Excerpted from the book How We Love by Milan and Kay Yerkovich
For years, we danced through marriage, each with two left feet. We tripped each other and stepped on one another’s toes. Little did we know we were each moving to songs we knew by heart’ only the melodies didn’t match. Had we known the significant impact one little question about our early lives would have on our marriage, we might have avoided a lot of problems and made some important changes a lot sooner. We call it the comfort question. It is not a question about your marriage, but its answer can accurately pinpoint the relative difficulties you’re currently experiencing. We’ve asked this question to thousands of people when we speak together at seminars. People often tell us the question haunted them for weeks. We’ve asked it to friends in everyday conversations. But we started by asking it to ourselves. The question is simple: Can you recall being comforted as a child after a time of emotional distress?
Your answer to that question could potentially reveal more about your relationships than any other insight you might uncover. Realize here we aren’t talking about when you fell down and scraped your knee or got sick with the flu. We are looking for a time when you were significantly upset and a parent offered consolation and relief. You might think, I had a happy childhood. I can’t remember needing comfort. But the fact is, we all experienced something emotionally upsetting during the first eighteen years of life. It didn’t have to be a major trauma. Maybe your best friend moved away or you were disappointed because you didn’t make the baseball team. Perhaps a good friend hurt or betrayed you. You may have faced something serious like a learning disability, a divorce, a death, or verbal or physical abuse that left you confused, upset, and in need of comfort. Whatever happened to you, at a specific time during your childhood, you experienced either comfort for your pain or the stark absence of it, and that representative memory influences your current relationships in untold ways.
If you can’t recall a specific memory of being comforted, you’re in good company. Our work with struggling couples tells us that roughly seventy-five percent of the adults we surveyed do not have a single memory of receiving comfort from a primary caregiver when they were children. Of course, we may have been comforted during our early years and can’t remember those times. But if we don’t have a conscious memory of comfort from our childhoods, and if we rarely experienced relief from our families who taught us to relate to people, then we are missing some important experiences to take into marriage. We believe this common comfort deficit is pervasive and far-reaching, causing countless difficulties in people’s relationships, communication, and daily lives.
If your parents had difficulty noticing and soothing your distress, you probably grew up in a family with little emotional connection. Without realizing it, your mom and dad most likely discouraged the expression of certain emotions or responded poorly to your feelings. (If that’s the case, your parents probably didn’t enjoy meaningful emotional connections within their own families growing up). When emotional connection is lacking, you learn to restrict emotions and minimize what’s bothering you, and you will not expect relationships to offer comfort. After all, it’s hard to expect something you’ve never experienced. Most people who grew up with a lack of emotional connections have no idea what they’re missing.
It’s important to say here that we are not trying to turn you against your parents or give you a target at which you can shoot arrows of blame. Most of our parents did the best they could and were simply working with the tools they had. Our parents did not receive all they needed growing up either. Your goal is not to find fault but to gain a realistic picture of what went right and what went wrong in your early life so you can begin the healing journey toward growth and maturity.
You might be wondering, What’s the big deal? Why is this question so important? Actually, your answer to the comfort question reveals a great deal about certain aspects of your relationships. If your parents touched you, listened to you, helped you express what was going on in your soul (we call them ‘soul words’), accepted your feelings, and resolved problems well, you’ll have a healthy view of relationships. Good parenting leaves on a child a secure imprint of intimacy that forms positive beliefs and healthy expectations about all future relationships. Memories of comfort are a strong indicator you were imprinted by your early experiences to express feelings, seek connection, and expect relief when life gets bumpy. Now, when you are upset, you won’t think twice about seeking relief through relationships. It’s natural for you to go to your mate for comfort.
Take some time today to ask yourself if you can recall being comforted as a child after a time of emotional distress.
For more on this subject see How We Love: A Revolutionary Approach to Deeper Connections in Marriage by Milan and Kay Yerkovich.