Op-Ed: Love Can Conquer Trauma

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I was 7 years old and sitting on the edge of my bed listening to my parents scream in their all too frequent arguments. I was crying. I heard an ashtray crash against the door. The yelling intensified. I was afraid. The argument seemed like it lasted forever. I wanted to it stop. I needed it to stop.

After such an argument, my mother would disappear into her bedroom for weeks at a time. The doors to her room would stay closed and locked. She would isolate herself. I literally did not know the next time I’d see her or hear from her. My father would take over all parenting duties during her absences. He became my rock.

My older brother and I were extremely close as kids. During my parents’ arguments, he would often try to shield the brunt of the discomfort for me. My brother was a good kid, but my mother projected a lot of her own emptiness and anger onto him. She was critical and mean to him. She put him down. She treated him as a disappointment. She was not loving and caring. It was all harmful to my brother. And it was scary for me to watch him being emotionally hurt.

I grew up in a family where my mother was psychiatrically disturbed. She was moody, erratic, and unreliable. The pattern was clear: she would get angry at my father, a heated argument would ensue, and she would retreat to her locked bedroom for weeks at a time. When she would finally re-emerge, she acted as if nothing had happened. There was no discussion, no explanation, no apologies. The fleeting nature of my mother’s attention and affection was too complicated and perplexing for a young boy. It left me unsettled and constantly anxious.

I considered my mother’s hurtful behavior to be our family secret. I could not understand why my father did not divorce her. I could not understand why my father did not do more to protect us from her ongoing emotional abuse.

My mother died of cancer when I was 13 years old. But her psychiatric dysfunction had already taken its toll. As I embarked on adolescence and then young adulthood, I was confused and troubled. I was a fearful and sad person. I had no confidence. I expected others to reject me. I anticipated that people would be erratic and hurtful. And, unfortunately, I learned that emotional abuse is tolerated in a family.

But here is the critical message: A significant other can heal old wounds. A happy and satisfying relationship can, for those lucky enough, offset and rebuild the haunting damage of early family life. We cannot change the past, but it can be repaired.

My wife of 27 years is a perfect example. Our relationship has been the corrective emotional experience that has turned my early family pain into an enduring sense of happiness and contentment. It has not been easy. Early on I did many things that re-enacted my original family dynamics. I tried to get her to be rejecting. I needed to see her as distant and ungiving. I tried to push her away.

But my wife was too healthy, too normal, too committed to let my emotional baggage deter her. She was the antidote to what ailed me. I needed a significant other who was stable and predictable and happy and loving. Perhaps by intent — or perhaps by just plain luck — I found and chose the quintessential person who could repair my psychological damage. For all these years, she has been constant, unwavering, and loving. No matter what emotional narrative or ploy I have thrown at her, she has batted it away with the flick of a hand and marched on with her positive, optimistic attitude and behavior toward me.

My wife has facilitated my recovery from the past. She is a dependable, loving, and accepting soul who has helped me to repair my wounds. My past has been rewritten and my story line is changed. I no longer fear being rejected by her. I no longer fear that her love will just disappear. I seek out people who are accepting rather than critical.

Choosing the right significant other is crucial to one’s mental health. It needs to be a deliberate and intentional choice — not just based on fleeting romantic love.

My wife and I chose each other decades ago, and she has been the one who has transformed my old family pain. I am no longer that scared young boy who just wanted the screaming to stop. I am no longer that young boy whose mother emotionally disappeared for weeks at a time.

That young boy is now a happy man. A present relationship can indeed transform past emotional damage.

Alan D. Blotcky, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Birmingham, Alabama.

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