Have you ever wondered why you can meet someone and “know” instantly that you’re attracted to them? You feel your heart pound, butterflies in your stomach, and an intense desire to “make something happen.” This is the power of our unconscious. Our unconscious drives us. We are unable to say, in that moment, exactly what it is that draws us to that person. It is overwhelming, an overpowering combination of sensations that have no words.
What is our unconscious? It is a compilation of dynamics, processes, beliefs, attitudes, suppressed memories and feelings. We don’t have access to our unconscious (which is what makes it unconscious). We are unable to think about our unconscious mind. This is what makes it so difficult to understand our reactions, feelings and motivations, and attachments to those who hurt us.
Childhood experiences provide the foundation for adult functioning, including selection of partners and the way in which these relationships play out. For those lucky enough to have had emotionally and psychologically healthy parents who understood their own trauma histories and the effects those experiences had on their development, those parents are in a good position to be able to meet the needs of their developing child.
Sadly, many are unaware of the effects of their childhood; they either minimize, deny or rationalize their impacts. Despite their best efforts, the behavioral manifestations of that lack of awareness and resolution of those wounds get projected onto their children. Children, being entirely dependent on their parents to provide an accurate reflection of who they are, readily absorb these projections, which ultimately get internalized in the form of self-esteem and self-image.
As children continue to develop, these projections and internalizations continue, and become increasingly cemented over time. The result is a set of beliefs, rules, expectations, perceptions, judgments, attitudes and feelings about the self and others. This is all unconscious.
At the outset of a romantic relationship, we are ecstatic, full of hope, desire and fantasy. Fears and dread slowly emerge when we begin to see the “other” as a real person. All of those internalized expectations, rules (about how one should behave in any given situation) and judgments unfold, as does our anxiety and fear that we will be hurt. This then is the current version of a very old experience of need, hope and longing, and dread of retraumatization (in the form of rejection, abandonment and betrayal). The past is now alive and well in the present. However, given our lack of awareness of our unconscious processes, we become overwhelmed with feelings and thoughts that we recognize (hopefully), on some level, don’t necessarily make sense.
This is where relationships can either be healing or retraumatizing. Healing if both parties are interested in introspection, developing self-awareness, and are motivated to “own their 50%” and understand the reality of what is occurring in the present moment. All too often, retraumatization occurs. It comes in the form of projection and reactions to perceived criticism, judgment, and rejection. Without awareness of how our early history has influenced our interpretation of behaviors, there is a great likelihood of a distorted perception and an over-determined response (a reaction based on an early traumatic experience that has been triggered in our unconscious). One can see how this can easily result in a spiral of mutual accusations and/or retreat.
The only way out of this mass of confusion and mutual wounding is to develop self-awareness, examine our childhood histories and the wounds they created, understand those defenses we have developed to cope and protect ourselves, build the “muscles” to tolerate our feelings, learn the language of effective communication and the skills for resolving relational conflict. This process is empowering, liberating, and ultimately can result in the type of intimacy we long for.