We all go into marriage carrying “baggage” from our past. Our abilities (and disabilities) for love and relationships come from lessons we learned from our parents, good and bad. (I feel like I should apologize to my children right now.)
I recently read an excellent article from Focus on the Family’s Thriving Family magazine called “Patterns from the Past”, written by Kay and Milan Yerkovich.
I want to share with you the “love styles” from this article that the authors determined we learn from our childhood. These love styles may open up your eyes to what could be hindering you and your spouse from the healthy marriage you desire. You might find you operate in more than one category.
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 (Kay Yerkovich). I never really bonded with my parents or siblings. As Milan learned about my childhood memories, he began to understand why I was so independent and distant. He began to show compassion to me for the things I had missed in childhood.
I began to admit 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 similar to 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, it’s imperative that we recognize and share them.
The Pleaser: As children, pleasers try to be good in order 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 get to be comforted. Rather, they end up giving comfort—appeasing 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, my irritation was replaced with compassion for him. No wonder he was always worried about me—he was constantly on high alert as a kid.
The Vacillator: Children of parents who connect in sporadic and unpredictable ways tend to be vacillators. These kids get just enough connection to make them desire more, which leads to waiting and wondering when their parent 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 become more aware of 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 who are raised in chaotic homes—where connection is not just unavailable or sporadic, but also dangerous—tend to 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 put 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 numerous 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 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 were able to 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 are able to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, own their contribution to relational difficulties and apologize sincerely when they make mistakes.
As you consider how to address your love styles, remember this phrase: “Pick your pain.” It’s uncomfortable to grow and change; it’s painful to remain stuck.
In our case, years 16 through 18 of our marriage were challenging as we each began to change the way we gave and received love, striving to become secure connectors. Some days I wondered if it was worth the effort. If I could have been transported to the future to experience for just one day where God was taking us, I would have been running toward change rather than resisting it. To experience deep, lasting change in your marriage, you need to address problems at their root. And grow from there.” Kay and Milan Yerkovich are co-authors of the New York Times Best-Seller, “How We Love and How We Love Our Kids.”
I love the idea of “A Secure Connection”. A secure connector is someone who strives to be like Jesus. It is someone who is confident in their marriage relationship and foremost, in their relationship with God. If the marriage relationship is faltering there are undoubtedly problems in the relationship with God.
A secure relationship with God can assure us the confidence to have a secure connection with our spouse. “Couples with a secure connection are able to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, own their contribution to relational difficulties and apologize sincerely when they make mistakes.” With these capabilities, your marriage can overcome anything the devil throws at you.
Your spouse is going to make mistakes (so are you). None of us is perfect. If we keep an open mind and open heart to the flaws of our humanity, we will find it easier to forgive. With God’s help, we can overcome those flaws and live in the harmonious marriage we desire. It takes a lot of effort, initially, on both sides of a marriage and constant devotion to God and to your spouse. Like anything else, though, the more you work at it, the easier it becomes.
God is our perfect Father who has all the perfect answers. Allow Him to show you the way to a beautiful relationship with Him and with your spouse.