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Relational Reparenting


Attachment theory is very much in our cultural consciousness right now, and even if you’re only passingly aware of it, you probably know that our attachment styles as adults stem from our very first human relationships: the ones we have with our parents. Whether we like it or not, we often play out the parent-child dynamics that we’re familiar with our romantic partners later on in life. The cliches of “daddy issues” and “mommy issues” are very much rooted in truth—that which we lacked as children we seek in adulthood. As author Chitra Divakaruni says, “your childhood hunger is the one that never leaves you.” As books such as Attached, Polysecure, and The Body Keeps the Score explore, from varying perspectives, the things that happen to us in our early years have an indelible effect on our psyches as we grow up.

It’s common advice, especially for women, to be wary of men that are looking for surrogate mothers in their partners: women to feed them, take care of them, do emotional labor for them with very little in return. It’s common for women to be accused of “daddy issues,” dating distant and unavailable men that mirror the behavior of their absentee fathers. So many of us, of all genders, are unconsciously working through our attachment issues from our parents with our romantic and/or sexual partners. This is generally viewed as a negative thing, something to be avoided at all costs and considered a ‘red flag’ in dating. But is it possible to reframe how we think of our child/parent dynamics in our romantic partnerships? How can we re-parent ourselves—and our partners—through our relationships?

No one is immune to childhood difficulty and trauma; no matter who you are, there is probably one or two ways that your parents affected your mental and emotional life as an adult. Whether you identify it as trauma or simply an issue to work through, there’s no escaping the way our guardians shaped us, and the sometimes unexpected ways it can show up in our romantic lives. Rather than attempting to fully heal ourselves and all of our issues before entering into a relationship, I posit that we can use our romantic relationships as a vehicle through which to work through the various ways our childhood issues may crop up in adulthood.

All children (and people) have the same fundamental desires: to be seen, to be heard, to be valued, to be

cherished. In essence, to be loved. Humans are relational creatures, and at our core we seek out relationships and have an intrinsic desire to build community and emotional bonds with those around us. This impulse, though beautiful, gets complicated when we are bringing to the table our own myriad of challenges or trauma—what I like to call opportunities for growth. No one enters a relationship completely “healed,” and that isn’t something we should expect from ourselves or others when we are forming a new partnership, or while deepening an existing one. No matter how much you’ve worked on yourself, healing is non-linear and there are always moments that will be sticky for us. In addition, when we’re in a relationship we will be faced with a whole new set of situations to work and grow through that we didn’t have to face when we were single (or even that we had to work through with friends and family).

Romantic relationships are uniquely triggering, and tend to bring some of the most vulnerable parts of ourselves to the surface. But when we stay committed to the healing and growth of ourselves, our partners, and our relationships we are able to not only form deep bonds, but also to heal the old wounds of childhood.

We all use each other as conduits for healing—in friendship, family, and partnership. It shouldn’t be considered a red flag because you, or your partner, have difficulties that arise from your upbringing. It is considered a red flag, however, when one person is using their partner to reenact the same patterns and wounds they’ve been experiencing since childhood with no awareness or attempt to grow through them and integrate them into their healing process. Awareness, reciprocity, and consent are fundamental to practicing re-parenting in relationships so we don't fall into the dreaded territory of “mommy issues” and “daddy issues” stereotypes.

The goal is not to see our partners as a surrogate for the parent that hurt us, whether through their manipulation, abuse, or neglect. When we are in this space, we will unconsciously seek to play out the same psychodrama that we’ve been living in since we were little. We will seek approval from them as we might have from a disappointed and distant father, we will take them for granted as we might have an overworked mother. Or we will hide from them, lying as we did to our overbearing parents. These are the cycles we are working on breaking when we view our romantic partnerships as an opportunity to re-parent ourselves and our partners.

Once we have identified (or perhaps our partners have compassionately pointed them out to us) what our patterns are, we can start working on healing those parts of us. When do you feel an old childhood wound activated? Perhaps it’s a partner not being enthusiastic or supportive enough around your work or creative projects. Perhaps it’s the way they criticize you, or the way they baby you that makes you feel inferior. Can you communicate to your partner that it feels hurtful to you, and that it’s connected to something from your childhood? Can you learn to gently and lovingly ask for what you need in those situations, and give your partner the opportunity to adapt their behavior and grow with you?

As with all things in a relationship, re-parenting is a two-way street. If you are able and willing to communicate with your partner about these wounds, then you have to be open to receiving information and feedback from them as well, and to the possibility of adapting your behavior when something feels triggering to them. When it feels like you and your partner have opposing needs, look for the similarities—for it’s there you’ll find the most fruitful ground for compromise. Remember that just as our parents were, our partners are simply human, and flawed—perfection is not the goal, and we are all just doing the best with the resources we have. Remember love is unconditional: it is given freely, and asks nothing in return. However, unconditional love does not equate to unconditional presence. We are allowed to have boundaries, to say no, to walk away from situations that are unhealthy for us while still holding the love we have for another in our hearts.

Not every instance of re-parenting needs to revolve around a potential conflict either. Sometimes the most healing thing we can do for our wounded inner child is to be willing to ask for the care, affection, and attention that we felt we lacked. Do you let your partner nurture you? Did you allow them to see the most vulnerable parts of yourself, and trust that you would be given the love and support the most tender part of you is seeking? It can feel like an incredible leap to open yourself up this way, and sometimes you will be disappointed: maybe feeling hurt or hurting someone else in the process. Romantic relationships can be bumpy, especially as we learn to navigate the process of healing our inner child and coming to terms with the way our childhoods shaped us.

The goal is not to conflate romantic partnerships with parental ones: parents and partners occupy distinct places in our lives, and one cannot (and should not) fill the role of the other. Nevertheless, we can see our romantic partnerships as a conduit for healing some of the most wounded parts of ourselves that are rooted in our childhood, and seek the expressions of love we’ve been yearning for. This can occur in many ways—through words of encouragement, loving acts, shifts in communication. Some people do also seek to reframe the relationships they had with their parents through BDSM and kink play, which, when practiced consensually and intentionally, can be incredibly liberating. Regardless of what path you choose, remember to give yourself and your partner grace for the messiness of the process, and don’t be afraid to open yourself up, and allow your inner child to receive what it’s been seeking.


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