There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. And before delving into a partner’s trauma history pre-discovery or disclosure, it’s imperative to keep in mind that the deception, gaslighting, and crazy-making that go hand-in-hand with addiction keep partners deeply in the dark about who they’re in relationship with.
That being said, there are specific signposts from a partner’s history that can make her/him vulnerable to getting into a long-term committed relationship with an addict. Some of the most common are:
- Having a parent who struggles with addiction
- Sexual abuse (including exposure to age-inappropriate material and/or behavior)
- Chronic neglect and/or abandonment
- Having a parent with severe codependency
- Chronic emotional or physical abuse
If you experienced 2 or more of the above, your childhood history is probably impacting how you navigate your journey as a partner of a sex addict or survivor of infidelity.
Four reasons partners must understand their childhood story:
You are naturally attracted to what is familiar to you, even if “familiar” is painful, dysfunctional, or abusive.
This is true for all of us. A simple example is if you grew up in a family that was busy, loud, and boisterous most of the time, you probably won’t resonate with or be attracted to an intensely introverted, shy, or quiet person. I refer to this phenomenon as “calibration.” We are literally calibrated by our family of origin to be comfortable and at ease with certain ways of being and doing.
What happens if what is “familiar” is also abusive?
If you think about it from a calibration perspective, if you were repeatedly yelled at or physically abused, your tolerance for verbal and physical abuse must increase as a matter of survival. Fast-forward to adulthood, this toxic legacy of abuse will make you vulnerable to getting into relationships that feel similar. People who haven’t experienced verbal or physical abuse have a kind of “allergy”—and therefore a low tolerance—for these behaviors.
What you don’t know or don’t understand can hurt you
(and future generations).
Some people feel that what’s in the past should stay in the past. Or, they don’t want to go back and dredge up painful memories. Others have a kind of “get over it” attitude.
The problem with this perspective is that your past is with you right now, whether you’re comfortable admitting it or not. Most people are deeply impacted by their childhood experiences, and carry toxic beliefs about themselves into adulthood. These toxic beliefs handed down to them from parents, siblings, coaches, clergy, or peers literally stunt their success in most areas of their life.
In his book, Parenting From the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive, Dan Siegel describes how a child’s attachment style (the way the child will attach/connect with others) can be predicted by whether or not the parent has a “coherent narrative” about their own childhood.
Coherent narrative is a fancy way of saying that the parent can describe their childhood in a factual, truthful way and demonstrate appropriate, but not overwhelming, emotion about their childhood experiences. People who don’t have a “coherent narrative” about their childhood may smile or laugh while telling an intensely painful story, or describe a consistent pattern of abuse or frightening experiences and at the same time say their childhood was “happy” or that their parents were “great,” for example.
Siegel discovered that a child’s attachment style could be predicted by whether or not their parent had a coherent narrative of their own childhood—even if the child had not yet been conceived!
If you’re a parent or plan to become a parent in the future, this is one of the most compelling reasons to address any unfinished business from your childhood.
If your boundaries were repeatedly violated as a child, you will struggle to own your right to have boundaries as an adult.
This one speaks for itself. After repeated violations to your emotional, physical, or sexual boundaries, you become desensitized to their impact and you are far more vulnerable to being exploited and abused by others. The good news is that with knowledge, self-care, and self-awareness you can begin reversing this painful legacy inherited from your family of origin.
What we resist, persists
Business coach Dan Sullivan has a quote that sums this one up: “All progress starts with telling the truth.”
If your perspective is that your childhood history was idyllic and your parents were perfect, congratulations! Unfortunately, in my experience working with partners, this is rarely the case.
If you’re resistant or unwilling to tell the truth about your childhood, you will not make progress toward healing, just as you won’t make progress as a partner if you’re not willing to tell the truth about your situation or what the sex addict in your life has done, and how those actions have impacted you.
If you’re reluctant to look at your childhood history for fear of what it might bring up for you, honor your reluctance and keep in mind that it’s in the past. It’s done and over. You survived.
I can assure you that telling the truth about what happened, and taking responsibility to heal what you can in the present, is not re-traumatizing or as scary as what you’ve already been through. In fact, for most people it is one of the most empowering pieces of work they do.
If you’re wondering whether your childhood history is slowing down your healing journey, it may be time to do in-depth family of origin work.
Over the years, many partners I’ve worked with have attended my 4-day family of origin trauma intensive Reclaiming Wholeness and have reported significant progress in many areas including their self-esteem, reducing shame, and better boundaries.
One partner after attending the intensive said, “It changed my life.”
These kinds of sentiments are more the norm than the exception for participants of Reclaiming Wholeness. And you don’t need to be in Houston (where I’m based) to attend. Workshop participants have traveled from Kansas, Louisiana, Colorado, and as far as California. For a list of upcoming workshops, click here.
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© Vicki Tidwell Palmer, LCSW (2016)
All submitted comments are subject to editing to protect confidentiality and maintain anonymity.