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September 4, 2020

A Therapist Explains How Childhood Programming Teaches us to Seek Toxic Relationships.


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We must be careful not to confuse the definition of healthy love with what our programming tells us about love.

“I only got so angry at you because I care so much.”

“I hit you because you frightened me, and I’m so scared of losing you.”

“I lose my temper when you do that because you matter so much to me.”

“I only do (insert manipulative, abusive, harmful act here) because I’ve never loved a person this much.”

“We beat you because we love you.”

I tentatively—with love and respect for the hardest job in the world—mean to include parenting in this conversation (especially in reference to the last line above). 

Culture also has a large impact on our programming, and I certainly don’t aim to devalue any set of generational patterns that may have worked for others and their families.

Through my therapeutic practice, I came to observe the different ways that love is offered to us—the experience of it, the observation of it, and the narrating of it. Over the years, I’ve discerned what many have learned to associate with love, and whether that remains a safe ground today.

One of my clients (let’s call her Jen) had grown up with an alcoholic father whom her mother tended to day in and day out. Although her father was a begrudged, unappreciative, and difficult man to live with, Jen’s mother devoted herself to caring for him amid his withdrawals.

She pulled him out when he was confined within himself; she nursed him when he spat abuses at her and would resort to kissing his forehead when he would push and shove away from her attempts to embrace. No matter the reaction, her mother’s response was always gentleness, silence, and constant, unwavering care.

To any adult who exists beyond that house, this is devotion—openly praised and adored.

Now, is there anything wrong with it? Absolutely not. If there is consensual behavior from both adults, the string can be pulled far right or far left, and it’s perfectly—perfectly fine.

But the child who sat in the center of it all (in this case, Jen) had internalized this. She now carries an unconscious understanding that follows:

Always stand by your man, regardless of how much emotional pain he brings to you.

Rejection is a blanket for pain; a man will love you and won’t show it, and that’s okay. Don’t stop trying.

That was her love and loyalty model; she saw love in rejection and was trained to push harder when rebuked. Unconsciously she lived out this program, and 29 years later, she had been chronically disappointed by men at every stage of her life.

She would unceasingly devote herself to the men who needed a therapist more than they needed a partner. She found herself consumed by rejections and follow-up accusations of “neediness” and an inability to understand rejection for what it is: a refusal, rather than a test or a disguised cry for help.

Our understanding of love impacts our understanding of life. It’s the building block for every relationship we can and cannot maintain as adults. It either lays stability as our groundwork or leaves us with a diluted sense of what we think we want (romance) versus what our subconscious seeks (what was familiar at home).

Let’s talk about an adopted child, a little boy, who sought out and met his birth mother when he was 19-years-old. She held him by his arms, somberly gazed into his eyes, and said, “I loved you so much that I had to give you away. I wasn’t ready to raise you properly.”

The understanding was there; the sentiment was clear. But no matter how much we focus on the respectable, reverent intention of the sacrifice, this is where the belief that “those who love me, leave me” becomes firmly cemented.

A child’s mind does not see intention and, therefore, cannot understand it nor imitate it. Rather, the mind observes what is actioned. And what is actioned creates a belief system (program) that will run efficiently in dictating all his future relationships—nothing more, nothing less, and without a fault.

In relationships, I see so many people continually link a healthy perception of love with a skewed, destructive form of it.

Maybe you had a parent excuse their behavior in the name of love, like a father who scared you to teach you situational awareness. Or a mother who abandoned you for hours in a shopping center to teach you not to wander off. Or a father who screamed at you so you’d learn faster.

Or a mother who compared your failings to others’ success in the hopes of motivating you through shame. Maybe you had a parent confess to you that they only do that one thing to the other parent or another sibling because they care so much about them:

“Family is passionate in that way; that’s what family does.”

“When you love people so much, it’s easy to lose it on them.”

Have you heard these phrases before?

What if we changed our reasoning to: “I should hurt you before someone else does.”

I wonder how many of us would be comfortable saying that to our children, our partners, our friends, or our family? Is that the kind of world we want to prepare children for?

A big truth I’ve found is that no child can experience a level of pain more significant than the pain their own parents set them up for.

Sit with that for just a moment.

We need to consider how love was demonstrated, what we associate with it, and what stories we hold around it.

How do these associations and demonstrations show up today? What do we allow and not allow?

What behaviors in others do we accept in the name of love? What behaviors in ourselves do we honor as an act of love, even if others are hurt by it?

Is it love as we wish it to be, or love as we expect it to be?

Herein lies your power: to know your program is the path to reprogram and decide for yourself what you want love to be.

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