By Drs. Bev and Tom Rodgers

How Your Childhood Affects Your Adult Relationships

The things that happen in our early lives can have a great effect on our conscious and unconscious minds. Typically, you have little awareness of our subconscious, so if you ignore hurt and pain from the past, it has a way of coming back to haunt you. It can affect your health with headaches, upset stomachs, and other somatic illnesses. Or it can affect your relationships as you treat people the way you have been treated or put up with unhealthy treatment because it is familiar to you and you may think it is normal. You may not be conscious that this is happening, but it is powerful nonetheless.

            Have you ever wondered why you respond to certain situations in a particular way? And this makes you wonder why. You tell yourself, It’s just the way I am, but your friends don’t get upset about these issues and you wonder why you do. Perhaps you overreact to or become angry with your spouse and children and like the apostle Paul, you do the very thing you hate. Paul said in Romans 7:19, “When I want to do good, I don’t; and when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway” (TLB) The NIV Bible says, “What a wretched man I am! Who can rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).  Paul wasn’t too far off in his questioning. The answer to our human dilemma lies in the body—the brain to be exact.

            For the sake of simplicity, let’s imagine that when we are wounded in childhood, memories of these events form “wrinkles” in the brain metaphorically speaking. The proper term is sulcus or sulci for plural. The more traumatic the memory, the deeper the “wrinkle” or memory groove. Childhood traumatic memories make deeper grooves than most because the brain in still formable during this time. In the Soul Healing Love Model, we call these wounds Soul Wounds. When water flows down a hill it tends to find the deepest groove or gully to flow down. So when the water of life gravitates to the deepest grooves, those memories are triggered. This is why these childhood memories are easily triggered in your close adult relationships.

            The interesting thing about deep soul wounds is that these traumatic memories are not stored or processed in the neocortex, instead they are processed in the old brain or what is now called the monkey or lizard brain. This is important because the neocortex is the rational problem-solving part of the brain. It is where reasoning, judgement, complex cognitive thoughts, decision making, self-evaluation, and moderation of correct social behavior occur. The neocortex allows us to observe the things we are doing from an objective perspective.

            The old brain or the monkey brain is the rudimentary part of the brain that is very primitive in functioning. It is the seat of primal, powerful emotions and is where traumatic memories are stored and processed. This is also where the limbic system is located. This system causes us to have a fight, flight, freeze or appease response when we are in real or perceived danger. When traumatic memories are triggered, we often feel in danger and have a fight-or-flight response, even when the danger is only in our perceptions.

            We humans have a highly developed neocortex. Although other animals have a neocortex, particularly other primates, it is not as advanced in its functioning. Since other animals do not have a sophisticated frontal lobe, they must depend on their old brain for functioning. This can cause them to overreact to situations because they are missing the rational part of the brain. Unfortunately, when it comes to traumatic memories, we humans often do the same thing. Why is this a Problem?

            Unlike the neocortex, the old brain formulates responses and subsequent behaviors by matching present patterns of sensory experience with past patterns. Simple and primitive, it makes broad distinctions related to safety and survival that are not always accurate. The monkey brain is unable to make subtle distinctions according to circumstances and its knee-jerk responses are typically blown out of proportion to current stimuli. These extreme survival responses become ingrained as they are recorded and stored in the old brain and create unhealthy habituated responses for us. This is why, for example, combat veterans relive trauma when they hear a car backfire or people who have a great deal of rejection from the past can overreact to even the slightest frown from a loved one (or anyone else!). To the old brain, all threats can be life-threatening. The more past trauma you have, the more you can overreact to real or perceived trauma in the present.

            Another key factor is that the old brain has no sense of time, which means a person can experience a traumatic soul wound at age 5 that can be triggered at age 35 and can feel the same intense emotion that he or she did as a child. The problem is that the individual is probably not in the same amount of danger. The old bran is just overreacting.

            We once had a client who was burned in a fire when he was four years old. As an adult, he still had the same fight or flight response when he smelled smoke. So, you see, when your childhood wounds are triggered, you can overreact in much the same way you did as a child. Now, it is one thing to be burned in a fire, but what if your soul wounds are more emotional in nature? What if they were inflicted by those closest to you, like your mother or father? These wounds can be triggered by those closest to your in your adult life—your spouse or your children. This explains why there can be such pain and even volatility in families.

            Frequently, people will be angrier with their spouse that they were with their parents. This is because as children it was taboo to express anger toward their parents. But as adults they do not have as many sanctions on their emotions and they feel more freedom to let their toxic feelings out. Transgenerational theorist Murray Bowen called this phenomenon, “Putting your parent’s face on your partner.” This means that if you were treated poorly by your father and were not allowed to say anything to him as a child you could overreact to your spouse’s comments and constructive criticisms and rage at her seeing her more like your father than she actually is. Giving a present situation more emotion than it deserves because a childhood soul wound is being triggered is called REACTIVITY. 

            When you are reactive the whistle blows in the old brain, the amygdala to be exact, and you have physiological triggers such heart palpitations, upset stomach, pupil dilation, teeth clenching, your chest tightens and you might get red-faced as cortisol is released into your blood stream. Your autonomic nervous system is set in motion. At this point you can begin to recognize that a soul wound is being triggered. Helping clients recognize this helps them see why they overreact the way they do.

            Learning about the old brain and how it responds when soul wounds are triggered can be very freeing. People often say that they had no idea what overtook them when they would get so angry. We have heard things like, I thought I was not saved, I thought I was possessed by a demon, I thought I had no self-control and that God had left me. Some said they would pray and pray that they would not get angry only to rage at their loved ones again and again. Many people feel like they are bad people or bad Christians because their reactivity keeps them from practicing emotional regulation and self-control. It is hard to practice this fruit of the Spirit when your brain is working against you. But once you become aware of your triggers and subsequent reactivity, you can attach it to your childhood soul wounds. This can help you separate your current emotion from the hurt and pain of your past, stop your reactivity and give your present situation only the energy that it deserves. You can then ask the Lord to help you heal your soul wounds which helps you practice self-control. This can do wonders for your marital and family conflicts. In becoming aware of yours and your spouse’s soul wounds, you can pray for the healing that the Lord so graciously provides for each other and your relationships. Your conflicts with those close to you change shape as you learn not to be reactive and manage your emotions in a healthy way.

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