Building healthy relationships after growing up in chaos

Nancy Colier

When we grow up in emotionally chaotic households, we often face challenges in establishing healthy adult relationships. When chaos is the norm, my experience as a psychotherapist has shown that we get accustomed to living with what feels bad and scary. We learn to silence our experience because it feels too dangerous to speak up for ourselves or call anyone out on their behavior.

As children, we need to belong; to belong is to survive. To express our experience of the family drama would be to risk the love of our caretakers, our belonging, and thus our survival. When a home is emotionally chaotic, it’s not generally filled with adults who are open and interested in the child’s experience; there’s often no safe person for a child to talk to and even less chance for there to be someone who will take responsibility for, or change, what’s happening.

When we grow up in an emotionally unstable and untrustworthy environment, what often happens is that we develop certain defense strategies to maintain our safety and keep ourselves intact. Put simply, we learn to get okay with what doesn’t feel okay. We become experts at burying fear, anger, and despair; we walk through the wreckage as if nothing crazy is happening, no matter how bad it feels. And eventually crazy becomes our norm.

Our strategies for survival succeed at keeping us safe as children, on a certain level. But when we carry these same defense strategies into adult relationships, they tend to stop working and we end up feeling trapped, powerless, anxious, and angry. The feelings we buried as children are still there— only now they won’t stay underground.

In the nearly thirty years I've been in practice, I've found that those of us who grew up in homes where such behavior was the norm often obsessed about what we wanted to say to a parent, but didn’t say it because it would have created anger or more chaos, and accomplished nothing in terms of changing our world. Similarly, as adults in relationships, we think incessantly about what our partner is doing to us; we make the case for our grievances silently inside our heads, and rehash what we're going to say and how we’re going to say it. But again, we stay silent. We often think obsessively about the other and their bad situation, but we don’t know how to take steps to make it change: We're too afraid of the consequences or of our own anger. As a result, we stay stuck in bad situations, feeling powerless to make our relationships change, chronically fearful and overflowing with resentment.

As adults, when we're confronted with behavior that feels bad, crazy, aggressive, or just not okay, our nervous system tends to go into a kind of fight, flight, freeze response. Our front brain shuts down in a sense and we enter survival mode. Deep in the recesses of our brain there is an assumption being made—that if we speak up, we’ll pay dire consequences and ultimately be worse off. Our deep-seated fear takes over and before we know it, we’re figuring out a way to make the other’s bad behavior work inside the relationship.

But staying silent doesn’t work in grown-up relationships. It doesn’t allow us to grow, feel known, or develop real intimacy. Furthermore, it doesn’t keep us safe like it did when we were kids. Quite the opposite: The strategy of swallowing our truth and our natural self-protective instinct under the guise of protecting ourselves become the very thing that harms us. We end up consumed with fear, obsessively thinking about what we hate, and carrying overwhelming resentment. We end up enraged at the other and ourselves—for what they’re doing to us and for what we’re allowing.

How do we change when our nervous system naturally responds to bad behavior in a way that keeps us stuck? The first step, in my experience, is to start paying attention to what’s happening inside s in the face of conflict—that is, to recognize and acknowledge this pattern, and become aware that we react instinctively when confronted with what feels relationally unsafe. In acknowledging this truth, we offer ourselves not just kindness and compassion, but also gratitude for keeping us safe in what was probably the only way we knew how. And we remind ourselves that this behavior no longer takes care of us.

So too, if we can realize that we won’t die without this other person, that we've projected our childhood dependence onto this relationship, the risk drops and we can find the courage to speak up. If we don’t yet genuinely believe that we don’t need the other, we can start taking steps toward the autonomy that can set us free.

What’s most important is that we ask the frightened part of ourselves, with kindness, what it needs to stand up for us, confront the crazy, and speak our truth. Once we know what we need to move forward, we can offer ourselves that, or start on the path to making it happen.

When we grew up accepting the unacceptable, because we had to, we often become an adult who's afraid to stand up for ourselves; we learn to stuff our anger and keep the peace at all costs, including the cost to ourselves.

But just because we grew up around chaos doesn’t mean we’re condemned to live with it forever. My experience has proven again and again that we can change. We can change our reaction to behavior that’s not acceptable, and in the process, change the situation itself. Or we can leave a situation that doesn't work for us. Once we become conscious of our own behavior, we have choices. We can learn to be the light in the darkness and create our own reality.

Know this: unlike what we believed as children, we do get a say in our own reality and we can move from the problem to the solution.

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Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, author, and interfaith minister. She is a regular blogger for Psychology Today and the author of "Can’t Stop Thinking," "The Power of Off," "The Emotionally Exhausted Woman" (2022), and other books.

New York, NY
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