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“As a child, what was your sense of emotional needs versus your parent’s reactions?“
One afternoon Karla, my therapist, asked me this question.
I immediately launched into how my mom was a single parent and was always making sure us kids got to our activities on time, were fed, looked presentable and got our homework done. It was especially with the word reaction though, that I noted how my dad had a short temper, and was one relationship in my life which I would classify as an eggshell relationship – being careful and mindful about what you say or do when around them so as to not set them off, as they are usually set off easily – walking on eggshells. It was in the midst of chattering away about these aspects of life that I realized sometime in my childhood, in an effort to minimize the conflict potentially bubbling up from my dad and to keep things easy for my mom, I began to make myself emotionally smaller, by minimizing my emotional wants and needs.
To lessen my chances of “being a burden” while minimizing conflict, I think I reduced my own emotional needs in an attempt to minimize my parent’s reactions. This is not to suggest mom wasn’t attentive, or an open ear. I also wasn’t actively not talking to my mom about my problems – I was always very vocal about my concerns, worries and troubles. But I knew deep down, she was doing twice the work because she was the primary caregiver. She often says nowadays when she reflects on that time period, she was dancing as fast as she could, in an effort to keep up with the demands of being a single parent to two kids. It’s possible I downplayed my emotional needs so she wouldn’t have to dance faster.
When I first started working with Karla, I made it clear that it was my romantic relationships, more specifically, my thinking, my actions, reactions and my being when in romantic relationships, which were what I needed to work on. However, as she pointed out to me, aspects which concern us in one type of relationship, often tend to manifest themselves in other types of relationships.
I exist with a few (okay, more than a few) dysfunctional tendencies when in relationships, especially in terms of how I approach conflict within a relationship as well as my emotional maturity (or immaturity I guess) when handling said conflict. At first I thought a similar pattern of downplaying my emotional needs was taking place in my romantic relationships. Now, I wonder if it’s an internal struggle of repeating these old patterns, while at the same time, trying to make up for the extent to which I minimized these needs when I was younger. How do I usually do that? Bring up conflict when no conflict exists.
I tend to bring up little things that bug me, when in the grand scheme of the relationship, they’re not a big deal. So what if he didn’t know I wanted him to reach over to hold my hand during a movie? Was it really worth bringing up and making a big stink of it, and inevitably ruining the evening?
One tendency is that i’ll often attempt to put square pegs into round holes when dating. In other words, I try to conform to, and place the wants and needs of my partner on a pedestal just for the sake of keeping the peace. I will minimize my own emotional wants and needs, in order to avoid conflict. to make things fit when they are not fitting. We see this internal struggle, now becoming a struggle which affects my actions and behaviors.
I also tend to believe that if I bring up a point of conflict, my partner will break up with me. This stems from recognizing within myself that if I bring up enough insignificant points of conflict continuously and consistently, I have the potential to create unrest within the relationship. I’ve never been with a man who does this, it’s simply a byproduct of my internal dialogue and my actions. I know that this is connected to feeling insecure when I am with the person I care about (something I have touched upon in previous posts), as well as a lack of security and confidence within my own feelings and emotions.
The third point is that usually after I have brought up a point of conflict, I will feel guilty for having done so, to the point that I chastise myself for having brought it up. It’s like I can’t stop myself from addressing these points when they bubble up. When discussing my points of conflict within past relationships with friends, a few have said to me well if you brought it up then obviously it was something which bothered you, which makes it valid. I disagree though – if you bring up enough small things that are not a big deal, you become a nag, and no one wants to be in a relationship with their mother. I don’t think anyone actively seeks out a relationship with someone who creates conflict – hell, I wouldn’t want to be with someone like that, it sounds exhausting.
It eventually turns into a cycle – I get upset over something small, my partner and I resolve the argument, then I usually end up apologizing profusely, feeling guilty, asking for reassurance, worrying about it for days on end and questioning if the relationship will survive. This is all in addition to how much better things would have been had I not just kept my mouth shut (I know – I’m super hard on myself). It’s complete garbage on my mental health, I expose my insecurities and lack of confidence, and my partner turns into my therapist.
A few solutions I see in working to curve these patterns is learning to pick my battles and developing the ability to think critically as to if what I am about to address is really worth bringing up. Alternatively, stopping to ask myself if there is something within my own power, which I could do to improve the situation or fix the “little thing” which is bothering me. As I’ve said before, it takes two to tango in a relationship.
Another point is working to heal my inner child – consciously granting myself permission to heal by writing about these topics as well as attending therapy is helping. I’ve also realized that little points of conflict I tend to bring up, are more a reflection of how I view myself – for example do I stir up conflict as a means to avoid the conflict that lies within me? As an unhealthy means to release the suppressed emotional wants and needs from my younger self?
It actually took for someone to point it out to me to realize that I’ve never had an example of a healthy relationship. For the most part, learning how to be in a healthy relationship has been a real trial and error process – I think for a lot of people it is. It’s almost as if I allow my inner child to be the part of me which handles and controls how I respond to external conflict. While I’m not one to argue or shout at my partner (getting loud and aggressive is not my “argument style”), it’s very nit-picky and childish behavior on my part. This inner child extends to how I react as well. I let my inner child go off the rails, instead of being accountable for my actions as a grown ass woman. Learning to heal my inner child, work in tandem with it and taking back control of my responses to conflict is key.
One last point is developing my ability to respond before reacting to something which I deem “conflict” – this is why meditation has really proven beneficial, as it allows me to stay grounded in the present, and slow time down. Especially when my judgement is clouded, I sometimes have a hard time thinking clearly prior to blurting something out. It’s part of my responsibility as a caring, present, communicative partner, to do my part, whether that means recognizing and confronting legitimate points of conflict, or talking myself down from the ledge of addressing “little things” which seem like points of conflict but really are not.
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