[Excerpt from the Book How We Love.]
The Simple Question You Need to Answer
The answer to this question can accurately pinpoint the relative difficulties you may currently be experiencing in your relationship.
The question is simple: Can you recall being comforted as a child after a time of emotional distress?
Sometimes people who haven’t experienced real, soul-level comfort have trouble understanding what exactly “being comforted during emotional distress” really means.
Your answer to that question could potentially reveal more about your relationships than any other insight you might uncover. Realize here we aren’t talking about a minor ouchy or when you got a cold. We are looking for a time when you were significantly upset and a parent offered consolation and relief. Whatever happened to you, at a specific time during your childhood, you experienced either comfort for your pain or the stark absence of it, and that representative memory influences your current relationships in untold ways.
Related to the comfort question is this: How was conflict handled in your family?
Did disagreements leave you feeling alone and disconnected to your parents or family or did you come from a family that acknowledged problems and successfully resolved them? If your family was the latter, you learned an important lesson: when conflict ruptures a relationship, repairing it brings relief. If, when you were young, you experienced the relief that comes with resolving disagreements, you will seek the same experience in your marriage as an adult. If not, when things go wrong, you may have difficulty expressing yourself, finding solutions, and feeling relief.
If distressful feelings were soothed or problems were resolved when you were a child, you experienced comfort and relief. If you didn’t receive comfort, you may struggle to understand the 3 important components of providing comfort to others.
Do you recall receiving any of these three critical ingredients of comfort?
Some parents touch and hold babies and toddlers but then stop offering nurturing physical contact as their children get older. Yet touch is and remains a vital component of true comfort. If you didn’t receive much touch as a child, you might struggle with providing it.
Second, parents who are good listeners ask questions so they can understand what is going on in their child’s heart and mind. Some parents only ask questions when their kids are in trouble. “How come you got a C on your homework?” “Who ate the ic cream?” “What did you do to your sister?” Hopefully there were also inquiries about what was happening in your heart and validation of your feelings. Did you have permission to feel your feelings and deal with them?
Finally, did you find relief?
If someone noticed we were having a hard time and offered us a safe place to share our troubles, we felt seen and valuable. If we felt frustration and someone listened and responded, we felt relief.
Comfort is not possible unless emotional connection was made. Talking about your emotions helped your parents know you and also helped you know yourself. This self-awareness that comes from learning to reflect gives us the ability to understand our reactions, behaviors, needs, and inner conflicts when we’re adults. This ability is one of the most important skills to bring to a marriage.
WHAT IF YOU DON’T HAVE A MEMORY OF COMFORT?
If you can’t recall a specific memory of being comforted, you’re in good company. A large percent of adults report not having a single memory of receiving comfort from a primary caregiver when they were a child. If we rarely experienced relief from our families who taught us to relate to people, then we are missing some important relational and communication skills. Our early experiences taught us how important- or unimportant- our feelings and the feelings of others are in any given relationship. If your parents had difficulty noticing and soothing your distress, you probably grew up in a family with little emotional connection. Without realizing it, your mom or dad most likely discouraged the expression of certain emotions or responded poorly to your feelings. (If that’s the case, your parents probably didn’t enjoy meaningful emotional connections with their families growing up). When emotional connection is lacking, you learn to restrict emotions and minimize what’s bothering you, and you will not expect relationships to offer comfort. After all, it’s hard to expect something you never experienced.
Have you ever noticed how hard it is to have an emotional connection when no emotions are apparent? The ability to console and bring relief to your spouse or significant other when he or she is upset and agitated is foundational to a close, emotional bond. But if this wasn’t modeled for you, you don’t even recognize its absence.
It’s important to mention that most of our parents did the best they could and were simply working with the tools they had. Our parents did not receive all the tools they needed growing up either and could not employ let alone teach a skill they didn’t have.
Your goal is not to find fault but to gain a realistic picture of what went right and wrong in your early life so you can begin the healing journey toward growth and maturity.
WHAT YOUR ANSWER REVEALS
Answers to the comfort question reveal why some people are good at communicating while others have such difficulty. Why some people hide their feelings and become anxious and uncomfortable during emotional exchanges while others seek relief through relationships. Why some people seek comfort from a loved one while others isolate and disengage.
If your parents touched you, listened to you, helped you express what was going on in your soul, then it will be normal for you to express feelings, seek connection, and expect relief when life gets bumpy. When people experience comfort during their childhood, they know a deeper level of bonding and intimacy. If you did not receive comfort, you didn’t learn how to feel and deal, you didn’t learn words for the feelings in your soul (“SOUL WORDS”), and a genuine emotional connection was most likely missing from your life.
STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT POST IN THIS SERIES: Relationship Tools, How We Love Part 3
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