Relationships – Clearing Emotional Space

Couple standing at water edge

Baggage from the Past

I often work with couples whose relationships are floundering.   Their children are the usual reason they are still together.  In most cases, the underlying problem is that they bring to their adult relationship unresolved emotional pain from their past.  It is imperative that they find ways of clearing emotional space between them.  They need to recognise and release the baggage from their past.

Many have suffered a childhood which was abusive and traumatic.  As kids the only way they knew how to get by was to develop coping strategies.  They learnt that to get their needs met and/or keep the peace in the family, they had to fit into a mould.  Unable to be true to themselves, they could not act from their own integrity.  For them, creating their own boundaries and saying no when appropriate was simply not possible.  Why?  Because their whole life experience has worked against their ability to speak up for themselves.

Probably nobody has ever been there to listen to them in the first place.

Behaviours & Roles on both ends of the Spectrum

At one end of the spectrum, some kids become bullies, learning to manipulate others with fear.  Generally they get their own way through coercion; by throwing their energy around.  In turn, they were probably threatened and bullied by an older sibling or an abusive parent.  Believing that the only way to survive is to toughen up, they never show weakness or vulnerability.  In this way, they learn to smother their emotions beneath the facade of the tough guy/hard woman etc.

At the other end of the spectrum, some kids try to keep the peace.  They believe “If I can only make everybody happy, I may finally get my own needs met”.  This response often occurs with children of alcoholic parents who take on the role of caregivers in the hope of eventually becoming seen and heard. They’re trying to take responsibility for an emotionally absent parent.  However they ultimately pay a high price for this……. trying to please everyone, they never get to develop their own unique personality.

They often spend the rest of their lives “taking care” of everyone else around them at the sacrifice of their own emotional needs and health.

Obviously there are many variations and combinations of dysfunctional behaviour in between these two extremes.

close up of barbed wire

Self Expression Denied

In every instance however children of dysfunctional families will have learnt to stifle and suppress their true emotions. Often they’re not allowed to cry, get angry, defend themselves or even respond to the basic needs of their bodies.  Because it’s so unsafe to openly express any emotions, they may even suppress feelings of tenderness and affection.

So their way of getting through life is not to show vulnerability and never to trust another person.  In this way, they’re always reacting and responding to what’s going on in the unsafe environment around them – family, school or social.  Therefore they can have very little connection to their own true inner state.  They cannot blossom to become who they truly are – to have their own beliefs and wishes – to be authentic.

Now imagine two such people come together in a relationship.

By now they have both developed coping strategies to keep their pain and vulnerability hidden.  Often one will manipulate the other.  Unconsciously, they both usually project some aspect of an abusive parent/guardian or sibling onto the other.  The only way they know how to hopefully get their needs met is by coercion; resorting to threats, playing “poor me”, or aloof – shutting the other person out.  They don’t have the ability to communicate their feelings or needs directly for fear of derision, of losing ground or of the other scoring points over them.  In many instances, they don’t even KNOW their own true feelings – their own authentic self.

Very often they will even form a relationship with someone who’s actually standing in for one or both of their own parents.  Why?  Because it’s a familiar role that they now step into – either trying to please everyone at their own expense (learnt behaviour from, say, a parent), or bullying and manipulating the other in order to maintain the upper hand.

Clearing Emotional Space in Relationships

When people come to see me, I always hold several individual sessions with each person to help them become aware of all these issues.  They learn how to:

Then when they come together in our couples sessions, I help them to:

  • Become aware of and eliminate dishonest and abusive communication, for example:  sarcasm, scoring points off each other, double meanings, subtle put downs.
  • Practise honest communication – saying what they really feel
  • Take increasing responsibility for their own emotions and actions
  • Recognise and take back their own projections
  • Learn to trust themselves and their partner by showing vulnerability and affection
  • Create healthy boundaries to prevent either their partner (or their own children) from stealing their energy and manipulating them

If we’re not allowed to defend ourselves emotionally, if we always put ourselves last, our immune system will eventually become compromised in defending our body.

After a number of sessions I usually see a real softening occurring.   Communication between them has greatly improved.  Their body language reflects this – they make more eye contact and laugh more often.  A real friendship begins to develop.  They return to the initial attraction and love that drew them together in the first place.   It’s at this stage that sexual intimacy can become reignited again and this time there’s more true desire and loving tenderness present.

Of course in some instances it becomes apparent that there’s nothing left to revive in the relationship.  Then it’s important that they can let go and go their separate ways in peace.

A Wise Investment

So, to conclude the investment of time, money and energy in clearing emotional space within their relationship is richly rewarded because all relationships benefit.  An increased level of self awareness,  greatly benefits your connection with your children, friends and work colleagues.

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