3 Childhood Coping Mechanisms That Ruin Romance. Which One is You?

Fantasize with me for a moment. Picture this: your childhood was pretty darn near perfect. Your parents were really good at attuning to you. You freely shared whatever was true for you and so you acted angry, friendly, awkward, silly, accomplished, scared, tentative, quiet, loving, and everything in between, and you felt their love and connection no matter what. They got you.

You got the message that all of you is welcome and accepted. It's ok to cry, to be scared, to be joyful, to be affectionate, to be you. Can you imagine it? Feels good, doesn't it? Even if you got that message from your parents (lucky you!), the culture at large told you something different. Because that's the world we live in.

When people aren't loving and accepting towards a particular part of themselves, they tend to act in ways that aren't so loving toward that part of you. And there are a lot of people in this world not loving a lot of things about themselves.

Picture it, you're young and want and need connection with your mom. But every time you, say, get sad and cry, she scolds you and you lose connection with her. You were already sad and now you're lonely and "in trouble" too. And you're receiving a message that it's not ok to be sad. Ouch. So, being the resilient creatures we are, we adapt. We do our best to learn how to cope with that pain. And we do it in one of three ways.

Over time, whichever of these three ways we chose tends to become habit. It becomes unconscious. We project that scolding mom (or whatever variation you experienced) onto our partner and others and then we play out our adaptation, and it wreaks all sorts of havoc. But we can't even see what we're doing because it's unconscious.

So, read the descriptions below and see if you see yourself in any of them. If so, this will help clue you in to some of the dynamics in your relationships. And if you already know which you tend to play out, this will help you get more clear and have more compassion.

You Choose Connection Over Individuality

 
 

You're not getting the love and connection you want and need by being sad and crying. But you are sad and crying. That's what's true for you. You discover that if you abandon yourself and what's true for you and stop being sad and crying, and act strong, happy, or "normal," then suddenly you're not so alone.

Maybe mom stops scolding you and instead praises you for getting over it. It worked! You're connected again! Except that you had to abandon yourself and fake it in order to get connection. Over time, you'll get used to forgoing your needs or what's true for you in order to get connection. And perhaps eventually, you'll even notice that you don't know what's true for you in relation to someone else because you're so used to self abandoning.

So in the end, you've actually lost connection because if you can't connect with you, you can't truly connect with another. You might also project mom's expectation onto your partner that you not cry or show emotion. You're convinced that if you cry (laugh, yell, get quiet, etc.), it won't be good.

 
 

You Choose Individuality Over Connection

You're not getting the love and connection you want and need by being sad and crying. But you are sad and crying, dammit, and you're not interested in being in connection if it isn't authentic.

So you orient more toward your own experience, even if it means you don't get connection with mom or whomever. In a way, this is healthy behavior, except it can become habitual and hardened. You might become rebellious and hurt enough about not being loved the way you wanted to be that you walk around with an edge, an "I can do it myself,"or a "Fuck you, I didn't need you anyway."

You get used to striking out on your own and going solo and sometimes, connection with another may seem like a threat to your individuality. You project that scolding mother onto your relationships and it can be hard to let people in. You've already been doing it on your own for so long, after all. You don't trust vulnerability with another most of the time.

 
 

You Shut Down

And then sometimes, when you don't have the wherewithall to choose connection or individuality, or when the conflict between connection and individuality is greater than your ability to troubleshoot it, you simply shut down. The pressure and judgement of "It's not ok for me to be me" is so painful that not only do you lose contact with the other, but with yourself too. You numb out. Go into a fog. Get confused. Feel nothing. Go blank. This is particularly painful, isolating, and confusing and it too becomes habitual.

 
 

So, do you have a sense of which of these is most you? It may even be a mixture. Now, here's the good news: This is all ok. Remember, you were just responding as best you knew how when faced with an impossible choice. Connection versus individuality? Of course we want both!

It's totally possible to heal this dynamic and have both connection and individuality. Here's how:

Do some healing work with the young one of you who experienced that hurt. Really let yourself feel it. Let her or him express and say out loud what you didn't get to say when you were young. It's usually simple, like "I feel sad" or "My heart hurts." Make space for the part of you that didn't get space back then.

Explore where you're projecting and clean it up. Mom scolded you for crying and now you're convinced your partner doesn't want to see your tears? Take back the projection and check it out with your partner and really listen to them.

Take this awareness into a therapy session and explore it.

And finally, keep practicing by watching where your self abandonment, invulnerability, or shut down comes up in your relationships now.

Once you've done some good work around all this, it'll start to shift, I promise.

Let me know how it's going! Do you see yourself in any of this? Which one sounds like you? Leave a comment below and let me know.

And finally, if this spoke to you, please share it on Facebook!

True love,

Laura