Echoes from childhood
In the last post I introduced the idea of a ‘couple fit’. This refers to each individual in the couple being like a piece of a jigsaw that fits together, because their unconscious story from their family of origin dovetails. Another way of thinking of this, is our partner provides an inverted mirror image of a shared experience that overlaps in some way. Once married, issues connected to our ‘couple fit’ come to life in a variety of ways.
So, whilst couples can be enjoying a happy marital rhythm, this can be interrupted when we encounter transition points. One of these transitions can be having children. When our child reaches a certain age, the same age as when something significant happened to us, unprocessed emotions can rise to the surface. Child psychotherapist Phillipa Perry suggests that the size and form of our child’s body can unconsciously reconnect us with feelings that we had as a child. We may see some turbulence in our marriage as a result. The strong emotions that emerge may be related to our ‘couple fit’.
Feelings resurfacing in marriage
In the case example of Andy and Rose from my book, it was when their child turned five that things became even more stressful and unsettled in their marriage. During couples therapy they came to understand that this was the age when Rose’s younger brother was sent away from home. He went to live with his cousin during term time in order to attend the same prestigious school. Leaving Rose alone without a playmate and in the company of her depressed mother. So when their child turned five, feelings of isolation and abandonment surfaced in Rose and Andy’s marriage.
They felt stretched and under-resourced as parents and in their marriage. Andy felt neglected as Rose’s energy seemed to get spent increasingly on the children. In turn, Rose felt abandoned by Andy who seemed to spend more and more time away at work. Themes of depression and isolation were a shared part of their unconscious story from their respective families of origin.
Rose’s mother and Andy’s father were both depressed and often unavailable for them whilst they were growing up. When they went through the transition of having a second child, these strong emotions came to the surface. They both experienced feelings of sadness and low mood, although Andy was depressed in a less obvious way and used work as a way to supress feelings of sadness.
Similar to their parents’ lack of emotional availability, Andy and Rose perceived each other as emotionally unavailable. This formed part of Andy and Rose’s ‘couple fit’ as they acted out together their shared unconscious story and experiences from childhood. As the raw unprocessed emotions became more alive again, it provided Andy and Rose with a second chance for them to be worked through, an opportunity that wasn’t available when they were children. Fortunately for them, they were already in couples therapy by this point and their therapist guided them through the process.
Moses and processing childhood emotions
Whilst it’s difficult to identify a biblical story related to the transition of having children and difficult emotions surfacing from one’s own childhood, the story of Moses does allow us to reflect on how early life experiences may trigger strong emotional reactions in adulthood. When Moses is an adult he witnesses something disturbing – a Hebrew slave being beaten by an Egyptian master. ‘Many years later, when Moses had grown up, he went out to visit his own people, the Hebrews…………. During his visit, he saw an Egyptian beating one of his fellow Hebrews.’ (Exodus 2:11). Something within Moses seems to snap, perhaps it’s the sight of another male Hebrew being harmed that could have easily been him.
On another level, this incident could have unconsciously taken Moses back and reminded him that he could have been harmed as a baby Hebrew boy. Growing up in the palace, adopted by the princess of Egypt, he would have been aware of the historical context of the mass killing of baby Hebrew boys at the time when he was born. But his life was spared. Whilst Moses was adopted by the princess of Egypt, he probably didn’t look like the Egyptians. His physical appearance would have resembled the Hebrew people. He may even have seen a physical resemblance of himself in the slave that was being beaten.
Replaying early trauma
Moses initially may have felt helpless, watching the Hebrew slave being physically abused and beaten. This may have taken him unconsciously back to his own sense of vulnerability, that he too could have been killed at the hands of the Egyptians as a baby. Moses perhaps takes on the murderous rage that was once directed at the Hebrew baby boys and himself as a baby. His rage is turned on this Egyptian who symbolises the aggressor and Moses kills him. From a psychological perspective, it feels like a re-playing of early trauma, and once Moses’ sense of trauma and buried rage is triggered, it overtakes him.
This is an extreme example, and of course I’m hypothesising about the possible psychological links for Moses because these are not spelt out or discussed in the Bible. But there may have been a range of situations and memories that tapped into the feelings of anger, rage and injustice.
Reminders of our childhood self
On a lower level and on a different scale, we too may see something or have an experience with our child that unconsciously takes us back to a different emotional state. In this state we may act out our distress with our spouse as part of our ‘couple fit’. Like Rose acted out feelings of sadness with Andy when their son turned five – this was a trigger point because it was the same age when her younger brother was sent away to attend school with their cousin. Just as Moses may have seen an echo of himself in the slave that was being beaten, we too may see an echo of ourselves in our child and consciously or unconsciously we may be reminded of the time when we were a similar age.
Personal inquiry and making the links
If you as a couple do find yourselves having lots of intense arguments flare up suddenly, it may be helpful to think about your child’s age and life stage. For example, what was happening in your life at 18 months old? Was another sibling born? Were there some difficulties for your parents at this age? What was the family atmosphere like for you at 18 months old? You may or may not have answers to these questions. But if you do, then this may provide a clue for you as to why you may be experiencing a more unsettled period in your marriage at this point in your child’s development.
Caveat to transitions
As a caveat, all transitions can be stressful and having small children can naturally be demanding. Transitions with a normal degree of stress can usually be worked through over time and don’t continue to be so problematic. An equilibrium of sorts is reached at some point. But if the strength of your emotional reactions seem out of proportion and you wonder why they are so strong – or if they flare up with increasing frequency instead of gradually being worked through, this could be a sign that issues around transition points connected to your ‘couple fit’ may have been triggered.
God of all our lifetime and transitions
Thank you, God, that you’ve told us: ‘I will be your God throughout your lifetime–until your hair is white with age. I made you, and I will care for you. I will carry you along and save you.’ (Isaiah 46:6). Thank you, God, that you are our God for all our lifetime and you will carry us through all the transitions in our marriage. Help us understand how we can support one another during transition points with our children. And help us to have compassion on our younger childhood self who may be seeking to have some space for unexpressed emotions to be heard and finally understood.
 Perry, P. (2019). The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read: (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) [Kindle DX version]. Retrieved from Amazon.co.uk