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Parents who were not always available to their children, or could not sense how their children were feeling, may have children who developed an insecure attachment as a means to survive childhood.



Our Road

Right or wrong, the brain needs to make meaning of the constant flow of information it receives. How it understands an insecure attachment relationship can cause it to feel conflicted in relationships.

The brain has two major functions and they are, put simply, “Am I Safe,” or “Am I in Danger?” Should the brain decide that a relationship is dangerous, it enters into what we call “The Red Zone.” When a couple enters the Red Zone they can no longer focus on their own needs and will focus only on what is wrong with the other person. This insecure attachment causes all of the positive energy that a couple had for each other to diminish and transform quickly into negative energy. Before long you have a couple at risk, as the energy in their brain is constantly running lists of negative past deeds. Each person becomes critical, and reacts improperly to the slightest move in the relationship. This overreaction is simply because the brain has started to anticipate negative future reactions from the other spouse.


The Hidden Road

As is His plan, Hashem gives each of us a second chance to heal our childhood pain, often by sending us a partner similar to the parent we had the most difficulty with, giving us the opportunity to play this challenge out in the marital relationship. Our unconscious will guide us to this person for purposes of healing; this way we can go beneath the surface, and complete unfinished business.


Transactional Analysis

Sandy and Jonathan are a middle-aged couple married for eighteen years. This is a second marriage for both of them, and they were ready to give up. They had become so detached that they had not touched each other for over sixteen months. They went to Beis Din to get divorced, but the Beis Din required that they seek marital counseling first and that is how we met.

Sandy came from a very abusive and dysfunctional home. Her parents had separated when she was born, and her mother’s parenting skills were very limited. Sandy’s mother was self-absorbed, trying to cope only with her own daily life and fulfilling her own emotional and physical needs. She saw Sandy more as a burden than a child, and married her off at the age of 16 to an angry, critical and sadistic man who made her life, as Sandy described it, “a living hell.”

A few years after Sandy’s first divorce, she met Jonathan, who had also been divorced at a very young age. As luck would have it, Jonathan came from a more stable home and his parents were Holocaust survivors. They were very kind and giving people, his father being very loving but strict. As with many Holocaust survivors, they used work as a way to distract themselves from the pain and horrors of their past, and, as a result, were not always available to provide Jonathan with both emotional and physical needs. At a very young age Jonathan’s brain made meaning of this, and translated it as “I can take care of myself, I am a big boy and I don’t need hugs.”

Eric Berne, in his work on Transactional Analysis, developed what he calls Ego State Concepts, which he calls Parent, Adult, and Child. He explains that each ego state is the center of emotions; divided in two to three parts in order to help us understand and resolve conflicts. We often use these ego states unconsciously: Sometimes when we act a little immaturely we may sound like a Child, other times when we are upset with our spouse we may act like a Parent, and times when are concerned about the present, we may act like an Adult.

Most couples, if they feel safe with each other and recognize healthy boundaries, can interchange these three states and function in a relatively stable way. Yet there are individuals who only feel safe in their own ego state and may even become stuck in a particular state because it has worked for them in the past. In fact, it may even be that it was the ego state that defined a couple’s initial attraction to each other.

For example, while growing up, Sandy had been deeply hurt and emotionally deprived. Her emotional hunger as a child made her feel helpless and insecure as an adult. Then, when she met Jonathan, a wonderful transition took place. Sandy’s search for a rescuer was complete, and the helpless Child inside of her found a Parent. She looked to Jonathan to take care of her and give her some much-needed positive direction. Sandy described him as her “knight in shining armor,” and with that Jonathan became authoritarian – the Parent Ego State. This was a role which came naturally to Jonathan who at a very young age had drained himself of all attachment to his mother, father, and Child inside him. He intentionally deprived himself of emotions, wants and needs as a coping mechanism for his own emotional survival.

Jonathan was ready, willing and able to be Sandy’s parent. In his mind, by being a parent to his wife, he could fulfill some his own deprived emotional needs.

Jonathan may not have been aware of it, but his Ego State is what Sandy needed and he did an amazing job as Sandy’s Parent. She grew in every way – spiritually, emotionally and physically. She utterly blossomed under Jonathan’s supervision and support.

In time, as she matured, she was able to process and articulate the things that were most important to her. Sandy was no longer stuck in the Child Ego State, she evolved into a true eishes chayil with two new Ego States: Parent and Adult. Unfortunately, Jonathan did not share what seemed to be a blessing for Sandy. He was happy, and liked the Parent Ego State relationship he was in and was not ready to give it up. He loved Sandy very much but wanted the woman his wife used to be. She had changed and now wanted be treated like an Adult.

She made it clear that she was grateful for everything he had done for her. In the past, she needed a father and a mentor, a stable rock to be there for her, but now in the present, she was grown up. As a wife and mother her wants and needs had changed. “I want to be on the same page, that means being heard and listen to, with shared feelings, emotions and opinions.”

For Jonathan, this was devastating news! He had spent many years acting as a parent and felt rejected as a husband and father; it was as if his services were no longer needed. All of these changes and adjustments were more than Jonathan could bear. As much as he demanded his needs, Sandy demanded that her needs to be met as well, and they included trust, love and respect.

Together we worked on an exercise called “Starting Over,” and I must admit it took time. We spoke through it all, had setbacks, improvements and tangible proof that their marriage could be saved. And then, after 12 long months, they held hands in my office for the first time, and are now baruch Hashem on the road to shalom bayit.

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Moishe Herskowitz, MS., LCSW, developed the T.E.A.M. (Torah Education & Awareness for a better Marriage). As a licensed clinical social worker and renowned family therapist, he guides new couples through easy-to-accomplish steps towards a happy, healthy marriage. He can be reached at [email protected] or 718-435-7388.