Childhood Lessons of Love
About the Guest
Milan Yerkovich and his wife, Kay, talk about their early years of marriage and the difficulty they had breaking out of old communication patterns. Kay also helps us understand emotional attachment.
Childhood Lessons of Love
Bob: As we grow up, we develop patterns of how to relate to other people—patterns that are imprinted on our lives—and we think that everyone else relates to people the same way we do. For Milan and Kay Yerkovich, understanding these patterns was a breakthrough for their marriage relationship.
Kay: I’m still the Avoider; he’s still the Pleaser—we don’t just outgrow these. These are early imprints that really stay with us. I feel like it was an open door that God gave me so much wisdom as to what was at the root of the brokenness. We began to have conversations about our background so that we could understand “How did this happen?” That was a real turning point.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, September 24th. Our host is Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. When we understand the patterns of relationship that we bring into a marriage, it can affect how we learn to love one another in marriage.
We’ll talk more about that today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’ve had so many people who are so excited about what we’re going to be talking about this week and about the guests we have on just because the conversation we’re going to have has been so helpful for so many people.
Dennis: It has. In fact, a little bit later, this couple’s going to be hosting a marriage conference for the staff, here, at FamilyLife®.
Bob: That’s right.
Dennis: I just want to welcome you to the team. We may make this so comfortable here that you’ll just pitch a tent here and join up and be a part of the team. [Laughter]
Milan: Hey, this might be a recruitment.
Kay: Yes; it might.
Dennis: It might be—it happened for Bob. [Laughter] He came here from San Antonio. He gave up—he’s still a Spurs fan.
Bob: I am still a Spurs fan; yes.
Dennis: Well, the voices you just heard are that of Milan and Kay Yerkovich.
They hail all the way from Southern California. They were married the same year Barbara and I were married, back in 1972. They have four children and ten grandchildren.
Milan: We do.
Dennis: They’re prolific speakers/radio hosts, along with Steve Arterburn, on New Life Live. They’ve written a book called How We Love.
You guys have taken a very unique approach around the emotional condition of marriages. It’s biblical—solidly biblical—but you believe we underestimate the whole emotional dimension of how we enter in to a marriage relationship; right?
Milan: Well, that’s what we did. We found that we had developed a lot of other areas of our relationship—our fun together, our camaraderie, our biblical base—we took time to build at the beginning of our marriage. But what we realized, after a period of time, was that the emotional focus of our marriage was nonexistent.
We didn’t even know what an emotionally-based relationship was.
Then, we took time to build that and so what—who we are today is after we started something brand-new about the 15-year mark of our marriage.
Bob: Yes; it’s interesting, Kay—15 years in and you would say you were emotionally unconnected as a couple?
Kay: Yes; but that was normal to me, because that’s the family I grew up in—we were emotionally unconnected—so, to me, we were normal.
Kay: I think, like so many couples though, we had this repetitive dance / this core pattern—in spite of Bible study, prayer / my husband was a pastor—was such a tenacious bad dance. We just couldn’t understand “Why was that dance still there?” When we began to really explore where we didn’t develop, as kids, that dance made a lot more sense.
Dennis: When did you first step on one another’s toes in the dance? I mean, you got married—how long did you rock along before there was the first big time ouch? What happened?
Kay: Well, we dated for two years; so I can even look back then and see that core pattern was probably there. We had no name for it. We didn’t understand that was a pattern that was created from our histories. I can look back from the day we were married—or that pattern was really in place—and like all people, you just think that will go away or “That’s not that irritating.” Of course, the longer you are married, the more irritating it gets.
Milan: I think what you just said, Kay, was really important. We carried our childhood and adolescence experience with us into marriage. What may have served us well, as a child, did not serve us well, as adults, for adult relationship. Essentially, I was what I would call a fear-based person because of the home I grew up in; and that’s all I knew. I knew anxiety; I knew fear—not knowing what was going on with her—so I would over-explore or check in too often, which would then push her away.
But I didn’t know where that was coming from. I didn’t know that that was because of the fearful childhood that I’d had; so proximity, or attentiveness, or her paying attention to me had supreme importance.
But as an emotionally-avoidant person, it didn’t have importance to her. Plus, she was an introvert; so there was not a lot coming this way. It caused me to be anxious, and that caused a lot of problems. We, literally, didn’t really put our finger on it until we started looking at it and saying, “What is this thing?”
