Romantic relationships are complex and challenging. Unfortunately, they are not quite like the ones we see in rom-coms. In reality, adult romantic relationships often test us to our very core, they are usually not what we expect them to be, and no matter how many traits we match off from our list before choosing a partner, there still might be challenges and tough times.
From my education, training, and experience as a therapist, I understand that the struggles of romantic relationships have some roots in our childhood. Most of us, if not all have experienced some sort of wounding as a child growing up, they may be different wounds and attachments injuries at different intensities but they impact our psyche and body deeply. Either intense trauma or abuse, deeply impactful emotional neglect, growing up away from family or having experienced parental separation, no matter what the type of experience, our childhood experiences have a long-lasting impact on us, on the way we perceive ourselves, relationships, the world, and the way we relate.
In our field of psychotherapy, we often use the term called the ‘inner child’, which refers to a part within us that reacts and feels like a child. Our inner child can often remain to be wounded, one who holds onto those wounds, and those hurtful experiences, and tries to protect us from going through the same pain again. Even when there is no similar threat as was in our childhood, our inner child may always be on guard, pushing us into dysregulation, and into unhealthy ways of dealing with the conflict. Our wounded inner child desires to have a parent-like person who nurtures it and heals it the way our parents couldn’t during childhood.
As adults in our romantic relationships, we sometimes act or behave in ways that aren’t very adult-like. Sometimes we don’t understand the things we do during sensitive times when we feel hurt or when we are facing a conflict. Our adult self is unable to make sense of our behavior, and we can’t help but repeatedly react in the same manner even though we know it is not appropriate to the situation and harmful to our relationship. These are usually the times when we act out of our wounded inner child, instead of our rational, emotionally-regulated adult self. Our wounded inner child still stuck in the past knows that this is the only way it kept us safe and secure. Still using the same trauma response which is now outdated and often maladaptive.
Our inner child wounds are triggered more intensely in romantic relationships because that is where we seek the comfort, love, and holding that we have always desired. The expectation that our chronic longing would be fulfilled by our romantic partner is what makes us have unrealistic expectations and the relationship extremely challenging sometimes. This expectation is that we would be seen, heard, and cared for the way we have always desired. Unfortunately, this is something that is never fulfilled as we desire it. Nor would we even want it to be because then we will have another parent nurturing us like a child, instead of us growing and acting like an independent adult concerning our partner, not a parent. Our romantic partners can never be the parents that we seek, and additionally, they have their wounds, trauma, and needs which interact with ours too. The truth is our inner child wants to be nurtured in the relationship, and by that one person, even though we don’t realize it consciously. Our traumatized and/or wounded inner child who is stuck in the past wants what it wants, it doesn’t understand that our partner is not our parent, and we are not a child anymore.
No one can ever truly be there for us in a way our wounded inner child wants to be, no one else but us. No one can or is responsible for healing our inner child but ourselves. We are responsible for our healing, and what our partners can help each with is understanding our wounds and needs and providing support and strength while we individually parent our wounded inner child.
However, working on past trauma is not always as easy and simplistic as it sounds, it can be complex and extremely challenging. Working to resolve the trauma or the attachment injuries from our body and mind in the right environment, that of a warm therapeutic relationship with a therapist who understands our experience and the challenges that we are facing can be beneficial. It is powerful as therapy provides us with a safe space and an unconditional relationship to experience positive relational encounters, practice being authentic with another, explore our emotional dysregulation with a neutral another, and feel seen, heard, and understood, all of which are profoundly healing.