Wake Up from the Idea that Your Partner is your Original, Difficult Parent

The second illusion, and the flipside to wishing our partner were our ideal parent, is the tendency to see and hear our literal parents when we look at and listen to our partner. When our spouse behaves in ways that even remotely resemble a parent’s behavior we can forget who is standing in front of us and react not so much to our mate but to our parent and all they ever did to us. The psychological term for this phenomenon is transference.

Our mate takes on the psychological weight and fullness our parents have had for us and we ultimately invest them with all the power to hurt and anger us our parents had. When our wife makes a simple complaint we hear and experience it as our mother’s incessantly critical, rejecting voice. When our husband takes a week-long trip away it crushes us with the weight of our father’s abandonment. We perpetually imagine our partner to be someone they are not. We then respond explosively to them, which can lead to an atomic chain reaction.

Hal Stone, Ph.D. and Sidra Stone, Ph.D., developed a seminal model of this phenomenon they call bonding patterns. As they describe it, this is the arising of parent/child interactions between any two people: the bonding of the child selves of one to the parental selves in the other. For example, the mother self of a woman may lock into the son self of a man…much the same as the bonding process that occurs between infant and parent….It is natural, instinctive and unconscious.

Thomas S., one of my clients, is a very successful, 37-year old college professor who develops complete mental and emotional paralysis whenever his wife, Jane, becomes even mildly disapproving. In his mind, she transforms into his overwhelming mother and he transforms into a helpless little boy. Thomas describes this as the deer in the headlights syndrome. If Jane simply shakes her finger at him, this otherwise dynamic, high-powered man becomes completely immobilized.

Only after months of group therapy, where other members’ role-played his wife while he practiced standing up for himself did he even begin to get over this. It is as if we are each programmed with holograms of our parents. Do you remember the hologram of Princess Leia in Star Wars, who kept repeating the same words and actions over and over again?

When a partner does something that even vaguely reminds us of one of our parents, we suddenly see that parent right in front of us, like some 3-D image stored in our mind that has just been switched on. And we not only lose all sight of our actual partner, but also of ourselves. The parental hologram hurtles us back decades in time, so that we become the powerless victim we were at seven years old. We re-experience the hurts of childhood and we respond with the terrified shutting down, the whimpering tearfulness or the murderous rage that were the only choices available to us back in those days.

Dorothy B., another client, is a lovely, caring woman and successful health professional who becomes a killer tiger whenever her boyfriend even raises his voice. In Dorothy’s mind, her non-violent boyfriend becomes the father who used to raise a chair in the air and threaten to crack it over her head, and she becomes the twelve-year old who was ready to claw him to death.

In our work together she has found imagery techniques very helpful. Now when her boyfriend becomes angry she shrinks an image of him in her mind until he is six inches tall and no longer a threat. This allows her to feel safe and remain adult. Another practical solution is to ground oneself in the body and therefore in the present moment. To do this, one can simply allow oneself to breathe, to follow the breath down to the diaphragm then to center oneself by placing ones attention a couple of inches below the navel and a couple of inches inside the body.

It also helps to keep reminding ourselves that this is not 1941,1952, 1963, 1974, or 1980, but the present moment; our partner is not our mother or our father; we are not a child, but full-grown adults, with the adult strengths and resources to protect and care for ourselves. If we ground ourselves in reality, feet on the earth, we will respond to our partner appropriately.

Hal Stone, Ph.D. and Sidra Stone, Ph.D., authors of Embracing Your Selves: The Voice Dialogue Manual, describe how they were originally driven to create Voice Dialogue, a wonderful therapeutic tool, fore mostly to protect their own marriage. Each had been previously married and seen those relationships collapse under the weight of unconscious parent-child relating patterns. Determined not to let that happen again, they developed Voice Dialogue, an approach for bringing the parent, child and related parts of themselves into consciousness.

Wake up from the nightmare that your partner is your original, difficult parent. Visualize your partner as being about six inches tall and standing in the palm of your hand. Take a good look at them. See their fears, needs, wonderfulness, and uniqueness. Unhook from any idea you may have that they are a manifestation of either of your original parents.