecting child expecting to be hurt, or are you able to be a balanced adult who is not threatened by expressing kindness, support and loving gestures to your partner? If you are in the role of a child, what do you need to do to shift into the adult position?
- In what ways can you expand your expression of love and kindness in your relationships?
Relationships are one of the most challenging circumstances we humans find ourselves in, and yet we crave the intimacy they potentially offer. If you think of earth as a school, then our relationships are a wonderfully instructive classroom. If you do your homework, the payoff is a home life that is a safe haven, a launching pad from which to explore the world and return to recharge, connect and blossom.