A needed warning for parents is found in the story of a mother whose negative influence controlled her daughter’s thinking and habits well past childhood years. Cindy had to overcome the effects of her mother’s extreme resentment toward her father before she could trust a man enough to marry him. Cindy’s parents divorced when she was about twelve years old. Though her father was a good man, her mother’s bitterness toward him profoundly shaped Cindy’s heart regarding all men. When Cindy and her siblings spent weekends with their father, her mother programmed them, even required them, to send a nonverbal message to him by getting out of his car quickly when he dropped them off.
When Cindy was twenty-five years old, she met Bill, a good man who became her husband five years later. It took Bill five years of patient love to overcome Cindy’s damaged view of men. Bill recounted to me that when he and Cindy were first dating, he had to ask her to allow him to stop his car completely before she got out of it. At twenty-five years of age, Cindy was unaware of how and why she got out of the car quickly. Bill simply understood her action as unsafe. He didn’t know the history behind it until later.
It’s hard to imagine parents using children as tools for expressing their bitterness, but it happens more often than most realize. Parents must understand the power they have to set templates for their children—damaging templates that usually stay with them for years.
Painful childhood experiences (and protective mechanisms used to survive them) tend to cause children to adopt irrational large-scale generalizations about all of life and all people. Although their suffering occurs in a specific context involving a small number of people, the magnitude of the pain at this vulnerable time of life is more significant than most understand. Specific adverse childhood experiences form a template that shapes a child’s expectations of other people and circumstances. A young girl’s withdrawn or violent father leads her to believe that all men are like him. Her mother’s resentment toward her father further supports a large-scale generalization about “all” men. Though such large-scale generalizations are irrational, we can understand how the rational part of life is damaged by past experiences.
Fear and control
Fear and control also play a significant role in the adult lives of those who suffered childhood abuses. Significantly disrupted and severely dysfunctional homes are unsafe and unstable places that make children feel insecure or afraid. It’s not uncommon for those with a painful past to use the protective mechanism of control to minimize the fears in their troubled upbringing. These children often become adults who continue to try to control life and people to afford them a feeling of safety and security—to keep fear at bay.
Fear and control function as a kind of glue that cements past and present with a strong potential of ruining the future. Fear of what happened in the past ignites unnecessary and excessive efforts to control the present. One woman recalls how her verbally abusive mother caused her to form a habit of running from situations she could not control.
Like most protective mechanisms, fear and control especially hurt adult relationships. Fear of damage caused by someone from the past becomes redirected at someone in the present, who is then placed (unfairly) under control lest he or she does similar things. The use of control becomes a payment that a person must pay for the pain caused by others. The tendency to control other adults conveys distrust and disrupts otherwise positive relationships. It also exposes an unhealthy attachment to a painful past.
A person who allows fear and control to dominate his life places unnecessary and suffocating demands on others. Those who are held hostage by fear of the past approach relationships with self-serving expectations. They fight off fear by approaching relationships on a kind of contractual arrangement. “I need you to____________. I expect you to_____________. I demand you to__________. If you fail, I will punish you by exploding or withdrawing.”
A mate dealing with fear and control in a spouse often finds himself saying:
- “I am not your father,” or “I am not your mother.”
- “Please stop projecting onto me what they did to you.”
- “I understand that your father rejected you, but I won’t reject you.”
- “You don’t need to hedge around me, I won’t lash out the way your father did.”
Large-scale generalizations partner with fear and control as enemies of true love because such love flourishes only in a relationship of trust and freedom. A couple can build a healthier future free from bondage to the past when the dynamics of fear and control are understood and responded to with patience and mercy.
Protective and suspicious dispositions
Traumatized children learn to withdraw into protective and suspicious dispositions because the risks of vulnerability, transparency, and trust are too frightening. Highly protective and suspicious adults must look back to ask if there is a story behind their approach to life and to people. My new book, “The 18-Year Factor: How our upbringing affects our lives and relationships,” offers a guided tour back to understand and resolve the ways our past invades and hurts the future. Purchase a copy here