HOW YOUR PAST INFORMS YOUR PRESENT (#11 of 12)

12 Lessons On Marriage

Trying to explain how your childhood relational experience informs your current relational functioning is complex.  This blog is an effort to do that, but it is long - too long.  You should really skip it and let a counselor help you sort this stuff out one-on-one on a personal level.  Alternately, you may be better served by more thorough resources:  Daniel Siegel’s writings and audio lectures on “Interpersonal Neurobiology”, Sue Johnson’s Hold Me Tight or Love Sense and How We Love by the Yerkovich’s are excellent resources.  In the meantime, the following is offered to provide a basic understanding that may be of help to you as you construct that framework for understanding yourself and your marriage.  


Two Operating Systems

In short, it may help to think of your mind as a computer than runs on two overlapping “operating systems”.  The first operating system - the one with which you are already aware - utilizes logic to solve problems.  It is conscious and verbal.  This is what you think about when you think about thinking.  The second operating system is emotional or intuitive.  It is informed by experiences; it is nonverbal and preconscious.  You’re not immediately aware of it, but with reflection you can become conscious of it and assign language to it.  It involves feelings and impulses.  

The logical operating system is more precise and reliable.  The emotional operating system is faster and more powerful at motivating behavior.  The best over-all decision-making and functioning involves both systems. 

God’s design - His own image - involves both operating systems.  His image is, of course, far more complex than just these two operating systems, but the scriptures allude to Yahweh as a God who both thinks and feels.  The scriptures break this down in several different manners and I would not presume to fully understand exactly where the theology and teaching of the scriptures overlaps with those categories provided by the field of psychology.  However, I think it is safe to say that God created you to be thoughtful and emotional and He expects us to relate to Him and to each other on both levels.  

If you are reading this, we can assume that your logical operating system is adequate for the job at hand; you are smart enough and educated enough to solve most problems of daily marital life.  Your marital struggles are not likely the result of any lack of education or poor problem-solving.  Much more likely is something wonky below the waterline - quirks in the emotional/intuitive operating system.  And by wonky and quirky, I mean that some past relational experiences resulted in emotional/relational learning that is not helpful or not translating into your current relationship.  That old learning - which was valuable in your childhood home - doesn’t make sense anymore and is probably getting you into trouble.  

The Less Emotional You Are, The More You’d Better Pay Attention

If you don’t understand your own emotional/intuitive system and the specific experiences - both relational and non-relational - that informed it, you will be an unwitting slave to its impulses.  You won’t know what you don’t know.  Your decisions will be defined by it and your logical system will simply serve as a post-facto resource for justifying or rationalizing those emotion-based decisions you are making.  

You may think this is irrelevant to you because you are not an emotionally-oriented person.  You may describe yourself as a logical person who is not very emotional; your spouse and friends may also describe you as an unexpressive, logical fellow.  However, though emotionally unexpressive, over-controlled and/or unaware, you are still an emotional person; even those mechanisms undergirding your emotional constraint are emotionally-based.  A more honest assessment would be to say that powerful emotional triggers constrain you from recognizing your feelings or expressing them; you are blind to your emotional functioning and, thusly, a slave to it.  

The emotional/intuitive operating system is king/queen in intimate relationships.  To fail to recognize or understand its import is to surrender decision-making to it.

This Has Nothing To Do With Your Relationship with Christ… Or Does It…

If you’re wondering whether the emotional/relational learning you experienced in your childhood is relevant to your Christian walk, please read and think further.  Theologically, this emotional learning is inherently part of your “flesh”.  It is a part of the “old man”.  It is your mind striving to get your needs met independent of God.  It is the “understanding” upon which you cannot reliably lean… the learning that becomes “the way that leads to death”.  Disassembling this old learning and then re-learning is a part of sanctification.  Reorienting from your human relationships to Christ as the fulfillment of your longing is, ultimately, the goal.  

Of course, the more emotionally, relationally and spiritually mature your parents were, the more “Christ-like” they were - the more secure you were in your relationship with them - the more you were given a head start.  However, your parents were inevitably flawed by their own brokenness and, ultimately, it is only within your relationship with Christ that you can experience complete healing and Truth-based learning.  The scriptures tell us that Jesus meets us and relates to us directly through His Spirit and through His Word; but he also meets us indirectly through our daily life experiences, our relational interactions within His community (the church) and in our intimate relationships within the institutions of marriage and family.  Our sanctification - our spiritual growth - occurs within the context of all of these relationships.  All of these relational experiences in this world are, of course, flawed by the humanity of others and distorted by our own broken minds; it is not until we see Christ face-to-face with redeemed minds and bodies that we will experience perfect love, healing and sanctification.  In the meantime, we struggle within those divinely-ordained yet flawed human institutions and relationships, we strive to differentiate the leading and illumination of His Spirit from our own emotions and impulses and we press into His Word with our crippled intellect knowing the limitations of what we can experience and know in this life… and knowing that, someday, we will experience and know all for which we long.  

