If you’ve ever been to a therapist, you’ve probably spent time talking about your childhood, especially painful childhood memories or childhood trauma. If you haven’t been to a therapist, you might be avoiding it for just that reason. Many people wonder how childhood affects relationships and, the truth is, the impact those childhood experiences can have is significant.
Childhood experiences especially matter when we enter romantic relationships. If you are having trouble finding “the one” or find yourself dating the wrong person time and time again, or you find the right person and somehow always seem to push them away, it might be time to look at how your childhood is affecting your ability to choose and keep romantic partners.
Childhood Experiences and Your Imago
I LOVE and highly recommend the Getting the Love You Want book by Harville Hendrix. Dr. Hendrix does a great job of describing how childhood affects relationships, especially how your hurts and childhood trauma affect your choice in partners. He describes something called your Imago, which is basically the blueprint for your choice in partners given your unique history.
Your Imago is a conglomeration of the positive and negative traits of your caretakers from childhood. This could include parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, babysitters, siblings, neighbors…basically anyone that had an impact on you as a young child from birth to about 6 years of age. Each one of us is unconsciously searching for a mate with a very particular set of positive and negative personality traits that make up our Imago.
So how do you know when you’ve found your Imago? Oh, you know. Have you ever met someone and felt deeply connected to them instantly? It’s like you’ve known them for years but you’ve only just met. You feel so comfortable around them and you can’t believe how hard you fall and how fast. This person is your Imago. The primitive part of your brain, called the Old Brain, instinctively recognizes this person as familiar and safe because it remembers these same qualities from the people who took care of you in the past.
Here’s the kicker; the people in your past were not perfect and they hurt you. Even if you had an amazing childhood and didn’t experience childhood trauma, there are certain times when you felt hurt, unloved, or abandoned by your family and you developed certain beliefs about the world as a result.
Understanding How Childhood Affects Relationships & Creates Limiting Beliefs
Our painful childhood experiences lead to us develop limiting beliefs that in turn lead us to act in counterproductive ways as adults. The type of thinking that we use as 6-year-olds is not the same type of thinking we use as adults. We have irrational and egotistical thinking as children and many of the limiting beliefs we develop from events in our life at that time simply are not true!
Unfortunately, no one told our Old Brain that and it stores these limiting beliefs. Then, when we get in a situation that triggers our childhood wounds, the Old Brain causes us to operate from our (usually illogical) limiting beliefs. This can be especially true for adults with childhood trauma. Let me illuminate with some examples.
Childhood Experiences and Limiting Beliefs
At 5 years old, you were not allowed to go to a sleepover that all your friends were going to and you felt you were being treated unfairly by your parents. This led you to creating the unconscious limiting belief that people in positions of power are not fair. Later in life, you develop issues with every boss you have and constantly feel like people in your life are not being fair to you.
At 3 years old, you had a bad dream and when you woke up, your parents were out and the babysitter couldn’t comfort you. You developed the unconscious limiting belief that the people you count on in life won’t be there when you need them. If this type of thing happens repeatedly, you learn to count on no one but yourself. Over time, you unconsciously build evidence for this belief by noticing every incident where people are not there for you and ignoring the incidents when they are there for you. By the way, this is also one way that an avoidant attachment style is created.
You become a strong independent person who doesn’t need help from anyone. In doing so, you don’t leave room for a partner to break through that tough exterior and support you when you are feeling vulnerable. You never allow yourself to be vulnerable or needy with others because that’s how you get hurt. Your inability to find a loving relationship further reinforces your belief that no one will be there for you and the cycle continues.
When you were 4 years old, your father left your mother and started a new family leaving you feeling abandoned and undeserving of love. You developed the unconscious belief that you are not good enough, that you did something wrong, and that you are not deserving of love.
Remember, children are very egocentric so even though as an adult, you may recognize their divorce wasn’t about your worthiness and lovability, as a child, you did not. You develop relationships with emotionally unavailable people your entire adult life who always end up leaving you or being so distant, you eventually leave them. The thing you fear most, being abandoned, happens time and time again because you are attracted to the leaving type thanks to your early childhood trauma.
Or maybe your mother was emotionally volatile and you never knew what side of her you were going to get day to day. This left you feeling insecure and scared to be yourself and always walking on eggshells. As a result, you developed an unconscious belief that all women are crazy and they will explode if you tell them how you really feel.
You end up dating a series of “crazy” women and you bottle up any negative emotions for fear of setting them off. You put their needs before your own and end up feeling resentful. Occasionally you might attract a healthy rational woman but over time, as with all normal relationships, problems develop. She knows something is wrong and asks you to talk about it but you are afraid to share your feelings because you don’t want to set her off. She grows increasingly frustrated by you not sharing your feelings and she too starts acting in volatile ways to get you to react…to feel something. This further confirms your belief that all women are crazy.
How Childhood Affects Your Imago
Our unconscious mind is a powerful thing and it controls our behavior much more than most people are aware of. Even if events or relationships are not playing out in line with our unconscious beliefs, our actions sometimes lead to circumstances shifting in a way that is consistent with our unconscious limiting beliefs, as illustrated in the last example above.
Whatever your painful childhood memories are, your seemingly perfect mate, your Imago, is equipped to hurt you in ways that no one else besides your family can. In the beginning of the relationship, they remind you of all that was good in your childhood which is why you fall so fast and feel so good. However, as you start to get more comfortable and increase the level of commitment in the relationship, they can also start to trigger the same deep emotional pain as the people who hurt you the most – it’s all part of how childhood affects relationships as an adult.
So what does this all mean? Should you avoid dating your Imago for fear of getting hurt? Can you have a relationship that has passion and stability? The answer is yes, with a qualifier; it takes work.
Healing Childhood Hurts: Is Imago Therapy Right for You?
When you enter a truly committed relationship with someone that fits your Imago, you are both going to have issues that come up as a result of your past. How childhood affects relationships depends on a few factors.
For adults with childhood trauma, effects could be more significant. Additionally, the more serious the commitment, the safer you will feel and the more your issues will arise.
Unfortunately, these issues aren’t going to present themselves in a pretty little package saying “this is from your past.” When you find yourself having a melt-down because your partner didn’t take out the trash for the 5th time and you don’t know why it bothers you so much but it just does…that is your past coming up.
A good rule of thumb is that if you’re hysterical, it’s historical. If your reaction to a situation is disproportionate to the event, it’s most likely triggering childhood hurts. This is not a bad thing, though! Being triggered is an opportunity to resolve issues from your childhood and being in a committed relationship with someone you love is a uniquely safe space in which to work on these issues.
For some, online couples therapy – particularly Imago Therapy with a certified Imago Therapist – can help work through these painful childhood memories and help discover how childhood affects relationships for each individual.
Moving Forward with Your Imago
When tensions rise and emotions flare up, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. If you don’t, the same issues are going to come up in the next serious relationship you have…and the next one, and the next one. When you find your Imago, EXPECT that you are going to have issues, usually somewhere between 6 months to 2 years into the relationship.
We can’t outrun our issues and they will always catch up to us no matter who we are with. If you love the one you are with, make the commitment to stay and work it out. It won’t be easy, but if you are in the right relationship, and you both put in the work, it will be worth it.
A great read by Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want does a great job of helping couples work through their childhood wounds through a series of exercises. However, this book does require a significant amount of emotional vulnerability and insight and I find it is often best to complete the exercises with the guidance of an experienced in-person or online couples therapist.
To book a free consultation with one of our online couples therapists, check out our team page here.