Kay: Well, we burned out of the ministry after ten years; and we knew something was wrong. We prayed the prayer in Psalms, “Lord, search my heart…” Boy, if there is one prayer that God answers, it is that prayer: “Show me the broken places in me.”
Kay: God began to reveal what those broken places were and, eventually, the root of those broken places, which was—I did some research in it in attachment theory. Basically, researchers are researching how our early attachment impacts our adult relationships.
And there I was—all over the page. I thought: “You don’t outgrow this. It stays with you as an adult.” I would say those first 15 years—we didn’t fight, because neither one of us knew how to even engage on an emotional level. But it was just—I would say it was very superficial.
Bob: So if I had come to you, in year 14, and said “Kay, on a scale of one to ten, how’s your marriage?” would you have given it a high score?
Kay: I think I would have said: “Oh, yes; it’s pretty good. We don’t fight,” which I didn’t see as a problem.
Kay: It actually is a problem.
Kay: It means there is a lack of honesty.
Kay: And yet, I think it was the pain of quitting the ministry, plus that repetitive dance—he felt too needy to me / I felt too distant to him. I would say there was pain; but because I was so emotionally avoidant, I had a hard time acknowledging it and really being real about it. And that was part of the growth process.
Bob: Would you have given it a lower score, Milan?
Would you have said “Yes, we have some issues”?
Milan: No; because I think: A) I wasn’t aware of what the issues were; B) I was too busy praying that somehow God would change her [Laughter] instead of the prayer you just said: “God, what inside me…?”—that’s the one God answered.
And then I would have to say I would tend to see things as the glass half full, so I would tend to not look at reality. I would see things the way I wanted them to be, which is to not see things from a realistic base.
Bob: See, here’s the reason I bring this up; because I think there are a lot of couples today who would say, “Yes; our marriage is good.” It’s because they have never experienced what you guys came to experience as you learned how to process these emotional issues and connect, emotionally.
Milan: That’s right.
Bob: So, functionally, their marriage is good; but emotionally, they’re distant from one another. They just don’t know that it can be anything more than that.
Kay: That’s a very good description. Now, looking back, I would rate my marriage very differently; but you don’t know what you don’t know.
That’s part of God giving you wisdom and revelation—is helping you understand what you don’t know.
Dennis: One of the things you both talk about in the book is that there is a question you like to ask individuals that helps unlock kind of where they are—from growing up, emotionally—that really is a key to better understanding them. What’s that question and how did you come to find that question being so central?
Milan: That question came about as being so central because we realized—looking in retrospect, after we had done a lot of work—the missing elements in our relationship. That question is: “Do you have a memory of comfort from your childhood and adolescence, in which you felt that you could take a distress—an emotional pain/a cognitive pain—and bring it in to relationship with somebody bigger than you, and they would comfort you and you would feel relief?”
Kay and I realized, after we began to comfort one another, that we had not had this element in our life. If the answer is, “No,” then we, as people, will turn to non-relational means to manage our internal distress. We will go to non-relational sources, many of which are a lot of the addictions we see, where we turn to some place to medicate and make our pain go away; or we distract.
The answer that Kay and I learned was that we learned to turn to people. As adults, we learned to turn to one another as sources of comfort. If that’s the case, then you will find that you can bring yourself / the real you into relationship and receive the kind of comfort that God tells us to bring to one another.
Bob: Kay, you didn’t have a memory of being comforted as a child?
Kay: No; I did not have one memory. My parents never once asked me how I felt about anything. There was an unspoken rule: “Figure it out on your own, and pull yourself up by the bootstraps.” I got in trouble for crying.
I just learned to shut down my emotions and not feel, which is the Avoider imprint.
When you think of a memory of comfort—missing those—I did not know how to go to my husband and say: “Hey, I’m not okay. I need a hug,” or “I’m not sure what I even feel.” The basis of bonding is emotional connection and vulnerability—it’s just missing in my family.
Bob: Did you have a memory, Milan, of being comforted as a child?
Milan: No; I could not bring my real self into the family relationship, because I had an explosive parent. The idea of bringing an emotion of pain just did not work. I learned to stuff everything and hold it all in—I couldn’t be transparent and vulnerable.
Dennis: So your explosive parents created fear in you that—if you were honest about what you were feeling / what you’re going through—that was going to be met with additional pain of anger.
Milan: Well, at least, it would be met with an objection. That, of course, then frightened me; because I didn’t want to escalate anything in my home.
Dennis: And so you get married—
Dennis: —and you can see how that can easily repeat itself.
Milan: Well, that’s exactly the point. I took what I had been molded into and I carried that into my adult relationship, which, in reality, didn’t work well.
