If you ask yourself what did you learn from your parents about love – from each of them separately, as well as from their relationship – you could come to interesting insights. But our conscious answers are just the top of the iceberg, while most of our emotional patterns become obvious (or not) only when triggered by specific external circumstances.
On a conscious level, all of us (or at least all of us “normal” people) desire warm, genuine, mutual relationships, hopefully balanced in terms of power. In reality, most people recognize with time that they are repeatedly attracted to a specific type of unhealthy relationship: perhaps relationships full of anger, mistrust, unpredictability, control, detachment, unavailability, criticism… no matter what their conscious minds want. We might even have a feeling that such a relationship was somehow “fated”, and might not feel attracted to potential partners who are warm, reliable, responsible and available. Why?
Our basic, deepest impressions about love and closeness are created in early childhood, with parents. “Love” by itself is quite an abstract word, but for a small child love primarily means a sense of security, connectedness, and belonging. A small child cannot not need and not seek this feeling. If healthy love is missing, a small child will strive to find a sense of security and connection in whatever behaviors the parents express, no matter how unhealthy.
For babies and toddlers, their parents are literally a “higher power”, some sort of gods, even if small children have no concept of religion (but, as I wrote elsewhere, religions are often based on our experience of our parents or what we desired from parents). Parents are the whole world, parents are the source of life and survival, parents spread over half the horizon. Small children have an intense, deep instinct to stay connected to their parents and to trust them.
A child has no experience or perspective, or even a developed rational mind, to objectively assess and explain unhealthy behaviors of parents. While most children have some healthy instinct for what kind of love they need, the need to feel connected to parents is usually stronger than those instincts. A child will try to find some sense of love and belonging in anything coming from parents, even if it’s neglect or abuse. Manipulation can be especially difficult to resist, as even adult people sometimes have trouble resisting it.
Children of unhealthy parents will grasp at straws – at any glimmer of hope, or precious moments of relief, or anything parents are willing to give, regardless of conditions and the price to be paid. This is particularly true for naturally more sensitive, empathic children, or children who are by nature more prone to anxious attachment style. (See: Anbringungsarten und Störungen & wie man sie heilen kann.)
Mother is the basic source of love within the first year of life. The deepest foundation of a child’s sense of self is usually created within those first months of the relationship with the mother. Somewhat later, in the period of developing sexual identity, usually the parent of the opposite gender comes into focus and the child tries to connect to that parent in whatever way. Considering that for boys mother is not only the primary source of love, but also the parent of the opposite gender, the relationship with mother might be even more detrimental than for girls in shaping expectations of close relationships. (I’m not sure how it works for not-straight children – if you have experience, I’m interested to hear about it.) One way or the other, people whose mother was unhealthy have it worse than people whose father was the more problematic one. Not to mention if both parents were toxic.
Even when children are able to recognize their parents’ behavior is not healthy, they keep hoping that the parents will finally come to their senses and become loving and accepting. A child can be aware how love is possible with just a little more understanding, and they have trouble understanding why is it so difficult for parents to make that little switch in perception and behavior. (This is not so easy to understand even from an adult perspective, let alone from a child’s!) Similar like with “Stockholm’s syndrome”, if toxic behavior is followed by some kind of relief – if a parent after a period of yelling, violence or neglect comes to their senses (or, comes back from age-regressed into adult state of mind) and tries to apologize or make things right to the child – the child can become even more bonded to that hope than they would in different circumstances bond to a healthy, reliable parent. In such a way, the child also bonds to a similar kind of feelings and behaviors in close relationships.
No matter how adult we are, we still carry within ourselves the early impressions of what family and home meant to us – what did our child brain learn to associate with belonging, connectedness and security. This might not be obvious in most of our adult activities and roles which don’t call for a high level of intimacy (although it can sometimes show in close friendships). But when we seek deep intimacy, we unconsciously rely on early childhood impressions to guide us.
Can you imagine that love means acceptance, trust, understanding, balance, freedom to be your most beautiful (from the inside) self? Consciously, perhaps yes, but if your parents were critical, dismissive, unpredictable or controlling, when offered healthy love you might feel that a warm, approachable, calm, reliable person simply doesn’t love you the right way, or doesn’t offer the intensity, suspense and struggle you associate with love. You might even feel as if you betrayed, abandoned your parents if you accepted healthy love and happiness. Many people don’t allow themselves to be happier than their parents.
