While more than 90% of people’s emotional problems seem to originate in childhood (or are at least enhanced by early family), from time to time it’s an interesting experience to work with people who come from healthy, caring and quite mature families. (Some people who claim so might be in denial, of course, but during therapy that usually becomes clear through their non-verbal communication or some of our diagnostic strategies). I hesitate to claim that there are definite patterns, or a kind of “box” for this group of people. Yet I noticed a few interesting similarities in some of these cases.
The key might be that children from healthy families might grow up relatively unprepared for a much less healthy environment outside of their homes. Even if they probably have some problems and conflicts with their peers in school or neighbors, the parents would still be the ones to primarily shape their expectations of people in general. Children of healthy parents might expect most other people to also be reasonable, consistent and honest – and the rest of the world might be greatly disappointing. In this way, even the best parents might create some problems for their children. This article goes into detail about how to avoid this trap by providing your children with adequate challenges.
It’s not uncommon for such people, even as adults, to start taking too much responsibility for problems they have with other people, sometimes to the point of becoming very insecure of their own feelings or character. This happens because they expect new people in their lives to be as reasonable as their parents were, and it might be difficult to imagine or understand that many other people have emotional issues that defy any reasoning. Interestingly, such self-blame and inappropriate responsibility are also a normal early reaction of almost all young children in unhealthy families, while they still trust their parents to be right, until they grow old enough to know differently. It’s almost like sooner or later we all have to go through such confusion and conflict, until we learn enough about both ourselves and others.
Let’s say we have two people in an intimate relationship, Jack and Jill. Jill comes from a healthy, balanced background. Jack comes from an angry, manipulative, blaming family. Jack, of course, has some great qualities too, which Jill is initially attracted to. Jack might have good intentions and try to be a good partner. But eventually, Jack’s dark side comes out: suppressed childish emotions, perhaps jealousy, anger, blame, unreasonable requests, controlling attitude. Sooner or later, Jack will feel safe enough to express towards Jill whatever was left unsaid or unfinished in his relationship with parents; this is one of the most common pattern in intimate relationships. If Jack is looking for a substitute parent in Jill, he might soon start taking Jill for granted, or switch between neediness and disinterest – it’s quite natural for a child to take a parent for granted, so Jack, who is emotionally still rather childish, will continue such pattern instead of working on mutual adult responsibility.
Jack might expect Jill to be a perfect “parent”: to be forgiving, understanding, responsible and generous – while allowing Jack to essentially be a child; to do what he wants without restrictions and conditions. This is an extreme situation, and all kinds of varieties are possible. Also, this kind of conflict is often present in couples who both come from immature families, too. I never said it was simple!
Such behavior will create confusion and inner conflict in Jill: why would Jack do and say such things if he didn’t have a good reason? He is basically a good person, I know that, I must have provoked such reaction somehow. Perhaps if I explain my thoughts and feelings to Jack, perhaps if I try a bit harder, we’ll come to an understanding, just as I always managed to do with my parents!
But Jack doesn’t understand, doesn’t accept other perspectives, refuses to go to therapy, because Jack’s emotions are not caused by Jill; Jill is just a trigger. Jill can break her back bending over backwards to accommodate Jack, she can drain her heart and soul trying to make peace and be responsible, but Jack won’t change. Jack is essentially stuck in his childhood; a lot of the time he reacts to feelings from his past rather than Jill. Words and reason cannot reach such deeply ingrained emotions, almost instincts by now.
Unless Jack starts to show honest, consistent awareness and responsibility to deal with his past and communicate like an adult, Jill will have to leave if she wants to stay sane and find happiness. Luckily for Jill, it’s usually an easier decision for somebody from a healthy background, than if Jill also grew up in an immature family. If Jill was from an immature family, she would react with her own childish issues to Jack’s childish issues and they would spend an eternity (or what feels like eternity) tormenting, blaming and obsessing about each other, hoping that the other one would change in the way their own parents never did.
A healthy person (Jill in this example) can often relatively easily update his/her expectations of the world, learn a lot about people from this experience and move on wiser and stronger. If Jill also has a big emotional baggage, then disentangling will take more work, but it can be done with proper motivation and perseverance.
If you consider yourself a good parent, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your children’s lives will be all sunshine and flowers. Perhaps they might need therapy because you were such a good parent! Life gets us sooner or later, there are always advantages and disadvantages in every situation, and everything we gain we pay a price for (sometimes the price comes first). It’s interesting for me to notice how similar relationship problems can sometimes have completely different origins – how a basically healthy person can sometimes get stuck in the same kind of problems that are normally common for less healthy people. Maybe this can help some confused people understand what is going on in their lives.
Note: initially I wrote this post to be strictly gender neutral, but quite a few people told me that made it difficult to read. So I wrote about Jack and Jill based on some people who came to me for therapy. I hereby declare that I’m well aware that it could have been the other way around (or any other variation) just as easily.