Unpacking What You Learned About Relationships and Intimacy

Your brain is a sponge, not a source. You may believe you’ve come up with an original thought, but that’s almost never true. Any thoughts beyond the most basic survival instincts are things you’ve learned from others and from life experience. That’s especially true when it comes to what you learned about relationships and intimacy.

And by learn I’m not talking about school. The moment you were born you started learning things from other humans. You learned that your cries got adults to pay attention and care for your needs, or not. You first learned that you were important or unimportant, loved or unloved, safe or unsafe, from the parents or caretakers around you. It wasn’t the words they said; you didn’t know what words meant yet. You learned those things from how they responded around you and to you.

You especially learned about relationships and intimacy long before you were aware you were learning anything. How did your family of origin “do” relationships, communication, feelings, sex, intimacy, male/female roles, conflict, etc.? It would be awesome if all the things you learned in those earliest stages of development were healthy. But for most humans what you learned was incomplete at best, and perhaps has been downright toxic.

What did your brain soak up? And what can you do about it now?

The Story of Your Brain

When I was in medical school over 30 years ago we were taught that your brain is mostly “done” by the time you’re about 25 years old. The basic brain pathways are set by then, and there’s not much anyone can do to change that. We now know that’s not true; neuroplasticity – changing brain pathways – continues throughout life.

But what brain science also continues to demonstrate is that your brain learns things most quickly and easily during infancy, childhood, and adolescence. The things you learn then have the most staying power and require the most intentional effort to change. They can change! We know seniors in their 80s and 90s who learn new ways of believing, relating, and living, but it takes more effort and it happens more slowly.

If you want to become whole it’s important to consider what your brain soaked up. This is not blaming anyone (including yourself) or navel-gazing at your past; it’s simply a primary way of looking at your story with honesty and compassion, the way Jesus does.

And by the way, this applies even if you’ve been a follower of Jesus for a long time. You may point to 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Isn’t that good news?! But that doesn’t mean you’re “done.” For example, Peter knew Jesus personally, and yet years later God had to work on him about some long-standing prejudices and assumptions that were just plain wrong. (See Acts 10, Galatians 2:11-14)

Unless your life around relationships is perfect, this is an important area to apply this to. If you’re truly happily married and have a handful of close intimate friends, great. If you’re not married and feel fully satisfied, connected, and mutually nourished by the relationships you have, wonderful. But for most of us, it could be better.

If your intimacy needs aren’t fully met, take a moment to consider what you learned about relationships and intimacy.

What You Learned About Intimacy and Relationships

So, what did your brain soak up about relationships, intimacy, gender, sex, etc.? That’s kind of a loaded question. Here are several more detailed questions that may shine the light on things you learned before you knew you were learning them. If one of these questions doesn’t apply, skip it. If one or more is uncomfortable, that’s something worth thinking about a little longer.

  • Was being born a girl or a boy good news to your parents? Or was one of them (or both) hoping for a child of the other gender?
  • As you became aware of your body, especially your sex organs, what messages did your parents or caretakers provide? How was your curiosity handled? Were you shamed?
  • What did you observe about how your parents or caretakers “did” intimacy? How did they “do” feelings? Communication? Sex?
  • How did you first learn about sex itself? What feelings accompanied those first learning moments? Desire? Anxiety? Curiosity? Shame? All of the above? Something else?
  • Is the world a mostly “safe” place where my needs are generally met? Is the world mostly dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest, where I must claw and grasp for my needs to be met? Or is the world a place where I can expect only harm?
  • What role do other people play in my life? Am I often a “victim” in relation to others? Can I exploit and manipulate others to get what I want? Is true give-and-take possible?
  • How do men and women relate to each other? Are men generally weak, or angry, or exploitative? Are women generally needy, or manipulative, or there to be used?

Remember, look at your story with both honesty and compassion, the way Jesus does. If one or more of these questions stirs things up for you, that’s something to ponder further.

Now What?

Looking at what you learned around relationships and intimacy might leave you depressed, anxious, frustrated, or the like. The good news is that you can unlearn things that are unhealthy and re-learn new things.

That comes mostly through connecting with healthy growing other humans. Just like you learned things from other humans growing up, your brain needs other humans to learn new things now. We’ll be talking more about that in weeks to come.

And learning new things also takes connecting with God. It’s more than learning facts about Him: it’s learning experientially what it’s like to be with Him.

Pursuing maturity and wholeness is worth it, whatever your age or stage of life! Let’s continue the journey.

Your Turn: Which of these question(s) felt uncomfortable for you to consider? And what is it like to consider, Where did you learn that?  Leave a comment below.

Want More? The podcast this week is a conversation with Kristin Miele, and it’s all about learning. If you’re a parent you’ll especially want to listen to this episode about becoming the sex educator for your kids.

Tweetables: why not share this post?

  • Relationships less than perfect? Intimacy needs not met? It will be helpful to consider where and what you learned about relationships and intimacy.   Tweet that.

Struggling with Sexual Stuff?

You don’t have to stay there!

Our FREE 30-day email devotional series Toward Sexual Wholeness gives you bite-sized daily Scriptures, thoughts, and prayers that will move you forward in your journey toward a lifestyle of increasing sexual wholeness – the lifestyle you truly want and that God wants for you.