Excerpt from the introduction to
Meet Me In Hard-to-Love Places
To build successful relationships, it is essential to address the pain and emotional wounds that you carry from past relationships, particularly from your childhood relationships with your parents. If you were not raised by your parents, you can think of your primary caregivers whenever parents are mentioned in this book. Your childhood relationships with your parents are the foundation from which you built your relationship with yourself, with others and with life. When a house has a damaged or improperly built foundation, renovations and upgrades to upper levels will not correct or compensate for the underlying instability. Similarly, superficial relationship repairs will not heal your deeper relationship wounds. To build inspiring relationships—with yourself and with another—you need to restore the foundation from which you can love yourself and love another.
Emotional and psychological wounds from childhood relationships are known as “attachment trauma” in the field of attachment theory. As outlined in Chapter 2, attachment trauma is something we all have to some degree, and most people have more than they realize. Of course, it would be nice if you could simply leave your wounds in the past and forget about them, but your brain is not designed to do that. Your brain is designed to implicitly remember unresolved trauma and pain so that it can protect you from getting hurt again by anything that seems or feels similar to the original painful event. Unfortunately, the part of the brain that remembers those earlier events and wants to protect you from future harm cannot differentiate between the dynamics of current intimate adult relationships and the dynamics of past childhood relationships, be they nurturing or traumatic.
Certainly, there are several important elements that constitute great relationships—good communication, healthy boundaries, and effective support, to name a few—but without attending to attachment trauma, a relationship relying on these elements alone will be tenuous or lacking in growth and deeper intimacy. This is because most of how we behave and act is driven by the unconscious mind. It is possible to change behaviour through conscious attention and effort. Mindfulness, an awareness practice embedded in eastern spiritual traditions and becoming increasingly popular in the west, is a powerful tool for changing behaviour. However, mindfulness takes consistent practice and is not easy to do when there is conflict that activates unresolved wounds. Conversely, when attachment trauma is healed, behaviour changes more easily because the unconscious triggers are no longer firing and subverting attempts to change unhealthy relationship dynamics into healthy ones.
In the many presentations, workshops, and courses I have given, I have often asked people if they would like to have an inspiring relationship. Not surprisingly, almost everyone says yes. And why wouldn’t they say yes? Wonderful relationships—be they romantic, platonic, familial, or professional—are some of the most precious treasures of life. However, I don’t think it is completely true that people want inspiring relationships. I believe that most people, myself included, harbour facets of themselves—parts of their psyches created due to their attachment trauma—that are afraid of a truly inspiring relationship. Unless we heal our attachment trauma, those parts will keep us from creating beautiful relationships and rewarding lives. Without healing, those traumatized parts will prevent us from having the confidence to accept that it is safe to open up and trust in love.
This book will help you understand more about how your brain and psychological development were shaped by your experience of relationship with your parents, as well as how your childhood development and attachment trauma influence your adult relationships. I am not suggesting you unpack, analyze, and process every memory and detail of your childhood. The goal is not to find every last broken piece of your childhood and glue it back together with hours and hours of talking and emoting. You can apply the information in this book to yourself and to your relationships and rebuild your foundation for love, even if you remember little or nothing from your childhood.
Spending your energy on blaming your parents or anyone else for the wounds you carry is also not recommended, unless it is a doorway into a process for resolving your pain. Each of us is responsible for what we do with the trauma we carry, and each of us has the opportunity to pass along healthier relationship behaviours and beliefs to the generations to come.
Knowing how our childhood relationships affect our adult relationships can help us have a lot more compassion for others and for ourselves. And compassion is the ground upon which to build a foundation for love. Attachment theory also helps us become more aware of the underlying relationship patterns and dynamics that lead to arguments and stuck places, and it shows us possibilities for transforming them.
If you are currently single, now is a wonderful time to learn about and to heal your attachment trauma. Doing so will not only help you steer clear of painful relationships, it will also give you a much richer and more inspiring experience of being single. In addition, more awareness and healing of your attachment trauma will help you have better relationships with family, with friends, and with your life. If you are currently in a relationship, my hope is that the information in this book will give you a better understanding of what is working well in your relationship, what isn’t, why it isn’t, and what you can do about it.
