As a young boy growing up in a small, white two-story frame home, I was terrified of a strange place: the attic. An eerie stillness enveloped me as I ventured into this windowless, hot, creepy room. The scent of mothballs perfumed the air. Invisible threads of spider webs feebly attempted to capture me if I got too near. Mysterious shapes, covered by sheets and blankets, crouched in corners, casting suspicious shadows on the plank floor.
I just knew that attic contained more than discarded junk. Something was living up there, something that would mercilessly defend its territory against pint-sized trespassers. I never saw this creature, but I knew it was there.
Everyone has an attic in which the past is stored. It's a place where emotionally charged relics still live under sheets and in boxes, tucked into the corners of our minds. Those memories, of when we failed others and when others failed us, haunt and accuse. They also significantly contribute to the makeup of our own and our mates' self-images.
As a child I feared going into the attic alone, but with a companion I became downright courageous. That dark, scary spot in my home became little more than just another room. Sure, my heart still quickened a bit as I opened the door, but somehow fear was put to flight with a trusted friend beside me.
Likewise, your spouse may be extremely fearful of visiting his attic of the past alone. But his confidence will grow if you go with him and uncover together the musty relics that assault his self-image.
The influence of parents
Probably no human relationship evokes more emotional response, good and bad, than one's relationship with his parents. Unquestionably your spouse's parents were two of the most influential people in developing his self-esteem.
Whether your spouse was praised and encouraged continually or relentlessly criticized will largely determine how he feels about himself today. Your husband's identity as a man, or your wife's confidence as a woman, came from the relationship he had with his or her role model. The stability or instability of your mate's parents' marriage sent out emotional messages of security or insecurity.
Pleasing the most important people in our lives should give us a feeling of worth and value. Yet a child needs to feel valued not just for his performance and his accomplishments, but for who he is. Parents who withhold this unconditional acceptance create an adult who must perform to be valuable. He looks to others for the missing approval.
Sue and Rich dated and fell in love during college. Soon they were engaged, and finally, married. Although Sue had shared many things openly as they dated, Rich had no idea how the lack of her father's unconditional approval had shaped her self-image and influenced her life.
When Sue was six, her militaristic father inspected her bedroom every Friday evening. In preparation, she would balance one chair on another to dust the tops of the window and door facings, which her father routinely examined.
Any other work she was required to do was scrutinized just as intently. On one occasion, she was grounded for two weeks for missing two sprigs of crabgrass when she weeded the lawn. When Sue was eleven, she had to carry two cases of soft drinks down the basement stairs. She could barely manage to pick them up, but she did. Halfway down, she tripped and fell head over heels to the concrete floor. She was lying in the midst of broken glass when her father jerked her up and, without inquiring about her well-being, said, "You dummy, I told you not to drop them!"
Not surprisingly, Sue had an impoverished self-image. At times, during her marriage, her insecurity surfaced in the form of emotional withdrawal. Rich was often caught off guard, but he encouraged her to share her feelings. He rarely said, "You shouldn't feel that way." Instead, he acknowledged her emotions as true feelings, though not always the truth. He remained committed to helping her resolve, and not repress, her feelings about her parents. As a result, her self-esteem has improved, and she has a positive perspective of those things she once considered negative.
Overcoming the past
Before you accuse me of being too harsh on parents and laying all the blame on them, let me assure you of three important facts.
First, everyone is born imperfect. All of us start life with the seeds of negative self-worth already planted within us because we're relatives of Adam and Eve. Nothing your spouse's parents could have done would have changed this fact.
Second, no parents are perfect. No one sets out to ruin his child, but all parents make many, many mistakes in raising their children. Some do a better job of parenting than others in certain areas, but no mother or father does it perfectly. More than likely your spouse's parents did the best they could.
Third, we can't blame our parents for what is our responsibility today. Although your spouse's parents made errors, he is responsible for how he responds to them in the present—not only for what they did wrong, but also for what they did right.
Your spouse also may be striving for the parental approval and acceptance he missed as a child. Assisting him in dealing with his past is the pivotal point between healing a damaged self-image and leaving it needy and incomplete. Following are some tips:
1. Begin to work with your spouse to get the problem fully on the table. Talk about how your parents treated you and ask your mate to share his experiences. Be patient. Talking about these things can be very painful. Affirm and strengthen your mate by listening and by verbally expressing encouragement and acceptance.
2. Help your spouse understand his parents. Talk together about them and put their lives in a proper perspective. Remind him that they did the best they could.
3. Give your spouse the perspective that God's grace and power is greater than his parents' mistakes. No matter how poor a person's home was, God delights in resurrecting a damaged self-image and restoring dignity to that person. Point your mate to Christ and the hope He offers by verbally drawing his attention to that truth and by expressing your confidence and belief in the greatness of God.
4. Help your spouse determine how he will respond to his parents. He has no control over how he was treated as a child, but he does have control over how he will relate to them today. Bring his focus to what they did right by pointing out those things and how you both are the benefactors. This is especially important even if the parents are no longer living.
5. Encourage your spouse to forgive his parents—completely. You may need to talk this out first as a couple. A qualified counselor also may be necessary if you feel you cannot help your mate get on top of this emotionally charged area and be able to forgive his parents.
Bring his attention to the fact that Paul implores us to forgive "each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven us." To forgive someone means to give up the right of punishment. Urge your mate to put away those punishing emotions and to replace them with an attitude of love and understanding.
While you can do much to encourage your spouse in this area, you can't remove the sting of his past relationship with his parents yourself. You can't make him believe what God says about His grace and His healing power. Nor can you force him to go through the process of forgiveness. It must be his choice, his belief, his decision. So, above all, pray diligently for him. Only God can give him the heart to obey.
6. Aggressively begin to honor your spouse's parents. This is the initiating side of forgiveness. It not only will bring blessing to his parents, but it also will give you and your mate a sense of well-being about life, and thus a positive sense of self-worth.
Look for ways to help your mate bless his parents. Letters, phone calls, a care package in the dead of winter, pictures, plenty of hugs, and verbal "thank yous" for all they've done for both of you will cumulatively communicate to them love, respect, and honor.
Give your spouse the freedom, the space, the grace, and the time to work through his feelings toward his parents. In some cases, it may take months or even years for all of the hurt to be brought out in the open. But if you're patient, and if you and your spouse are willing to listen to the Lord, healing is possible.
Adapted by permission from The New Building Your Mate's Self-Esteem, by Dennis and Barbara Rainey, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995.