I hope that you’ll keep reading.  

How Emotional/Relational Learning is Developed

Your emotional/relational operating system was not informed by your parents overt teaching or their modeling.  Those facets of your home had an effect on your relational development, but it was small.  Rather, the strongest learning was organized around your own efforts to get your emotional/relational needs met within the attachment you had to your parents.  Like a rat in a maze who is driven by hunger to solve the maze, you are driven by a hunger for relational security and love to solve the mystery of relationship.  Relational learning is what happens as you solve the puzzle of your parents.  And that learning - for better and for worse - is subsequently applied to your future relationships, including your marriage.  

You were designed to lovingly bond or attach to others and this is driven by a deep longing within you.  Equal to or greater than your desire to physically survive, is your desire to get your relational needs met - to find the love and security for which you were designed and impassioned from the creation.  As a child and now as an adult, your strongest drive was/is to gain the acceptance and caregiving of others and to avoid or protect from any experience of rejection or abandonment.  As a Christian, it should not surprise you to learn that much of your neurology is organized around this.  After all, it is implicit in what Jesus identified to be the two greatest commandments.  Further, it should not surprise you that your relationship with your parents was the central place in which this happened.  The family - the parent-child relationship - is the primary institution which God uses to transmit His truth - and His Truth is, relational in nature.

The Neurology of Emotional/Relational Learning

The part of your brain that facilitates emotional/relational learning is fully developed and functional from birth.  So, from the moment you first opened your eyes to the world around you, your mind was learning from the relational experiences it was having.  Years before your brain’s ability to form an explicit memory was developed, your emotional mind was forming memories - learning - from every interaction you had with your caregivers.  Your mind was busily processing the data implicit in those relational interactions to figure out who you had to be and how you had to act in order to gain your caregivers’ acceptance and caregiving while avoiding any experience of rejection, neglect or abandonment.  It was - and is - big data at its finest.  

With every favorable relational experience, your mind created a tiny neurological network - an implicit emotional memory - that linked what you were doing, to what others were doing to the circumstance in which the interaction occurred.  This network was then stamped with positive emotion fueling an impulse to repeat the circumstance and/or behaviors associated with that experience of acceptance or care.  In like manner, with every experience of rejection and/or neglect - no matter how small - your brain created a tiny network.  That network - or relational/emotional memory - linked what you were doing at the time to what others were doing at the time to the circumstance in which the event occurred; that memory or network was then stamped with negative emotion (hurt, disappointment, fear, shame, etc.) associated with an impulse to avoid, prevent or protect from a recurrence of this negative experience.  

Except in the case of trauma, no single experience - or the associated network - is meaningful in terms of this learning.  Rather, its those small relational experiences which happen dozens of times each day that create the strongest networks and the strongest impulses; those interactions which happen along the same relational theme.  

You get an “A” on a report card and Mom is happy; you get a “B” and Dad grimaces and then walks out of the room.  You color a picture and Dad tells you that you are his sweet little girl as he hugs you.  You write an I love you note to Mom and she points out that you wrote the “e” backwards yet again.  Any one event is not important, it’s those thematically consistent interactions that happen again and again and again that are most important.  

When those old networks get triggered, it’s all emotion and impulse.  You get an A on a test and find yourself waving the paper in the air as you run into the house.  Your stomach is upset when you see a C on your report card and you stuff it in the bottom of your backpack - maybe Mom won’t find it.  You step to the plate, feel anxious and look up in the stands to see if Dad is there.  There are no words, but if there were they would sound like Perform, Don’t Make Mistakes, Succeed.  

The neurological development associated with emotional/relational learning occurs within all of your relationships and this learning continues throughout the lifespan.  Your parents were only the most significant players in your development because of their emotional and physical proximity to you and the sheer number of interactions you had with them in comparison to other persons.  In as much as emotional/relational learning happens across time, so, too, changing emotional/relational patterns and impulses is accomplished slowly - across years and decades, not weeks or months.  Old networks are never erased, but new networks are built and across time they eventually compete with and overshadow the old ones.  

Some research suggests that the impact your parents had on your emotional/relational learning will dominate your adult relational and emotional experience into your 50’s.  What this likely means is that the 18+ years of emotional/relational learning which you experienced with your parents is not over-shadowed by the learning you’ve experienced in your adult relationships until you’ve reached your 50’s.  

