How Understanding Childhood Experiences of The Past Can Strengthen Your Relationship - Woman with hands lovingly around a man's shoulders - Sandra Harewood.

How Understanding Childhood Experiences of The Past Can Strengthen Your Relationship

We take for granted many things we do in our adult lives, so many things that we learnt or experienced growing up, good or bad. As a therapist, people can get wary when asked to talk about their childhoods. But understanding your partners and your childhood experiences can strengthen your relationship.

Our emotional memories stay with us just as much as the practical things like learning to read or riding a bike.

My favourite picture is of me, my first school photo, aged five. As far as I can recall, my parents didn’t own a camera, so this was a big day. I must have been really excited. Vividly, I remember joining the back of the queue to have my photo retaken, only for a teacher kindly escort me back to class! I wasn’t quite sure what to do.  

Ever so clearly, I remember the school hall and the sunny day and the yellow jumper my mother carefully and patiently knitted for me.  It’s a memory that never fails to make me smile. 

Most of us do not have to look too far for pictures that bring the past into the present. Certainly, albums curated by algorithms are always popping up on the home screen of my mobile for some image to remind me of my past. Maybe for you, it’s a picture of your wedding day or one of your children’s birthdays.

Each has his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart and his friends can only read the title. Virginia Woolf

These prompts of the past, the people who have contributed to your history and the experiences that have made you the person that you are likely always in the background, even if they go mostly unnoticed most of the time.  

Buried Childhood Memories of The Past

The same is true regarding our inner world and relationships. The past is always present even though, for the most part, we are unaware, but understanding the past can strengthen your relationship.

To start with, there is a history of the relationship.  And, then, of course, the history of the individuals who make up the relationship.  

For the most part, the past and how it is constantly replayed in the present is unconscious until you hear yourself saying, ‘I don’t know where that comes from!’ or ‘I don’t know who was, but that just wasn’t me!’. For most of us, that unconscious material hovers just beneath the surface, and you only become aware of it due to an argument or disappointment that brings it to light.

Other memories are buried so deep that we are totally unaware of how much they impact our day-to-day lives and relationships. But impact us, they do. That’s because, in our interactions with others and particularly in a relationship, we are constantly doing two things, all of the time utterly unconsciously.  

  1. Projecting and 
  2. Transferring.  

The Presenting Past

Projection means that we make our partner responsible for the parts of ourselves that we don’t like or are uncomfortable with. Those beliefs we have about ourselves largely stem from past childhood experiences. Transference means that we carry from our younger years all our original childhood needs our parents did or did not meet, expecting our partner to fulfil them now.  

Our childhoods unconsciously set the scene for who we are, what we want, and who we look for in our adult relationships. For most of us, without realising it, we look for the care and reliability from our partner that we expected from our parents.  If our needs were met as children, we look for and expect our partner now to do the same.

So what’s the problem with that?  

To start with, your partner is not your parent.  When looking for them to fulfil that role, we avoid taking responsibility for our lives.

When something is unconscious, by definition, it is unspoken.  Neither one in the relationship knows exactly what the other’s needs are. You might not know explicitly what your needs are; all you know for sure is what it feels like when something is missing. 

Wanting Our Past Needs Met

What disappoints many about their relationship is having unmet needs. But, how we feel about how good or not a job our partner is doing with meeting our needs is often based on deep embodied and now unconscious memories of how our parents met our original needs.

Babies cannot speak. So to meet their needs, caregivers must pay attention 24-7. The infant is 100% reliant on the parent correctly translating the clues and figuring out whether the cry means I’m hungry,’ ‘I’m in pain!’ or I’m bored.” Undoubtedly, it would seem that infants are wired to expect a significant other to read their minds and meet their needs all of the time. What’s sure is that they cannot pack their bags and say that they are leaving to find someone else to do a better job! 

Meeting Our Own Needs

The problem is that those past unconscious expectations get carried over and conflated with our adult desires. Sometimes those adult and child desires align. Who doesn’t want an appropriately attentive partner? But we cannot expect our partner always to meet our needs.  Part of being an adult is utilising our own resources and knowledge so that we can rely on ourselves to look after ourselves.  

At other times we are giving out mixed messages. The unconscious inner child who has a deep longing for protection and the adult who feels this protection has a controlling and stifling edge that repels her. 

The past isn’t all about wounds, hurtful things or neglect.  But there are always reminders of our past.  

In a relationship, one of the essential things to do is to understand not just your own but your partner’s past. This isn’t for you to become an analyst but instead to open the door to curiosity as to why you are the way you are and behave the way you do but also have the same open-mindedness about your partner.

This level of interest also opens the door to compassion and helps you take things less personally when you understand the experience of your mate.

Old Habits

Understanding the past can strengthen your relationship because it allows you to know why your partner does the things they do and why they are the way they are. Couples can get caught up in expecting their partner to react and be the same as each other. The truth is you are different people with different past experiences.

Tidiness might now be very important if you grew up in a messy home. Similarly, an emotionally chaotic childhood home may now mean that you find clutter and disorder uncomfortable and trigger anxiety.

What’s Your History?

Understanding the past can strengthen your relationship when you begin with a few questions to show your interest in strengthening your connection. What do you know about your partner’s history? What’s the title of your book, and what’s imprinted on the leaves that no one else knows?

Our early-year stories are significant because few of us will have a conscious memory of our lives before age 5. These years form the foundation of our personality and attachment styles.

Here are a few things for you to consider:

  1. Your origin story. What were the circumstances of your conception? Are you adopted, an only child, from a large family, and if so, what order are you in the siblings?
  2. Your mother’s pregnancy. What was going on in your mother’s life while she carried you in her womb?
  3. Your birth story. What do you know about your actual birth? In Beyond The Brain: Birth, Death, and Transcendence in Psychotherapy, Stanislav Grof describes how your birth experience may still affect you and perceive emotional experiences as positive or negative today. 
  4. The first few months of your life.   
  5. The first five years of life. Our early years matter; symbolically, our relationship with our parents is our first love relationship. 
  6. What do you know of intergenerational stories that might include repeated patterns of addiction, careers, trauma, war or migration?

Uncovering Clues Of The Past

Take the time to find out what you can. Sometimes the information can be challenging to access. Things get lost in house moves as we declutter. People who could have shared information about our early years cannot or are unwilling to share. Find out what you can. Get curious about what you find out. Also, know that the body always remembers. Feelings linked to the senses, such as smells, can be clues to the past. So, pay attention even if you do not have a clear cognitive memory.

Over To You

If you’re stuck and want to know how understanding the past can strengthen your relationship, get in touch for a clarity session. I offer video sessions online via a secure platform. 

Or call me today on 07535 864836.

Leave a comment below; I’d love to hear from you.

P.S. PASS IT ON

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© Sandra Harewood 2023

About Sandra

Soul Centred couples therapist, counsellor and Jungian Shadow Work coach Sandra Harewood specialise in working with women and couples stuck at a crossroads in their marriage. Relationships are precious; this is your chance to begin a new journey and experience the connection and intimacy you most deeply desire.

Sandra provides a soulful space for her clients to explore creative solutions to their difficulties and deepen their self-knowledge to discover what keeps them ‘stuck’ in their marriages to create and experience extraordinary relationships.