The writer Tom Robbins once said that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood. It seems an odd phrase, since an unhappy or traumatic childhood always stays with us, whether consciously or otherwise. Those who are not self-aware sometimes repeat abusive behaviour with their own children, and those who are more introspective either veer to the opposite extremes (an authoritarian childhood leading to permissive parenting for example), or spend a lifetime trying to rid themselves of feelings of worthlessness.
These traumas place tremendous stress on our minds and bodies. Children exposed to marital stress have a greater risk of psychological and health problems. Those exposed to abuse or negligence from, for example, a narcissistic mother or a violent-tempered father bear the marks of these experiences in their cellular memories and, epigenetics is showing us, in their genes. The interaction between stressful social situations and the body’s stress response plays a role in the choice of later relationships and has been linked to a greater risk of early death. However, Linda Martinez-Lewi Ph.D, a clinical expert on the narcissistic personality says, “Some children of narcissistic mothers not only survive to tell the true tale of their lives but they heal and evolve and create. I have found that these adult children are among some of the most empathic human beings I have ever encountered. “
Rethinking the past is a powerful tool. This is not denial, it is taking control. It is finding the positive in what seems unredeemably negative. It is gaining mastery over bad memories and ensuring optimum planning for the future. We do not deny what happened, we use it for our own triumph. It is sneaky, cunning and brilliant and because it happens in the privacy of our own minds, it harms no one. It is nobody’s business but our own. More, it is the sign of genius.
Every time we recall an outrage done to us, let us also remember the occasional good times. It may be a moment of laughter (abusive parents are often funny and entertaining. They live on the edge and have a quirky view of the world), a time when our parent or carer achieved something that made us proud; it may be the fact we gained access to experiences (foreign trips, meeting their acquaintances) we would not normally have had in an average family. It may even just be the times we were away from them and had great fun at school, or with a romantic partner, or when we did something in secret that made us feel strong and independent, and that there was hope.
If the person who caused the pain is still around to inflict more damage, we need to establish new ground rules. The choice is : illness or change, self-protection or giving in to fear. If we can’t do it alone, cognitive behavioural therapy teaches how to manage demands and extreme reactions from close relatives. It teaches conflict management and useful strategies for reducing the likelihood of illness.
The body has an incredible capacity to repair DNA damage. Therapy and thought control change the way we think about our past, and meditation helps repair DNA. An enzyme called DNA ligase IV uses overhanging pieces of DNA adjacent to the break to join and fill in the ends. DNA repair is not a fantasy (see The Inner Cavern).
Who are we serving by going through life feeling damaged? What is the point? Maybe we didn’t get what we wanted, but no one gets everything and anyway, we chose this childhood as a challenge, as the chance to shine in our own thriller. Why not instead focus on a truth that serves us? Our set point is that of an eternal being in control of our own story.
We have nothing to lose in letting go of a past where we were the victim, except misery, being right, blaming others and feeling like a loser. We are not at the mercy of the past, we can rewrite it through a happy filter, seeing difficult moments as crucial experiences that made us what we are today. Let us be the stars in our own adventure movies. By rewriting the past we gain happiness, joy, freedom and the power to create the present. We also repair the cellular memory, wipe away the damage to our bodies and expunge the seeds of disease lying in ambush for our later years.
Some studies have shown that marital happiness has no effect on the benefits of being married. This is clearly absolute nonsense. Any statistical health advantage in unhappy marriages almost certainly comes from women telling men to see a doctor when something seems wrong. But emotional stress and an unsatisfactory relationship is clearly going to impact health. Healthy relationships increase lifespan. Abusive, violent, manipulative, exploitative relationships are ruinous to health.
“I can’t understand why my father died at 72,” said Sandy. “He jogged every day, was a non-smoking vegetarian and did yoga every morning. He never reacted angrily when my mother called him names and bullied him, he was one of the most placid men I know, so he didn’t even fit the Type A profile.”
Marital stress is associated with thickening of the heart chamber (unlike job stress), elevated levels of adrenaline, high blood pressure and the production of cytokines which cause inflammation (a newly recognised cardiac risk).
However some studies appear to show that divorce can damage one’s physical health so dramatically that the person never recovers. Oh please! The end of a high-stress, unloving, possibly abusive relationship will immediately cause cortisol and adrenaline levels to sink as fear, unpredictability and constant repression of one’s own needs and desires disappear. It is often a matter of urgency that man should put asunder what God has joined together, and while we’re on the subject what is the point of a very long life lived in an unhappy marriage? There is no prize waiting at the finishing line.
There is no marriage contract detector in our genes; rather it is a social convention that being bound together under law – law is also not a biological feature – is stabilising. It is our perception that marriage is stable that reassures us. But for many people marriage is destabilising – especially people with depressed, aggressive, unloving, unfaithful, manipulative or personality-disordered spouses. The only factor causing illness in divorce from partners such as these is guilt and the feeling of failure, again coming straight out of our own thinking. Children raised in abusive and dysfunctional families will be more damaged than if they live with one loving parent. Lundy Bancroft in his book Why Does He Do That? reports that the men he treated for domestic abuse were men who witnessed their father abusing their mother. “I’m so afraid that divorcing my husband will damage my daughters,” said one woman, who had discovered her husband had been unfaithful dozens of times, including with women she thought were friends. But the opposite is true: a woman who does not love herself enough to change a life like that will model an unhealthy pattern of relationships to her daughters.
This isn’t rocket science. A relationship should last only as long as it serves the people in it – emotionally, not financially. For those who prefer the marriage bond, we need a new set of vows – not until death do us part, but as long as the relationship benefits us both. There are few benefits in getting married these days – pension rights and the next-of-kin status are some of the remaining legal perks – but many people feel these are insufficient to compensate for the legal fees and sense of failure if people wish to become unmarried, nor do they counterbalance the tendency to stop making an effort with each other once you have nabbed your man/woman which is so often the case within a legal bond. There are few things advocating involving the State in one’s love life, and many reasons for not doing so. Marriage certainly does not protect against boredom, strife, stress, abuse or infidelity – it never did. It does not protect children from emotional abandonment, and children’s happiness comes from empathetic and supportive parents, not from a legal institution.
A happy marriage is a wonderful way to live one’s life, but it is this word “happy” that these longevity studies so often leave out. Marriage is never more important than the people in it. Being married has nothing to do with life extension. Being happy does.