The Ghosts from the Past


We are all vulnerable in love – these sensitivities or raw spots are underneath the surface (imbedded in our memories and experiences). An intimate partner may rub against these raw spots – unintentionally, re-igniting an old feeling from the past.  What are these raw spots and how do we know that these are ghosts from the past?

With respect to relationship –who has not felt disappointed, hurt, neglected, diminished or abandoned? It is part of the territory – hence “love is risky business”. These feelings arise with any significant people in our past, especially parents, who give us our basic template for loving relationships, siblings and other members of our families and of, course, past and present lovers. The more intimate the relationship – the greater chance of misattuned moments leaving wounds or injuries to reside. Those misattuned moments come through in careless actions and words and can sometimes leave a sting. Left unresolved they may become painful spots when easily rubbed against or touched.

For example, when my partner walks out of the room when I am talking to him, I become very sensitive to this action and react to him with anger. In his mind, he thinks we have finished our discussion, and unknowingly, I am not finished… I have more to say and thus feel dismissed by him. This takes me back to a child, when I previously felt dismissed and neglected by my mother. She would often “shoo me away or dismiss me” when she had enough of me. I felt the pain of this disconnection in that relationship and I therefore became hypervigilant to this kind of behaviour, especially in my current relationship with my partner. Sudden dismissals trigger a feeling of emotional abandonment in me.

The degree to how many raw spots you have or how deep they reside depend on your early relationships and how secure, safe and loving they were.  Those who had their security, safety needs met, will have an easier time with healing the raw spots whereas those you were neglected, abandoned, abused or traumatized by those that they depended and relied on, may have a more arduous and longer healing process. For many, trusting another to help them repair and release the emotional charges may take time, patience and care.

Still, we are not prisoners of our past and I see this in my couples work. We can heal deep vulnerabilities with the help of a loving spouse. We can earn a secure connection with the aid of a responsive partner who is attuned to us and helps us attend to the painful feelings of the past. Love is the “healing balm” and really does transform us. This works because the part of the brain where the vulnerability rises doesn’t recognize whether it is happening in the past or present. In real time, we can heal those past wounds in the present moment with a safe, present and listening partner.

But first, how to recognize a raw spot when it is rubbed? There are two signs that tell you when your raw spot or partner’s raw spot has been hit. First there is a radical shift in the emotional tone of the conversation. One moment, you are talking about your weekend plans, having an engaged conversation, and now one of you is upset and raging, or becoming cold and withdrawing. You are thrown out of the conversation – into a dimension of disconnection.

The second cue is the reaction to the perceived offense seems out of proportion. Your partner has a reaction to your statement – that doesn’t appear to fit. He may respond to what you said in an unreasonable tone or you find yourself doing the same.

These cues are all about our primal attachment needs and fears coming out to the surface. All of a sudden, our deepest and most powerful emotions are driving the bus.

What is important to look at here is first, the attachment cue that triggers the emotion. It can be a look, a phrase, a gesture or change in emotional tone. This triggers our “attachment alarm” and creates or irritates an old raw spot. Your brain gets the message “man the battle stations” – in other words, “something bad is going to happen”. Then our body responds with a sensation – like a “churning stomach” or a “lump in the throat”. Strong emotions will cause the body to move into survival mode – “flight, fight, or freeze”. Our intellect – the brain’s pre-frontal cortex is slow to get activated here when this happens. Eventually, it looks for what the cue means and then finds meaning…telling us whether we are safe or in danger.  Our conclusion of this event has us either move away, toward or against our lover. It is this readiness and reaction that is wired into every emotion. Anger tells us to approach or fight, shame tells us to withdraw or hide and fear tells us to flee or freeze or in extreme to attack back. Sadness primes us to grieve and let go. All this happens very quickly.

To look deeper, you must feel the emotion and notice it. Pay attention to it when it is happening in the moment.  Ask what is the attachment cue – ie what do you see your partner doing; then inquire….what is the feeling; the associated sensation and the impulse that is showing up – ie either move in or away or against. Then begin to look if there is a “ghost standing behind your partner – in other words who does this feeling remind you of – a familiar feeling of a parent or a past love? And underneath all of this, what is the longing or the desire that is not getting met? Perhaps it is a hug that you desire to feel safe again or some kind words. As you notice what is going on, begin to share this with your partner. Help your partner became of aware of your triggers so that he/she can assist you in these times of distress and learn to soothe you. Have the courage to confess your vulnerability and invite your partner to know your raw spots so he/she can navigate around them and address your underlying need for safety and security. Your partner will thank you for your courage to be vulnerable, a “gift” to your relationship. With time, you will dissolve the memory of the “ghost” that is standing in front of you and really see who you are loving.

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