When I was four my father died. He died suddenly; there was no time for my mother to prepare herself for the loss. Along with grief, she bore many other burdens, including unshared decisions and pressures to accept additional roles.
Instantly she had not only to take complete responsibility for children—my sister and me—but for financial records, transactions and expenditures that my father had previously managed. A few years later, having struggled with her loss and with the pain muted, my mother married again—and again. I became a stepchild twice. Both marriages—one of seven years duration and one of three—were ended by divorce.
After my father died, my mother was so distraught and overwhelmed by the position she found herself in—having to return to work at a time when few women worked, heading a household before the term “single parent” was in vogue, facing the world as an immigrant who had not even one year of high school education—that her children, my sister and myself, were under-parented…
A few years later, before my mother’s second marriage ended, my sister, ten years older than I, married and left home. It was fortunate for her because my stepfather was not a kind man. He was abusive in many ways. In his eyes I could not do anything right. I recall, for example, being given the “privilege” of being allowed to open the locked mailbox in the apartment house we lived in. I was unable to do it because my hand was shaking so badly in anticipation of what would happen if I didn’t do it properly.
I did no better in school. In sixth grade tests were given each week and our seats were rearranged for the rest of the week according to our grades. I vied with another boy for most weeks spent sitting in the dummy row. There was very little that I won in those days, but I succeeded at becoming the record holder for time spent in the dummy row.
By the time I entered high school, I was convinced I was not too bright. I was also not in danger of spilling over with self-regard. High School authorities didn’t disagree. In fact, they viewed my aggressive behavior so unfavorably—and this was in Bensonhurst Brooklyn where aggressive behavior was the norm—that they asked me to leave.
After two years of working at hopeless jobs, going to school at night, and managing to get myself arrested three times, (the last arrest landing me in the Brooklyn House of Detention!), I left Brooklyn for college. It’s not that I had any interest in college; the room and board was cheap and I had nowhere else to go.
It was at college that I met the woman who was to become my wife, and to whom, all these years later I remain married. It hasn’t been easy—especially for her! I came into the marriage thinking I was destined to be divorced since I had grown up around divorce in an era when it wasn’t nearly as common as it is today, and when very little information was available about the impact of divorce on children. I just assumed, like mother, like son. The little that I read about divorce suggested that it ran in families. My attitude was fatalistic: “It’s bound to happen, so why fight the inevitable.”
In addition, I didn’t feel very worthy and was forever testing my wife’s regard for me by being moody, critical and demanding. “If she sees the worst of me, would she still be there for me?” Or perhaps I unconsciously gave her the job of “fixing me” because I didn’t get the nurturance I needed as a child. Or maybe I was denigrating her to reduce her power over me. It may have been all of these things. That’s the nature of love: it doesn’t falter on its own; we make an effort to kill it, even when we want it to live.
I didn’t realize at the time that I had internalized the critical parent and was now doing to myself and to my wife what had been done to me. Of course, along with my strong offense was a hidden defense: “I can’t let anyone know who I am because they’ll use it against me.” I had learned as a child to hide my vulnerability. After all, I had grown up with a mother who relied on me, not leaving me much room to express my own fears and concerns, and a stepfather who used anything that looked like weakness against me. It made sense that I was cautious about being too revealing.
If all that wasn’t enough, I feared drawing closer and being more intimate, not only because I didn’t feel worth caring about; I also believed that opening to love was dangerous because I had learned the pain of loss very early in life.
I acted on the belief that keeping distance was protective. This way, if the relationship didn’t last, I would not suffer the deep sorrow of those who have fully given themselves to the love experience. I didn’t give serious thought to the loss I was already experiencing—not allowing myself to bathe in the love that my wife demonstrated on a daily basis. I suppose I didn’t miss it because I never really had it in my life. It had been my experience that unhappiness came naturally; it was a familiar feeling.
The story has a happy ending. I gradually grew more aware of how my childhood had impacted me. However, I spent a long time suffering at the hands of a past I had not come to terms with. Even after I thought I had stopped minimizing the effect it had on me, I continued in more sophisticated ways.
I went from an attitude that the past is gone and there is nothing to be done with it to the belief that the past is still present but the impact it has is negligible. Apparently, I was reluctant to face the truth: the patterns that we have adapted in childhood are blueprints that reverberate throughout life and are especially highlighted in love relationships. There are no quick solutions; the process of becoming receptive to a deep love is lifelong. It begins with an awareness of your family legacy.
Given my own personal struggle I am not neutral about relationships, I am biased. I am for the healing process and do my best to prevent break ups. I am admittedly impatient with finger pointing and strongly drawn to solutions. I view the person or persons sitting with me to be collaborators toward the goal of a win-win.