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What to do when our past affects our present

Bruce Conn
Bruce Conn

The wife said to me while in my office: “I told him, ‘There’s the door.’ ”

This couple has disagreed for years about parenting. Their childhood experiences are instructive in understanding why they differ. She grew up in a family with a lot of love. There were problems, but nothing too caustic or destructive.

His parents made him start working very young so he always struggled, frequently failed and often went without — without proper clothes, transportation, food and most especially, without love.

Remarkably, he wants to raise his son the same way he was raised. On some level, he has to defend that it was good for him. He seems to have to believe this.

What then happens is he projects his own negative core beliefs on his son. He describes his son as no good, an idiot, worthless. Of course these are his own unconscious beliefs about himself.

So the husband walks into the kitchen and finds the 20-year-old son making a mess, cooking for himself. The real issue is the conflict in his mind. How can this young man have the audacity to live his life so freely? How can he be at ease with himself?

The son had gotten into the father’s special spices and oils as he makes a nice lasagna. The father argues with the son and then with his wife. He can’t believe the disrespect, the audacity. And the argument escalates. His main tactics are belittling, belligerence and threats. The script is not new. They’ve had this argument before, said these words before. He threatens to leave.

In the past, she has begged him to stay. Fearing the loss of family, she has given in. But she has been growing, developing a stronger sense of purpose and personal authority. She had been on her heels, but this time she steps forward. Now she was ready for him to decide.

She didn’t cry. She didn’t yell. She just wanted him to decide: “There’s the door.” Which way did he want to go? She was clear in her heart that she was okay with whatever he decided. She said, “It breaks my heart, that’s his son. But he has to decide. In or out.”

Now they are reading the Bible together and meeting with their pastor. They are trying to figure out what sacrificial love is — love that gives itself away.

Life can be awfully messy. I wish couples could easily see and do the right thing. But we tend to be pretty selfish, see things from our own point of view. Not to mention the hurts and habits we are still trying to overcome.

She said, “I do love him but I can’t forget. And I’m angry about what I can’t forget.”

Bruce Conn is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and works with individuals and couples. Contact him at or call 478-742-1464.