“…Shining Armor”

The Adult Child is drawn to shining armor and is blinded by it.

The Adult Child becomes emotionally intoxicated by the wearer of shining armor. They are drawn to them as a kindred spirit. They are comforted and affirmed by their reflection in the armor’s glow. They are excited by what is concealed beneath the armor. Is it an attraction to the wearer’s strength, weakness, or to familiar danger?

As the Adult Child Series continues, let me remind you that the hidden dimensions of the Adult Child phenomenon, in my view, are based in family systems that are holding unprocessed inter-generational trauma. The Adult Child is lost in their family’s unspoken shame by absorbing feelings they don’t understand. They adopt and modify family coping behaviors developed over the years to tolerate and mask these shameful feelings. Let’s look at a couple who are trapped in perpetual anxiety, the fallout from painful family histories. 

Debra and ML

Debra and ML started couple’s therapy with me after being together for several years. They shared with me their delight in finding each other and their mutual need to create a secure and stable life together. They bonded over family histories of neglect, shame, and emotional chaos and pledged to soothe their childhood disappointments. When they started living together, they were generous in their efforts to please and accommodate each other. Eventually they found themselves being emotionally stingy and noticed conflict seemed preferable to cooperation. Without pause, they busied themselves with their jobs, workout schedules, chores, projects, hobbies, social activities and anything else that would keep them emotionally distant while faithful to their life together. Shopping, a favorite activity, allowed them to move about comfortably in the world as best friends. Dinners out, movies, and parties with friends were regular pastimes that allowed a sense of playful abundance. These good-natured public displays of affection concealed their profound loneliness. Being alone together was challenging and exhausting, however, making detailed lists for their next project, meal, or social event were comforting and quieted their longing for true closeness. Without an ability to cooperatively work on these activities, unused purchases were ultimately shoved into closets.

They realized they needed help after their most recent fight. Debra had thought a meal at home with ML would be nice. They discussed the recipe she wanted to try and she went ahead and purchased the ingredients they needed. As they prepared the meal together, Debra’s flirtations with ML were rebuffed. ML’s annoyance derailed their evening and the meal went unshared. Predictably, ML fumed for days and Debra disappeared into silence. When ML exploded in anger, Debra’s resentment erupted. Their worst fears were again unleashed as they deliberately undermined, humiliated and hurt each other. Then desperate to reconnect, they promised to change and went shopping for a “special gift” to set things right between them. This time, unlike previous fights, they both experienced the “gift” as a superficial manipulation to keep them comfortably disconnected. When they came in for couple’s therapy, they hoped they hadn’t waited too long before starting.    

Clinical Considerations

The Adult Child hungers for emotional stability with someone they believe will provide the security and safety they long to feel. Their unfamiliarity with congruent emotional connections makes them susceptible to “shining armor.” They typically partner with another Adult Child who shares in the unspoken promise: “I’ll take care of you, if you’ll take care of me.” This conditional connection sets a co-dependent dynamic in motion. It reminds me of the TV game show, “Let’s Make a Deal.” The game starts off with the contestant being given a “prize” to keep or trade in for a better prize. If they take the gamble, they do so at the risk of losing everything. The game’s excitement, apprehension and disappointment are familiar to the Adult Child.

Debra and ML clung to each other, thinking that was what love was all about, and promised to take care of each other. They inserted themselves into each other’s lives and lost their personal space. Each ended up smothering the other, just as their families had suffocated them. It was hard for them, as it is for any Adult Child who hasn’t done the work of recovery, to accept that they will default to family of origin coping strategies when stressed by difficult feelings.

As Debra and ML realized they were not going to be each other’s salvation, they protected themselves with emotional distance. They no longer shared the loving gazes that brightened their lives and provided hope. Their fights exposed that they were too afraid to connect and didn’t know how to change. Disenchantment awakened past disappointments and their once-shining armor became tarnished. They could no longer see themselves positively reflected in each other. Their distress was apparent in their defensive distractions, meals they couldn’t share, projects they couldn’t complete, and unopened items confined to closets. Without breaking through the isolating patterns of their families’ pasts, Debra and ML realized they were going to stay stuck.

This doesn’t mean that every Adult Child has to get “stuck.” In fact, it means there are ways to break free of their inter-generational cycles of trauma. Choosing to depart from the dangerous turmoil of emotional intoxication allows them to remove the “armor” that appears “too good to be true.” Moving toward creating satisfying connections removes persistent shame and feelings of isolation. Dropping the “shoulds” that control them and recognizing beauty in vulnerability allows the Adult Child to develop a positive and healthy sense-of-self.

As human beings, we are each beautifully flawed and all intimate relationships come with challenges. The work of creating a satisfying relationship requires that we grow ourselves beyond the misleading assurances of childhood “shoulds and fantasies.” Self-awareness allows us to loosen the need for control so we can collaborate, cooperate and connect as we grow ourselves, each other and our relationship.

Self-awareness is especially difficult for the Adult Child who has been insulated in a cocoon of generational shame and anxiety. The 4 Rs can be a powerful resource for them as they discover that Ruptures are a part of life for all of us; and Regressive feelings bubble up to allow us to recognize that deeper issues need to be addressed. Engaging in the painstaking work of Repair allows the Adult Child to move toward Resolution and deeply connect in the intimacy of emotional vulnerability with another.