Depending of your specific experiences with parents and circumstances of growing up, you might have learned to associate love with one or more of the following feelings and behaviors:
- Control. People who grew up with chaotic, unreliable parents, as well as people who grew up with overly strict, critical and punishing parents, as adults may seek security, relief and love in some form of exaggerated control. Some such people feel safe and comfortable by finding somebody else who will be in control (and thus carry the burden of responsibility and potentially guilt). Others feel safe, loved and appreciated only if they are in control (otherwise they fear helplessness and chaos). The price of occasional conflicts, repressing emotions, and criticism, can feel acceptable. Even if such relationship can sometimes feel stable, nothing so unbalanced can have good consequences. If nothing else, control leads to stagnation and losing many chances for positive change, questioning, learning through new experience, and facing suppressed emotions.
- Guilt, fear, shame. If you grew up with overly demanding, critical and punishing parents, perhaps guilt, fear and shame were your way to connect to them and secure some sort of relationship. Perhaps guilt, fear and shame still make you feel safe, meaning you feel they prevent you from committing mistakes and risking important relationships. Then people who make you feel guilty, fearful or ashamed might, paradoxically, appear safer in your mind than people who give you freedom to be yourself – because you don’t trust yourself (and others) enough to accept such freedom.
- Loneliness, sadness, longing. If your parents were emotionally or physically absent or unavailable, even loneliness, sadness and longing can offer some sort of comfort and sense of connection. This kind of comfort is based on hope, even when hope is an illusion. (See: Wenn die Hoffnung eine "negative" Emotion ist.) Available, warm, approachable people mean giving up familiar, pleasant feelings of hope and longing. No matter how tepid and unfulfilling the familiar might be, it might feel safer and more natural than the unknown.
- Anger and contempt. If parents were manipulative, suffocating, childish, needy, and also in other toxic circumstances where a child wasn’t frightened or shamed enough to feel and express anger, such anger can remain within a person and come out in context of close relationships. This is often related to the dismissive-avoidant attachment disorder (article) and fear of intimacy (article), because love is perceived as dangerous to one’s own identity and boundaries. If you feel anger and resistance when a (potential) partner tries to come close or desires anything from you, you probably don’t feel safe to set good boundaries, or you feel that if you open up emotionally, it will be used against you. You might seek safety in separation and being alone, but it’s not a solution, just an illusion of a solution.
- The need to save someone/ earn love. Unhealthy, unhappy parents who need help, or parents who are cold, dismissive, difficult to please, can make a child feel the need to prove themselves and earn love – whether by trying to help the parents, or by trying to prove their own abilities and qualities. Such a person can learn to feel special and important if they have occasional success, and may find love which is difficult to earn more valuable than love which is available and doesn’t require struggle, i.e., people who love them as they are. Even if they never succeed in proving themselves or saving someone, even if “earning” love requires fulfilling very unrealistic criteria or sacrificing their own important needs, the hope to feel special can feel more attractive than love given freely. This includes the pattern of competing with a third person for someone’s love (if a love interest is already in a relationship, or sometimes with a partner’s or one’s own children). In reality, if you have to struggle to earn someone’s love, such love is obviously weak and fleeting rather than particularly valuable.
- Drama, fighting, violence. “Negative” attention is better than no attention in the mind of a child. If a child doesn’t have much chance to experience healthy attention, warmth, intimacy and happiness, then drama, rage and suspense can become associated with intense emotions, and therefore with the intensity of a relationship. A peaceful relationship full of respect and understanding doesn’t offer so much excitement, so many ups and downs, which such people can confuse with lack of passion.
These are just the most common patterns, and depending of our own experience, we can develop more “fine-tuned” and elaborated ones. Perhaps you are attracted to people who initially seem available and kind, but suddenly abandon you. Perhaps you are attracted to people who appear independent, authentic and warm, but turn out to be unhappy, withdrawn and insecure. Perhaps you stay in relationship with somebody not because of that person, but because their family seems to offer something you crave – warmth, belonging and connectedness, or status, security and power. Maybe your parents spoiled you and you believe love means receiving without needing to give. And so on.
These imprints go deep, they are rooted in much older, more instinctive parts of our brains than our reason or conscious knowledge and experience. Can we change them? Yes, we can, if we invest persistent, intense effort for as long as it takes (and the time needed depends of how old you were when the toxic influences started – the younger you were, the more time you’ll need). The more honest and intense your effort, the better the results will be.
You can learn to associate love with healthy emotions and behaviors through working with your inner child, healing relationships with parents, and intense visualization of healthy, loving relationships. This way you can change not only your idea of love, but your essential self-image – and that can change many other aspects of your life. It’s important to not get scared of change – and to not neglect working with your patterns as soon as pain and frustration subside. Your inner child can “fall asleep” and pain can recede back into subconscious mind – but the deep patterns won’t be healed until they are given dedicated and long-term attention.