Back in 2001 a low-budget indie film called Memento shot a then little-known director named Christopher Nolan into the Hollywood A-list. The movie is about Leonard, a man suffering from anterograde amnesia, making him incapable of forming long term memories (think Dory from Finding Nemo, but angrier). Leonard’s condition leaves him perpetually confused as to where he is and what he’s doing. Because Leonard doesn’t understand his past, he’s moving aimlessly through his present, and bringing pain and destruction to those around him.
We are just like Leonard.
I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I came dangerously close to cheating on my wife. That close call woke me up to a host of unresolved childhood issues I had never dealt with. I was living in my present carrying the emotional baggage of my past, and I didn’t even know it. I had emotional anterograde amnesia.
Over 10+ years of pastoring I’ve counseled hundreds of people and in that time I’ve become convinced that one of the primary killers of relational intimacy is emotional amnesia. So many of us don’t realize how our intimacy in the present is being hindered by the emotional wounds of the past. I have watched marriages I’ve officiated break apart due to one or both people acting out of pain and brokenness rather than courageously asking “why am I feeling this way?”
This isn’t surprising. We are told in the Bible we have an enemy who comes to steal, kill and destroy. One of our enemy’s greatest tools of destruction is targeting us in our early years with deep emotional pain that sabotages our ability to experience intimacy throughout our lives. If one of the most true things about us is – as God said – that it’s “not good for humans to be alone” then our enemy is hellbent on making sure that’s exactly how we are: isolated from others and never experiencing true oneness with our spouse.
So the question I’d ask you is this: do you have emotional amnesia?
Are you routinely angry with your spouse at a level far beyond the situation?
Are you constantly feeling rejected?
Do you often feel abandoned and alone?
Do you feel an overwhelming need to control your spouse’s behavior?
Do you avoid conflict and try to keep things on an even keel?
Do you find your marriage regularly destabilized by emotions you can’t control?
These are just some signs of emotional amnesia – echoes of a pain lurking unresolved in your past, bleeding into your present. Here’s the good news though. First, you’re reading this article which means you care about your marriage and want to be a better husband/wife. This is huge and not something you should take for granted. Way to go. Second, God is in the business of healing the pains of our past. In Psalm 34:18 we’re told “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; he rescues those whose spirits are crushed.”
I believe one of the primary way God does this is by revealing our emotional amnesia. To find a fully alive life now we have to see how it was sabotaged in the past, and God often allows the pain of our present to send us on a journey of understanding. One of the greatest ways God redeems tragedy and pain is by using it to lead us out of emotional amnesia and into awareness. In my journey this has meant knowing three things. We’ll discuss the first today, and the other two next Monday.
Know Your Family of Origin
No family is perfect, and sadly those imperfections create dysfunction in our lives. A counselor of mine once said every family dynamic is like a dysfunctional carousel ride. Every family member has their assigned seat, the music starts, and you go ‘round and ‘round. Eventually we hear that song of the carousel everywhere we go, and when the music starts we take our seat. God’s goal for us, my counselor friend said, is to teach us a new song.
So what is your family’s dysfunction? For some of you it might be glaringly obvious, but many of you are like me, quick to minimize any potential pain from your upbringing as just “normal family stuff.” Digging into our family of origin often triggers deeply held emotions. Some of you are already mad at me for suggesting your upbringing is affecting your marriage today (it might be worth asking why that makes you mad!). I get it – my journey through this has been grueling and painful too – but it’s been worth it.
Oftentimes I hear people say all this thinking does is create resentment, bitterness, living in the past, or excuses for bad behavior. While those things certainly can happen they’re not the goal. When led by God this journey should produce awareness, grief, acceptance, forgiveness, reconciliation and health. While there’s not space to fully unpack how that process works, here are some questions to get you started:
Were either of your parents absent growing up?
Were either of your parents emotionally, physically, verbally or sexually abusive? (click here for a guide on what emotional abuse looks like.)
As a child did you often feel a pressure to perform, follow the rules, or “be good enough”?
Do you have memories of feeling emotionally connected to both your parents? If not, why not?
Did you ever feel like you had to be the parent or had to grow up too fast?
Are interactions with your parent(s) today a source of conflict in your marriage?
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but a primer. If any of these questions stirred up a strong emotion, linger on it. Ask yourself why you responded that way. Consider talking to your spouse or wise friend/mentor about that emotion and get their perspective. As I said before, we are looking for “emotional amnesia” spots not so we can live in the past, but thrive in the future. Talking to someone else helps us ground our past in the present and look for healing.
Next week we’ll dive more into past wounds and then discuss tools God can use to bring healing. None of this is easy, but on the other side of it is an openness to intimacy that will transform your relationship with God, your spouse and every person in your life.