A Plea for Warmth and Affection
by Mark Sichel, LCSW
How many of you who have grown up in dysfunctional families remember spontaneous expressions of love and caring? How often were you hugged? How easily are you able to hug another person? Sadly, for the adult children of dysfunctional families, the answers are usually "not very often" and "not very easily."
Luckily, I think that for many people warmth is a tool that can be learned. In many ways, one can integrate a habit into one's lifestyle. If you have grown up in a family where you have never heard the words "I love you," you need to make it a practice and habit to say "I love you" within your current family and support system. Many of us just do not think of saying I love you, and therefore, if you want to achieve this new behavior, you need to consciously focus on integrating the behavior into your life.
One of the most heart wrenching stories I have heard over the years was from a man who grew up in a highly dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father and a narcissistic self-involved mother. He related to me how when he was eleven years old, he cut himself while playing in the yard, and in his panic and fear, rushed into the house. His mother, rather than comforting him and taking care of him shrieked and scolded him instead with the words: "You're bleeding all over my rug! Get into the bathroom now." She then proceeded to focus on trying to get the blood stains out of her rug, while the eleven year old boy tended to his wounds as best he could.
When people have memories like these, it is very very hard to ask for warmth, and to trust warmth that is offered freely. One of the biggest achievements I've seen people make in their therapy work is to learn when they need to ask for a hug rather than get into a fight with their partner.
One of the joys in life are warm and affectionate relationships with the people we love. For so many of us, this is a learned skill and one we struggle to sustain and maintain. One of the difficulties people have in recovery from dysfunctional families is that growing up in these families, we learn what I call TWISTED THINKING. It is very difficult to get over twisted thinking when you have been raised with that kind of attitude.
In an alcoholic family, there is often a notion that if you encourage a child to aspire, you will encourage a "swelled head." Similarly, if you tell a child how wonderful they are, you will make them conceited. This kind of twisted thinking goes on in a dysfunctional family.
In a dysfunctional family, if you tell someone you love him or her, they will become accustomed to it and just take you for granted. Similarly, if another member of the family tells you they love you, you will wonder what they want from you. This is also twisted thinking.
The overall climate in many dysfunctional and alcoholic homes is one where celebration and festivity is not encouraged, unless it is within the confines of "cocktail hour." Children are given utilitarian gifts rather than what they want, and gift-wrapping is often seen as a frivolous expense. If you help a child with their homework, they will "never" learn to do it on their own. If your child does not want help with their homework, they are ungrateful.
All these examples of twisted thinking create confusion and a lack of knowledge about how to create warmth, support and friendship in our lives. Let's take Bill*, a man who has been in recovery for fourteen years. He tells me that each time his wife is either affectionate or upset he has to fight his impulses to react with the repertoire of behaviors he learned in his alcoholic family.
The behaviors Bill learned in his dysfunctional family include:
Bill has, at the same time, worked hard on integrating a repertoire of warm and affectionate behaviors with his wife.
Bill combats the baggage from his dysfunctional upbringing with active choices including:
He did not develop these skills without work. He had to start with a written reminder list which he worked with every day for a long time. He now goes through a mental checklist each and every day. When he is in doubt about how to behave, he simply thinks of what his father or mother would have done. Then proceeds to do the opposite.
- Telling his wife he loves her
- Hugging his wife
- Complimenting his wife (not so easy when you grow up in a criticism-only household)
- Giving his wife small gifts - ranging from something as simple as freshly baked bread to a rose to a verbal reflection of how well she is doing at a given time
- Showing interest in his wife -- asking how her day was, how she feels, what's going on in her head
- Remembering things that are important to his wife
A good way to begin to integrate warmth and positive affection in your relationships is to make an appreciation list of the qualities you admire in your significant other. If you want to make a start, go and complete the appreciation list here on Psybersquare. You and your loved one will be glad you did.
To set your feet on the path to warm and affectionate relationships, try completing the Psybersquare Appreciation List.
*The names of all clients have been changed to protect their identities.
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