Sometimes we have to look back to move ahead.
This weekend, I am speaking at a retreat for a group of newly married couples from our Church. About 30 couples will join this event for rest and refreshment in their relationships with each other and God.
The theme they asked me to speak on is the topic of a book I am completing. My title is “Your 18 Year Factor: how your upbringing affected your life.”
The premise is captured in the saying: “Home is where the heart is.” We might say, “Home is where the heart is formed” and this is not good news for those who experienced a difficult upbringing.
The 18 year factor study is based on a strong belief in the power of parental influence as the God-ordained means for character formation in children.
The foundation and formation of our identity and character; future health and stability occurs in the first 18 years of life. If you’ve experienced a healthy and functionally stable upbringing, you’ve received a gift that has become increasingly rare.
Some people, however, are not able to function well in healthy relationships because they are too unresolved in relation to their 18 year factor. They have deep issues that hinder them from being vulnerable, transparent and trusting – three qualities especially essential to a good marriage.
We cannot do well in our relationships (as God intended) unless we address the deeper issues of our own hearts.
My book will be an invitation to take an honest look at the underlying influences that have shaped your life and to view these influences as primary points of access for spiritual transformation.
A number of people have graciously allowed me to use their stories in my book. I’ve also collected stories from other places.
In their book, The Blessing, Gary Smalley and John Trent, tell a moving story that goes to the heart of the concerns I am writing about.
“Nancy grew up in an affluent suburb outside a major city. During Nancy’s early years, her mother loved to socialize with other women at the club and at frequent civic activities. In fact, with a marriage that was less than fulfilling, these social gatherings became of paramount importance to Nancy’s mother.
When Nancy was very young, her mother would dress her up in elegant clothes (the kind you had to sit still in, not play in) and take her and her older sister to the club. But, as Nancy grew older, this practice began to change.
Unlike her mother and older sister, Nancy was not petite. In fact, she was quite large and big-boned. Neither was Nancy a model of tranquility. She was a tomboy who loved outdoor games, swinging on fences, and animals of all kinds.
As you might imagine, such behavior from a daughter who was being groomed to be a debutante caused real problems…
Nancy’s mother tried desperately to mend her daughter’s erring ways. Nancy was constantly scolded about being “awkward” and “clumsy.” During shopping sprees, Nancy was often subjected to verbal barbs designed to motivate her to lose weight.
“All the really nice clothes are two sizes too small for you. They’re your sister’s size,” her mother would taunt. Nancy was finally forced on a strict diet to try to make her physically presentable to others.
Nancy tried hard to stick to her diet and be all her mother wanted. However, more and more often Nancy’s mother and sister would go to social events and leave Nancy at home. Soon, all invitations to join these functions stopped. After all, her mother told her, “You don’t want to be embarrassed because of the way you look with all the other children around, do you?”
When Nancy first came in for counseling, she was in her thirties, married, and the mother of two children. For years she had struggled with her weight and with feelings of inferiority. Her marriage had been a constant struggle for her as well.
Nancy’s husband loved her and was deeply committed to her, but her inability to feel acceptable left her constantly insecure and defensive.
As a result of this hypersensitivity, every time she and her husband began to draw close, Nancy would feel threatened. Invariably, some small thing her husband did would set her off, and her marriage was back at arm’s length.
Frankly, because of her lack of acceptance in the past, being at arm’s length was the only place Nancy felt comfortable in a relationship.
Nancy had two daughters. The older girl was big-boned and looked very much like Nancy, but the younger daughter was a beautiful, petite child. What was causing Nancy incredible pain was the relationship between her mother and this younger child and the effect of that relationship on Nancy’s feelings and behavior.
Just like in Nancy’s childhood, her mother catered to the younger “pretty” daughter, while the older daughter was left out and ignored. Old hurts and wounds that Nancy thought were hidden in her past were now being relived through watching her own children. The heartache and loneliness that her older daughter was feeling was an echo of Nancy’s unhappiness.
Nancy was also angry at God. In spite of her prayers, she felt He had changed neither her relationship with her mother nor her present circumstances. She seemed doomed to repeat vicariously through her daughters her own painful past…
For Nancy, her relationship with her husband, her children, and God had all been affected by missing out on the blessing that she had tried for years to grasp, but that never quite came within reach….
Although Nancy had moved away from home physically, she still remained chained to the past emotionally. Her lack of approval from her parent in the past kept a feeling of genuine acceptance from others in the present from taking root in her life.
In Nancy’s case, this lack of approval even kept her from believing that her heavenly Father truly accepted her.
Some people are driven toward workaholism as they search for the blessing they never received at home. Always striving for acceptance, they never feel satisfied that they are measuring up. Others get mired in withdrawal and apathy as they give up hope of ever truly being blessed.
Unfortunately, this withdrawal can become so severe that it can lead to chronic depression and even suicide. For almost all children who miss out on their parents’ blessing, at some level this lack of acceptance sets off a lifelong search.