Focus on the Family

How Childhood Experiences Impact Love Styles

Husband embracing his wife from the side. He's kissing her head, she's smiling and enjoying it.
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Our childhood experiences and the way our parents related to us have imprinted certain thought patterns and behaviors on us.

We put the kids to bed and collapsed on the couch. I picked up a magazine and began thumbing through it while my husband, Milan, sat quietly watching me. This was a familiar feeling; I knew he was taking my emotional temperature. I was hoping he would pick up the remote and turn on the TV.

“How are you?” he asked.

I felt myself getting annoyed. “Why do you keep asking me that? It’s the same answer: I’m fine.”

We were on the brink of the familiar, wearisome, repetitive discussion that would send us both to bed mad and frustrated. I tried to decline the invitation to do the same old dance. “I think there is a game on TV tonight,” I suggested.

Milan wasn’t deterred. “If you are fine, then why did it bother you when I hugged and kissed you when I came home from work. You’re distant. What’s going on?”

I tried to explain myself, “I was in the middle of cooking dinner and supervising homework, and you wanted me to drop everything. Why do you have to make such a big deal about it?”

The next steps of the dance were predictable. Milan would give me examples of my lack of affection and attentiveness, and I would tell him he was too needy and made me feel smothered.

Like many couples, we had a frustrating core pattern. For 15 years we did not understand this simple truth: Our marriage problems didn’t start in our marriage. There were childhood wounds beneath our most irritating behaviors.

The root of the problem

Our pattern of relating to others is set in motion long before each of us met our spouse. Our childhood experiences and the way our parents related to us have imprinted certain thought patterns and behaviors on us. Milan and I call these imprints “love styles.”

For a few of us, our early love lessons were ideal, and our love style is healthy and positive. Most of us, though, had some hurtful experiences resulting in a harmful imprint and impaired love style, and that can handicap our marriage relationship.

Naturally, all of us want to feel we are doing our best as spouses. To do our best, we have to take an honest look at what hinders us. Keep in mind that the goal isn’t to find fault with our parents. The goal is to acknowledge the truth of our childhood so we have a road map for growth and change.

Five unhealthy love styles

There are five love styles that can leave marriages at a disadvantage: the avoider, the pleaser, the vacillator, the controller and the victim. Many people have several styles that come from several imprints in childhood, and often they see themselves using a blend of several styles in marriage. See if one or more of these describe you or your spouse.

The avoider

People with this love style often come from performance-based homes that encourage independence and minimize (even discourage) the expression of feelings or needs. Kids respond to insufficient comfort and nurturing by restricting their feelings and learning to take care of themselves. So, as adults, they avoid emotions and neediness both in themselves and others.

This was my love style. I never bonded with my parents or siblings. As Milan learned about my childhood memories, he understood why I was so independent and distant. He showed compassion to me for the things I had missed in childhood.

I admitted that as an avoider I didn’t look like Jesus. Jesus cried in the garden of Gethsemane and asked for support. Jesus showed His emotions. For me, growth meant learning to identify my needs and ask for help. I realized healing could occur if I would allow Milan to give me what I had missed out on as a child.

For avoiders, learning to identify and deal with feelings is like learning to play a new sport. It’s awkward and challenging at first, but the more we practice, the more comfortable it gets. Because our feelings tell us what we need, we must recognize and share them.

The pleaser

As children, pleasers try to be good to keep parents from worrying or being angry. Some kids in this environment become extremely well-behaved to compensate for an unruly, disabled or ill sibling. Pleasers often feel anxious, but they don’t receive comfort. Rather, they end up comforting the angry parent or calming the fears of the worried parent.

This was Milan’s love style. As a child, Milan was always striving to be good and keep the peace at home. As an adult, he continued to monitor my moods and give, give, give to ensure our home was tension free.

Pleasers avoid conflict and are afraid to be honest about their feelings. This makes it difficult to address problems. The spouses of pleasers say, “My mate is too clingy and always wants me to be in a good mood.” As I discovered Milan’s childhood memories and realized how anxious he had often been, it replaced my irritation with compassion for him. No wonder he worried about me—he was constantly on high alert as a kid.

The vacillator

Children of parents who connect in sporadic and unpredictable ways may become vacillators. These kids get just enough connection to make them desire more, which leads to waiting and wondering when their parents might show them some attention again. As they wait, they become hypersensitive to signs of connection and rejection. These long periods of waiting make the vacillator feel unseen, misunderstood, alone and abandoned.

As adults, vacillators are on a quest to find the gratifying, consistent connection they missed as kids. They idealize new relationships, believing they’ve found the perfect mate. But as soon as real life sets in—and they have to wait for their spouse to be emotionally available—vacillators are disappointed and blame their partner. People married to vacillators say, “I’m getting a mixed message: ‘Come here! Go away!’ I can’t make my spouse happy.”

I counseled a vacillator who worked hard to realize his tendency to swing between idealistic expectations and angry resentment. As he reflected on the abandonment he felt after his parents divorced, he realized why he was so sensitive and reactive when having to wait for his wife’s time and attention. He found healing and comfort for these places of pain and became less reactive when his wife was busy or distracted.

The controller and the victim

Kids raised in chaotic homes—where a connection is not just unavailable or sporadic, but also dangerous—may become controllers or victims. Their parents often have serious problems including addiction and mental illness, so they don’t relieve stress for their children. They are the source of stress.

Compliant kids who are fearful and submissive become victims at an early age. Growing up, victims learn to tolerate the intolerable. It seems normal to be mistreated, and this abuse rips apart the victim’s self-esteem and confidence.

Feisty kids fight back and learn that they must control or be controlled. As adults, they vow to never again be in a position where they feel the pain they felt growing up. Anger is the one safe emotion for controllers because it is intimidating. They often want to be in command because it keeps them from feeling vulnerable or powerless.

Through years of counseling, Milan and I have worked with many controllers and victims. Children from chaotic homes lack modeling of healthy relationships and are constantly stressed by their environment. As a result, they have few positive skills to take into marriage. We find controllers and victims have many untended, uncomforted injuries from childhood. Because they need to rebuild their idea of a relationship, healing involves facing pain and learning to accept comfort from their spouse.

A secure connection

Being stuck in a hurtful core pattern for the first 15 years of our marriage was painful. But, by identifying our love styles, Milan and I could address the root of our problems with compassion for one another. We discovered that growth also brings challenges. It requires vulnerability to admit our brokenness. We had to break the destructive childhood patterns of relating that we both brought into our marriage.

Our goal was to create the “secure connection” we missed out on as kids. Being a secure connector means becoming more like Jesus, who gave and received love in healthy ways—honestly addressing problems with patience and grace, repairing ruptures when they occurred. Couples with a secure connection can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, own their contribution to relational difficulties and apologize sincerely when they make mistakes.

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