When Old Emotional/Relational Learning Is Triggered

As with the recall of explicit memories, emotional/relational learning networks get triggered when some current relational interaction or circumstance is similar to one of the original experiences.  However, rather than “remembering” the original events, you only feel the assigned emotion along with the impulse to act accordingly.  When dominant relational/emotional learning networks get triggered, the activity in the emotional center of the brain lights up like a Christmas tree while activity in the frontal lobes goes dark.  In other words, as the emotional intensity associated with these old networks escalates, your ability to access the parts of your brain associated with logical thinking diminishes.  It’s like taking a stupid pill.  Your otherwise very intelligent mind drops 50 IQ points.  Suddenly.  Your frontal lobes turn off, thus rendering logical thinking impossible.  Your ability to hear or consider new information is gone; you’re no longer able to hear what your spouse is saying.  You are dominated by the emotion you are experiencing and a strong inclination to act according to the old learning.  

When these old networks are activated and you are flooded by the related emotion, there is a strong impulse to act in one particular way.  In these moments this impulse seems like the only viable option for solving the problem at hand.  This is, perhaps, the most apparent “tell” that you are being owned by old emotional/relational learning.  In any other problem-solving situation - whether relational in nature or not - your mind generates a broad array of possible solutions or responses to the situation at hand.  Those solutions may range from conservative to liberal, passive to aggressive; you consider the pros and cons of each solution and move in a direction.  However, when emotional memory gets triggered, it feels as if there is only one viable solution and no alternatives are present.  

A Couple Examples

Emotional/Relational learning is complex and attempting to illustrate it in a generalizable manner is difficult.  It is influenced by personality and age, as well as learning from other relationships outside of the home.  This is why it is so important for you to understand your unique relational experience as a child.  However, in the hope that some examples and/or illustrations might be of help, the following are offered.  

Perhaps your Mom suffered a some loss in your childhood and was mildly depressed for your elementary school years.  Like any child, you would have reached for her attention and care repeatedly throughout an average day.  But because she was tired and emotionally depleted, she was minimally responsive - a weak smile, an occasional hug - but not much.  She may have managed to pack your lunch and make sure you got your homework done, but she had little affection or emotional warmth left to offer you.   So, each time you reached for her - looked to meet her gaze, touched her, snuggled next to her on the couch - you got little or no response.  Each of these interactions, though small and understandable given Mom’s struggle, was nevertheless experienced as a form of rejection or abandonment.  After all, you were designed to receive perfect love.  And in each of those situations, a network was laid and pain was attached to the network.  A self-protective impulse was associated with that pain - maybe you learned not to reach anymore - to repress emotional needs that felt dangerous.  Maybe you learned to cry and protest Mom’s weak response; perhaps that got something from Mom.  Or, perhaps, you learned how to take care of yourself outside of the relationship with Mom.  You went to school with a bundle of need and learned how to please a teacher and get the needs met there.  

So, now when your spouse seems down or distracted, you experience a prick of pain that you don’t really even notice because you immediately move away from him/her.  You don’t even know you’re doing it.  It’s not even a consideration to engage with him/her.  There’s no impulse to inquire or lean in; in fact, your mind goes blank and you don’t even have words for initiating a conversation.  Perhaps your unmet needs get directed toward pleasing someone else - like they did with your teachers; or, perhaps, you just numb out, turn on the tv, have a drink or eat an extra sandwich.    

Perhaps your Dad was angry and controlling - maybe he never dealt with criticism he received from his own father as a child.  Every time he pointed out what you were doing wrong and stepped in to take some chore or assignment over, you experienced his control as an implicit rejection of you and your competency.  A network gets laid; shame is attached.  If you were more passive by nature perhaps you learned that if you remained docile and calm, complying with Dad’s bumbling intervention and direction, he was pleased.  There were even a couple of times when he patted you on the head and told you that you were a good kid.  A network gets laid; happiness attached to it.  So, you learn not to assert your own way, to follow the lead of others, to stifle your own creativity and self-expression.  

So, when there’s a problem in the home now - things get financially tight or the hot water heater starts leaking or one of the kids is struggling - your mind goes blank, you freeze and you wait for your spouse to take the lead.  There’s no consideration of any other alternative.  At some point, your spouse gets frustrated because it feels as if the responsibility for the family is all on their shoulders.  Their frustration just triggers you all the more - you promise to try harder and readily do whatever they ask, but become increasingly passive and dependent on their initiative.  

The variations in this emotional/relational learning are endless.  The thing is that none of this learning happens within your conscious awareness.  It’s all nonverbal and unconscious.  Further, when that old learning gets triggered - and it happens every day - it is equally nonverbal and unconscious.  Only through observation and reflection are you able to eventually assign words to those experiences, feelings and impulses.  Doing that work - understanding the dominant relational learning that most commonly disrupts you in your marriage, identifying those things from your past that influenced it, assigning words to the feelings impulses and recognizing what it looks like when it gets triggered - allows for change to begin.  By making the unconscious conscious you create opportunity for more intentional relational behavior and decision-making. 

Next: #12 A Word For Your Parents

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