Our core expectations for close relationships are affected by all of our previous close relationships, whether with parents, siblings, former spouses, lovers or friends. At certain periods in our life significant people, or even life itself through specific events that affected us, ran up a series of debits or credits in terms of what you needed. Time passes, we walk through life’s revolving door, marry and hand our bill balance over to our spouse. Our spouse gets a credit or a debit for what others did or did not do.
If my account has many positive experiences from the past full of love and pleasure, then my ledger has a positive balance. If you experienced a healthy married home with loving parents and a stable family life, you’d carry a credit balance into your current relationships. Sadly, it’s very likely that our life ledger has many experiences of pain, fear and anger. If so, you may carry a debit balance into your relationships, and unknowingly, you may expect your spouse to make up the difference for all the debts.
Most of the time, we’re not aware of our life ledger; we simply act upon it. The decisions we make based on our ledger surface in our current relationships when we discover that what we hoped for isn’t happening. We often end up treating our spouse as an enemy, and we punish them for hurts in our past. We can’t expect our loved ones to be the father or the mother or the friend we wish we had growing up. We can’t expect our spouse to make up for what we didn’t get growing up, yet we transfer our expectations to our spouse and often feel disappointed and betrayed when they fall short. The spouse usually has no idea about the life ledger balance, doesn’t know the expectations exist, and doesn’t expect to make up for what someone else did or didn’t do.
Based on our ledger, we develop what Dr. Lori Gordon called an “emotional allergy.” An emotional allergy is an intense reaction to a situation that is similar to an event that was painful in our past, but that is not the same situation in the present. I’ll give you an example: you grew up in a home where your father was unfaithful to your mother. You go to the movies with your husband, and a scene shows a father telling his wife he’s going to be late coming home one night. You remember how your father used to arrive home late, and now you know it was because he was unfaithful. After the movie, you stop for coffee and dessert and your husband tells you he’s going to be late coming home next week because he’s working on a particular project. Your response is anger, blame and suspicion. Your husband is confused with no idea why you’re responding so irrationally. The movie scene triggered a painful memory that is similar to the past but not the same in the present. It’s a debit in your life ledger, causing an intense reaction to a situation. If my partner acts in any way similar to someone I once cared about or was dependent on who hurt me, that one similarity in behavior can trigger an intense emotional reaction, and we overreact. The fear in our current relationship is that all those things that ever went wrong before MIGHT happen again. It’s an emotional reaction, not a cognitive reaction; it’s an emotional allergy.
The ability to identify and interrupt the dynamic of our life ledger is crucial to sustaining a loving relationship. The willingness to confide vulnerable feelings, be listened to with empathy and be responded to with caring and empathy determine the course of the relationship. In intimate relationships, it’s easy to drown in misunderstanding. We don’t understand what is going on, and we react rather than ask and listen.
Life Ledger Questions
Am I punishing my spouse for what someone else did?
Am I expecting my spouse to make up for what I missed?
How and when do I do this?
Can you determine what “life ledger balances” from your past you might be bringing forward?
Can you pinpoint the person from your past whom your partner may represent in the particular situation?
When you have an argument with or partner, does he or she tell you, “I’m not your mother,” or I’m not your father”?
Choose Your Reaction
In order to disrupt the cycle, two critical ingredients are needed: Choosing your Reaction and Confiding. You don’t control the external circumstances, but you do control your thoughts that control your reaction. Engage in productive thinking. When your buttons are pushed and you react, remember that it’s your button being pushed and your trigger being pulled – they are yours, and you’re responsible for them. It’s your job to understand where your reactions come from, what they’re about and how you react. Ask yourself why you respond that way; where is that coming from?
Lastly, confide in your spouse how you feel, the emotions behind the feelings causing the reaction. Very often our spouse sees the behavior and the response but not the beliefs and emotions behind the reaction. If we become more aware of our spouses’ fears, we move to understanding and empathy for our partner. Confiding accrues emotional intimacy, which most often leaves our ledger balance with a positive balance.
Lisa May is the Executive Director of Live the Life South Florida etc. She can be reached at [email protected] or by mail at 5110 N. Federal Hwy. Suite 102, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33308