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Inner child work in couples therapy

Inner child in couples therapy

The inner child – That part of you that requires care

The core wounds and perennial hurts of the inner child eventually surface in virtually every long term relationship. When examined honestly, these pains often reveal a doubt about oneself – about our basic goodness, worthiness, value, or desirability.

The inner child might be experienced as a visual image, as a memory, as a dream, or even as a feeling in your body. However they are experienced, the significance of the inner child is that they are that part of you which requires care. When the child shows up, it is because the opportunity is ripe to be gentle and caring with yourself.

When the image or experience of the inner child appears we are presented with a choice… Do we reject them, or do we embrace them? Do we turn away, or do we turn toward?

Interestingly, both options hurt. There is no pain-free choice. But I think you’ll find that the quality of pain is different in each case. Rejecting the inner child tends to produce a hardening or numbing or buzzing kind of pain. Embracing the inner child produces a more tender kind of pain, one that might break us open.

This is a reconciling or reckoning, and a healing opportunity for the great many of us who have not been particularly gentle or kind with ourselves in the past. For this reason, the appearance of the inner child can be upsetting, reminding us of our abandonment of our own tender heart. To face the truth of our own self-abandonment is painful but important, it is the bittersweet first step to turning toward our own heart, and healing the rifts within.

These inner rifts, by the way, are commonly projected onto our partner in relationship; befriending the inner child goes a long way in creating more loving and harmonious partnerships.

The idea of an “inner child” gives us a personified, concrete image of our vulnerable self, our innocent self, our tender self, and it places this self outside of, or separate from, the “adult” self that we identify with in our day to day lives. In concept and in practice this allows one part of self to engage with and care for another; you might have actual conversations with the inner child, or write to them. As one client astutely observed, “You become both giver and receiver”.

This experience of one part of self caring for another part of self, of becoming both giver and receiver, marks an important psycho-emotional emergence in a person. It’s an experience worth embracing, and an ability worth intentionally developing.

The hurt or frightened or misunderstood or needy child hopefully elicits feelings of care within us, and helps us turn our heart toward our self, but the opposite can also be true.

Encountering the inner child can activate feelings of shame, rejection, judgement, denial, even rage. I’m speaking from personal experience here; I am someone who rejected my own tender self for decades. I can’t sufficiently describe the pain this causes, but if you have done the same, then you know, and I am so sorry for your suffering. I did eventually begin to befriend and soften to my inner child, and that relationship continues.

In the early stages of formal couples work, grievances are routinely leveled against each other. As the process continues, our grievances toward ourselves usually enter the picture; the emphasis shifts from partner confrontation to self-confrontation.

We so badly want from our partner the tenderness, care, devotion, and unconditional love that we have denied ourselves, but few of us can acknowledge this truth without doing some inner work first. Hence my oft repeated claim “couples work is personal work we do in front of each other”.

When the inner child shows up we get the opportunity to really feel how we deny ourselves. Having your partner present to witness you in this can spontaneously create the kind of understanding and empathy that is so often hoped for and strived for.

Part of the gift of the inner child showing up in couples work (for either or both partners) is that there is now a new persona in the room. Directing attention toward the child provides a healthy triangulation. The inner child is a more neutral presence, and some of the tension and defensiveness between partners is relaxed. In this more relaxed and neutral space, more gentleness, care, and understanding might be possible. Watch for the opportunity, and if it arises, please take it.

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