Any unfinished business or unresolved feelings we have with an opposite sex parent shows up in our marriages. When we get past the superficial coverings, the way a man sees his mother and has learned to relate to her emotionally can tell volumes about the way he will see and will eventually relate to all women. Whether he wants to accept this idea in his head or not, areas not healed with his mother are eventually going to surface with the women he gets involved with. Similarly a woman draws her core assumptions about the masculine from her experiences (or lack of them) with her father. If her relationship with her father is not healed, whatever is incomplete for her in that territory is going to surface in her interactions with her partner. It can't work any other way.
In order to illustrate the impact of old unresolved feelings with a parent let's look at Bill, a recent client who came to us with a marriage in trouble. As the oldest boy of a work obsessed and largely emotionally absent father, Bill was subjected to a lot of pressure to meet his mother's need for emotional fulfillment. Of course, as a child, he didn't recognize it in that way -he just tried to do the best that he could. But being called upon to meet an adult's needs is a big job and a big job like this one has a major impact on how one comes to see the world.
We might begin by asking ourselves what a boy, who is pressed to be an adult before his time by a needy mother, really feels, underneath all his layering? An early sense of power with the feminine to be sure. Fear would be another. It's a frightening thing to be called upon for adult-like responsibilities at too early an age. Fear, too, in that an emotionally hungry mother can be very invading. Sadness might be another: it's a heavy load to carry so early. Even deeper down, we could guess there would be anger at the feminine for being put in this position so early in life.
Like most boys in this circumstance Bill didn't allow himself these feelings at the time. He coped by emotionally distancing himself from his mother in his teen years. This distancing was not part of a conscious effort; it was all he knew how to do. What is important to keep in mind is that early on he learned that the needy feminine is very powerful, potentially devouring and, when it arrives in life too strong, too early, an adaptive way to cope is to wall off from the feminine.
As middle age arrived for Bill, with all the usual preoccupations of love and work, he had little time (or inclination) for inner exploration. He had become reasonably successful in his endeavors. He got married. Things went well enough for a few years but gradually problems in his marriage began to emerge. Being more accustomed to focusing on the surface appearances of issues, he had forgotten that there was still a large amount of his inner world yet to be explored. In part of that inner world, deep down, he still had a lot of feelings about his mother, and thus about the entire feminine.
What he didn't realize however was that hiding from feelings never eliminates them; denied feelings just go underground waiting to emerge later in life. After the romantic phase, the emotional distancing he learned many years previously with his mother, began to show up with his wife. Feelings of fear and anger and distrust and wariness all mixed in with power in relation to the feminine began to show up. But not being practiced at feelings awareness, he mainly stuck to his old strategy: to emotionally distance himself. When his wife showed any signs of making demands, like his mother did, he ran, defended or deflected. Deep down he feared the neediness of woman and felt a need to protect himself that too. His own sense of neediness was almost entirely disowned.
Over the years, as he continued to withdraw when under pressure, his wife increasingly experienced more hunger for contact, more desire for connection and real feelings. As she came forward with her needs for more of him, his unconscious was reminded of earlier days and he reflexively retreated even more. Not remembering the roots of all this, he had difficulty seeing his own role in the problem. Meanwhile his wife got even hungrier and he withdrew even more. And around the circuit they went, her increasingly hungry and him increasingly withdrawn. It's the type of circuit that inevitably leads to a marital crisis.
Bill arrived at a major choice point. He could continue hiding from his inner being and put the majority of his energy into blaming his partner for the crisis. Or he could begin focusing on healing his relationship with his wife. And, if he really wanted to sustain a thriving marriage over the long haul, he would have to get to the roots of his difficulties in his marriage -roots that could be traced back to his earliest experience with the feminine.
It would have been much easier to run or hold steadfastly onto his habitual wall-building, women-blaming position. However, having been through two marriages already, and recognizing there was only one constant in those breakdowns, Bill opted to overcome his abject fear of seeking help and start a journey of exploration. Part of that journey would involve his wife, and if he really decided to go all the way, part of that journey would involve healing with his mother. Next month we'll talk more about what he learned.