A Family Study
Yesterday, we began looking at how the anxiety between parents gets passed along to their children in an unconscious, automatic emotional process. Today, I’ll apply the pattern to a dating scenario.
I mentioned yesterday that when one child gets the primary focus of the parental anxiety, the other children have less pressure and can develop more freely into less needy, less reactive, more goal-direct, more responsible individuals. In my family system, I became least triangled into my parents’ anxieties, and consequently became the most responsible child. With my brother as the primary focus of my parents’ anxiety, and my sister as the secondary focus (she had endless physical complications from Type 1 diabetes), I got lost under the radar.
The Star-Child Focus
That’s not to say that I escaped the shrapnel that shattered our home. It’s just that I looked like I was doing so much better than my brother and sister that I became the “star-child”–the child who played opposite my brother, the “problem child.” I excelled in academics, sports, and music, and it seemed like my principles were solid. What could be wrong with that picture? Beware: in chaotic families, appearances are rarely reality.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I entered my young adult life with unresolved issues of sexual, physical, emotional, verbal and spiritual abuse. Although I was the least focus of my parents’ anxiety, I had experienced, absorbed and internalized the chaos that happened to me and around me. I was far from unscathed. In fact, I was a mess inside, and was operating on auto-pilot, even though I, and everyone else, considered myself thoughtful and well-adjusted.
Appearances vs. Reality
I was actually operating from a host of automatic behaviors that characterize the lives of trauma survivors (see The Betrayal Bond, by Patrick Carnes), and I didn’t see it. It was from this place of unconscious reactivity that I chose my husband. I went into marriage with a deep well of emptiness that I wanted him to fill so that I didn’t have to face, feel and deal with my pain. He, too, came into the relationship with his own emptiness–left by the pattern of his own parents anxiety projected onto him–that he was hoping I would fill.
With hindsight, these patterns are easy to spot, but when you’re in the throws of them, they operate completely outside of awareness. When Scott and I met at that fated house party, we had no idea that the emotional processes of our respective families of origin had left footprints on our souls that would determine our next 20 years. Instead, both of us were sure that we would do life differently than our parents.
Then we went about creating the very same dynamics that we were trying to avoid.
Fast Forward 20 Years
Fast forward 20 years when we ended up divorced and back in the dating pool. Having learned from life, psychotherapy, graduate school for counseling, and my own voracious reading about relationship, I knew to be more thoughtful, more conscious, about my own emotional processes. In that personal growth spurt, I had also became more confident and forthright about who I am and more thoughtful about getting to know the person I was dating before I moved a potential partner from friend-zone to dating-zone…and then again to long-term commitment-zone. It took me almost a decade before I found someone with whom I could go to that third level.
I mentioned in a previous post that with all my diligence, I still made a couple errors in judgment, but I’m happy to say that I made a lot of really good choices, too–choices to not go beyond friend-zone with all but three of the men I met in nine years. Remember, sometimes failure is success (see “Dating Wisely 1.4”). Listening early to wisdom’s whisper that a relationship isn’t a good match, before your mind and body are screaming danger signals, is a good sign of increasing emotional health.
When a single friend of mine was matched up with my ex-husband through an on-line dating site within three months of our divorce, I learned another lesson. I knew that Scott was nowhere near ready to be in another relationship–that he was simply taking his unresolved issues from his family of origin and from our relationship with him into the dating world–and whoever he dated would be affected by them. I learned from this that if this was the level of readiness of people in the on-line dating world, I didn’t want to be in it. It’s probably an extreme position, but I decided then that on-line dating wasn’t for me.
On-line Dating or No
Whether you choose to do on-line dating or not, I encourage you to go slowly. Wisdom would caution that rushing won’t lead you to a good match any quicker than carefulness will. I’ll tell a story to illustrate that tomorrow.
For now, I encourage you to bring your attention to the feeling inside of you when you consider the option of taking it slowly. Does a slow pace leave you feeling anxious, peaceful, frustrated, confused, ambivalent? What does your emotion tell you about your motivations for dating at this point? What do you want to do about that?