Meet Me in Hard-to-Love Places is a synthesis of the different fields I have trained in and of the knowledge and insights I have gained from my relationships and from teaching workshops and courses on building successful relationships. This book includes information on some of the parts of the brain—and the nervous system in general—involved in relationship. The information presented here is necessarily a simplification of a vastly complicated series of biological interactions inside and outside the nervous system, many of which are not fully understood. It is not meant to be an exhaustive examination of how the brain and the rest of the nervous system function. I am very curious about neuroscience, but I am not a neuroscientist. The brain is magnificently complex, and what we know about it keeps evolving. I am grateful for the support I have received in learning, interpreting and presenting this material, and I take responsibility for any errors and critical omissions. If the science in these pages does not seem up-to-date or accurate to you, I would be delighted if you would provide me with any scholarly sources that would help me improve a future edition of this book.
Interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB), attachment theory, and Nonviolent Communication (NVC, also known as Compassionate Communication) are the main fields drawn from for the information in this book. Together, these three fields offer a comprehensive understanding of relationship dynamics, patterns, and attachment trauma, as well as powerful tools for building healthier brains and relationships. They also offer keys to transforming the parts of your psyche that are afraid of intimate relationships.
Although IPNB, attachment theory and NVC offer a great deal of valuable information, I do not recommend that you attempt to think or analyze your way into the relationship you are dreaming of. I suggest instead that you put the information in this book into practice, experiment with it, and use it to build a deeper relationship with your heart’s innate intuition and wisdom. The most important relationship you will ever have is the one with yourself. Listening for and following your deepest truth is one of the key ingredients for that relationship to thrive. Healing your wounds opens the path to deeper and more skillful listening.
Because so much of what happens in adult relationships corresponds to childhood events and relationships with parents, we will explore an attachment theory and IPNB perspective on how a parent’s capacity to nurture and bond with their children affected their children’s early development. What attachment theory and IPNB show is that deficiencies in nurturing capacity are passed along from parent to child to grandchild, unless there has been support to heal the attachment trauma.
Parents’ nurturing and bonding capacities are also very much impacted by societal and cultural circumstances, paradigms, and ideologies. In other words, parents do the best they can as they contend with, for example:
the loss of extended family and community support
inadequate maternity leaves and government services
misinformed parenting advice that includes leaving babies to cry, denying children the nurturing physical contact they need, punishment-and-reward-based motivation, and various other non-nurturing strategies that leave children feeling conditionally loved, emotionally distant from their parents, and very insecure about themselves and the world
Even if the above-mentioned issues are being adequately addressed, parents still have their own wounds to heal. Few things activate unresolved attachment trauma like your own children. Clearly, these layers and complexities make parenting one of the most challenging adventures humans embark upon in their lifetimes.
Reading information about the adverse ways in which children are impacted by the actions of their parents can stimulate difficult or painful emotions, and old memories may surface. If this happens for you, I encourage you to go through the Self-Empathy Process (Chapter 7, Practice 1). Also, I highly recommend you reach out for guidance and help. Receiving support has been an integral part of my own inner work on attachment trauma, and I cannot overstate the critical role it plays in the healing process.
Often my inner work goes deeper and is more transformative when I receive support from a skillful therapist or empathy buddy (Chapter 7, Practices 2, 3, 4). Our attachment trauma occurred at its outset in the context of relationship with another. Thus, engaging in inner work with support from another can more powerfully shift negative beliefs about ourselves, about relationships, and about life.
In various parts of the book, I have intentionally used the pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their” when referring to a non-specific person in examples and explanations of concepts. I chose to do this to respect and reflect the gender diversity of humanity.
Finally, in order to give to you a sense of my experiences and adventures in healing my own attachment trauma, I have included lyrics from a number of my songs along with excerpts from my blog Where the Heart Meets the Road. By including these personal accounts, I hope to convey that the path of removing barriers to love and cultivating inspiring relationships takes courage, time, support, and commitment. The journey can get difficult and discouraging, but few other paths are as rewarding and hold as much potential for beauty, creativity, passion, and love.
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“Romantic Love delivers us into the passionate arms of someone who will ultimately trigger the same frustrations we had with our parents, but for the best possible reason! Doing so brings our childhood wounds to the surface so they can be healed.”
~ Harville Hendrix
No weapons, no armour
Will you venture out and meet me
On the front lines
Where the grass is on fire
With lies and with truth
When will you go
Where no one else can go
When will you go
~ Eric Bowers
Read the full poem here.