Insecurities from My Past are Harming My Current Relationship

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Reader’s Question

My partner and I have been together for almost 4 years but have been arguing more since our daughter was born 16 months ago. I lost my mother 7 years ago when I was 22 years old and my father was virtually absent from my life since I was 2. We have a good relationship now since my mother’s death, however I still feel like the little girl who seeks fatherly love. My fears of abandonment are so much stronger now that I have a daughter. Her daddy is nothing like mine (I did that on purpose). However our arguments are usually the cause of my feeling unloved, unappreciated, and unattractive. My partner has made it clear to me that my fears are pushing him away. I recognize that this is my baggage. Please help.

Psychologist’s Reply

Unfortunately, the predicament you describe is all too common. A cornerstone of cognitive psychology is the notion that we create useful mental schemas, or models, of concepts that we use. Perhaps one of our most important cognitive schemas is our self-schema, or the mental model we carry around about ourselves. Some people interpreted their earliest experiences as indications that they were unattractive, or unworthy, or unlovable, and they may not have revised their respective self-schema even when subsequent evidence indicates that it’s wrong. That can be frustrating to others whose cognitive schema of us differs so widely from our own.

When we were young, we had no way to recognize that maltreatment or abandonment by our caretakers was an indication of those adults’ own problems, rather than evidence of our inherent badness. So, children frequently end up internalizing the blame for the negative treatment they receive. Also, we all create schemas having to do with intimate relationships. Just as our self-schema may be damaged by early maltreatment, our schema for close relationships may be based on expectations that the rug will be suddenly pulled out from under our feet if indeed that is what happened in our first such relationships (which are typically with parents).

Of course using the concept of cognitive schemas may help you make sense out of how you got to this point, but the most important question is what to do now. Using these same concepts, we could say you need to consciously reform your self-schema and schema for intimate relationships. It takes repeated effort and is a gradual process, and it involves consciously challenging the old assumptions upon which your troublesome schemas are based. Because those assumptions are taken as “fact,” they end up being the lens through which you interpret your experience. For example, if your partner seems particularly distant, your relationship schema likely leads you to automatically interpret that lack of engagement as a sign of the worst possible case (abandonment).

Recognizing the nature of those underlying assumptions is most difficult in the heat of the moment, when experiencing strong emotions such as abandonment or cutting criticism. So, begin by setting aside time to calmly think through your assumptions about yourself and your relationship, and actively challenge those assumptions that do not match the evidence from the reality of your life currently. For example, when you examine your underlying assumptions, you may find that you have taken as fact that you’re unlovable. Challenge that assumption with the evidence of the relationships and people you have in your life who love you. In this process, it may be helpful to do some of this work with your partner’s input. Ultimately, though, you have to do this work inside your own head, as that’s where the schemas exist.

Repeating this process will gradually change your cognitive schemas, allowing you to catch yourself when emotions are running high, and thereby challenge your assumptions even in those difficult situations. Eventually that will not even be necessary, as you interpret your partner’s behavior very differently than you do now. Start today, and stick with it. You may not notice a sudden shift, but at some point you’re liable to reflect and realize that you have grown to be much more secure in yourself and in your romantic relationship.

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