Over the last few years I’ve been very much aware of the fact that my marriage has been ‘parental’ in nature. Even before our relationship started to deteriorate and I began to react to my husband in the way that I often react to my mother, I used to feel that he was the ‘strong one’ who I couldn’t do without, and I was the weaker, less competent, and more dependent party. It is no co-incidence that the Panic Disorder which set in with a vengeance when I left home to go to university, disappeared after we got together as mysteriously as it had first appeared. At the time, I interpreted it as a good sign which demonstrated the security I felt with him – it was only years later that what should have been the obvious parental parallel, hit home.
In the language of Transactional Analysis, which I have been reading about lately in Thomas Harris’s book ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’, my husband tends to inhabit his Parent in our interactions, and I tend to inhabit my Child. Though of course there is also an element of my Child invoking his Parent, and vice versa – we each play the roles that we are used to, and they encourage and sustain each other. I sometimes wonder whether my realisation that I had chosen a marriage that in some ways replicated my parental home environment, in itself led to me more actively ‘seeing my husband as my mother’, and reacting accordingly. It’s hard to know whether I’m simply more aware of how triggering I find some of his words and actions; or whether I find them so triggering because of the realisation I have come to and the now almost automatic tendency to interpret his behaviour as parental.
There was a particular section in ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’, that took me surprise and gave me pause for thought. It did so because that section took its own truth completely for granted, and yet it didn’t feel like something that was true for me. To quote from that section: “We fear the Parent in others; their Child we can love. One helpful practice in a difficult transaction is to see the little boy, or the little girl in another person….”. I had a similar experience of bafflement around a year ago, when I watched a drama series on DVD in which the female protagonist was asked by her therapist to imagine talking to her younger self. The idea was that by being aware of the compassion that she had for her ‘child self’, and by identifying with that part of her, it would be easier to show herself compassion in the present.
In both cases, the assumption that one would feel care and compassion for either one’s own or another’s ‘inner child’ (in the way that one might feel compassion for an actual child) was unquestioned. And yet I feel unable to relate to that sentiment, in either case. Thinking about my husband’s inner child does not make me love that child, and it is not helpful in trying to relate to him. His inner child may not feel as crushing as his ‘parent’, but it still feels threatening. I feel like running away and shouting: “Keep your child to yourself, I want nothing to do with it, take it away. I don’t want to be burdened with your child, I don’t want to be taken over by your child, I don’t want to be suffocated by it or intruded upon, or violated by it. You deal with it – don’t make me do it. I can’t carry your child for you – you do it. I want absolutely nothing to do with it”.
I want to run away from other people’s ‘Child’ selves – they frighten me. By contrast, my own Child does not frighten me – but I frighten myself when I think about how I feel about her. I am not a violent person, either in thought or in action. And yet, when I visualise my ‘inner child’ I don’t feel compassion – I feel a need to do her damage, of a very permanent kind. The words that go through my head are horrible, as are the accompanying images. The only reason it doesn’t feel more horrific to think those thoughts is that as they’re fundamentally about me and not about someone else, they feel justified. When I think of what I want to do to her, it feels as though she deserves it – that things would be better if she wasn’t around. When I try and imagine her, I feel angry; I blame her for not protecting me – the me that I am now. I somehow feel as though if she had done a better job, I would have ‘turned out better’. She failed, she was weak. She didn’t stand up for me – the person I was meant to become. She let me down – and maybe if she was simply wiped out, all her mistakes would be wiped out too.
My therapist asked me where all these words and thoughts are coming from – whose voice it is that is actually running riot in my head. In the language of Transactional Analysis, it is my own Parent, coming down in judgment upon my Child. It feels not so much like an actual replay of particular situations experienced or sentences heard; but an agglomeration of disparate ‘parent data’ picked up in different contexts and at different times, patched together to make an ugly weapon of words.
I have a better sense of where my feelings about other people’s ‘inner children’ comes from. My mother is a highly anxious person with little control over her emotions. If she feels it, she shows it. If she thinks it, she speaks it. And she seeks reassurance, constantly. She inhabits her Child – and that Child is both unable to hold others’ emotions, and unable to hold its own. These days I have put up such barriers between us and hold her so much at arms’ length, that if she tells me she is anxious about something, my response is to tell her that it is her problem, not mine. But I didn’t always have those barriers up; and even if I can’t remember much about the past, I can more than imagine that when I was younger, the torrent of her emotions would have felt like an invasion – like a force that threatened to suffocate and take me over. It was best not to call up that force at all – and so I learned to keep things to myself, and to deal with my emotions on my own.
And so when I think of someone else’s ‘inner child’, all I can think is that I don’t want another adult to burden my Child with their Child. I feel guilty for saying that – because it feels hard, cold, and not at all compassionate. And it’s not as though I have an aversion to ever dealing with anyone’s emotions. I really want to be there for those I care about and I hope my friends would be able to attest to the fact that I have supported them through distress and pain, without feeling burdened or overwhelmed. But those were adult to adult interactions – and I wasn’t with them day in, day out. But ask me to try and deal with the Child part of those closest to me – for example, my husband – and it triggers an immediate desire to back away.
It’s a good thing my husband can often cope with my ‘Child’, even if I cannot cope with his. When he ‘brought his adult’ and offered a compromise after an argument the other day, I would have loved to have been able to react in a similarly adult way, and to thank him graciously for the compromise, and move on. Instead, it felt as though the only possible reactions in my repertoire were to huffily accept while continuing to feel angry and thwarted, or to dissolve in tears of frustration and a need to be comforted. In a split-second I gave in to vulnerability and chose the latter; it was the better option, but still a far cry from the mature response of an equal partner in control of their emotions. Somehow I have a feeling that the more I am able to react in an adult way, the more compassion I might be able to have for my ‘child’; and the more compassion I can have for my own, perhaps the more I can have for others’ too. It’s a theory still untested, but an experiment I definitely need to do.