Milan: But we didn’t know better. Now, we loved each other; but we really didn’t get that there was a missing piece—that had we had parents, where we could find comfort, just like we were discussing earlier—then this would have been natural to bring our real selves into relationship with one another. That was not the case.
Dennis: I read about this in your book and reflected in my own life about this. Bob, I want you to as well. I thought, “Did I have that with my parents?” I thought, “I really did,” primarily, with my mom. The thought that came to my mind was reflecting back to when I was sick, as a little boy, and in distress/not feeling well. She was a nurse at heart.
She would comfort me; she would come to my bedside. I just felt like she wrapped her arms of love around me.
When I moved into marriage with Barbara, I was more comfortable, in my skin, than she was. I’d ask her, “What’s wrong?” and she would use the shortest word in the English vocabulary—
Dennis and Milan: “Nothing.” [Laughter]
Dennis: And what her answer really was: “I don’t know what’s wrong.” That was our journey, beginning early in marriage until finally—I think about year 25—I finally understood, with Barbara, that what she was looking for from me was not an answer but just an identification of what she was expressing and say: “You know, I am really sorry this distressing to you. I want you to know I’m in it with you. I want to bear that burden with you and for you, as your husband.” That was breakthrough for us.
Dennis: But it took a lot of mistakes to get to that point in year 25.
Milan: Yes; sure. But you use the word, “burden,” there: “I wanted to bear her burden.”
In all these “…one another’s” of Scripture—require a vulnerability with one another. We’re supposed to bear one another’s burdens; we’re supposed to encourage one another / comfort one another. How do we comfort one another if we don’t know where the other person—or if I can’t share with you that I’m uncomfortable or that I’m discouraged?
The church, at large, does not know how to train and equip the church to be able to bring this emotional self to other people—to say, “Here’s the real me”; and therefore, couples don’t connect on this level. Dennis, you’re absolutely right.
Dennis: Back to you, Bob—on the question for you. I want to know how you answer that.
Bob: The question of: “Do I remember being comforted as a child?”
Dennis: Yes; in a time of distress.
Bob: Yes; I don’t remember it from my dad, who was pretty detached. My mom’s comfort was acts of service, so it was not an emotional bonding. It was caring for your needs—
—there wasn’t a lot of feeling with it. It was more functional than feeling. I can’t go back and say, “This was a time when I was really emotionally distraught, and I felt emotionally comforted.” I felt my needs being met but not a lot of emotion tied to that. Does that make sense?
Milan: Sure; it does.
Kay: Yes; they’re your physical needs—
Bob: Right; yes.
Kay: —she cooked your meals; she ironed your clothes/washed your clothes. My mom did all those things too—she was a very nice person.
But what we’re talking about is that someone sees a hurt/a stress—something inside you a parent is even aware of that—and my parents were not. And then, also, just the ability to draw that out and help you name what is inside. You know, those memories help us to articulate our inner self. When we don’t have a parent asking about it, in our self, we’re completely missing that skill.
Bob: I don’t remember if I heard my parents have this conversation or if I heard my mom tell me about it at some point later.
But as a teenager, I think mom said to me that she would bristle at my dad saying, “I love you,” because she wanted him—not to say it—but to show it: “Don’t tell me you love me. Show me you love me.”
Bob: The message that came through to me was: “That’s how you demonstrate love for others—is you show it. You don’t say it.” That affects how I understood what a love relationship looks like—is that you do it through demonstration, and all the rest is just frou-frou.
Dennis: And I just wanted to comment: “If you don’t know what communicates love to your spouse, you have to start by becoming a student of them and ask the question, ‘What does communicate love to you?’ Don’t ask the question one time.”
Bob: Yes; because it can change over time.
Dennis: It does change over time. I think, as you grow up—I think marriage is God’s gift to us to help us grow up.
Milan: Oh, amen.
Dennis: We can begin to articulate how the other person can express love / how they can comfort us in a time of distress.
Kay: I have one thought there. If you had asked me that question in the first 15 years, I would have said: “Clean the house. Do the dishes…”—anything that was a task, because that’s all I could value.
I think, sometimes, we pick how we want to be shown love out of our woundedness. As I realized that my family didn’t bond, and I didn’t have a vocabulary of feelings, my deepest need for love made me very uncomfortable. Ask me how I feel—I’ll need a feeling word list to answer that question—and be available for comfort, even though I’m going to be completely, and totally, miserably uncomfortable asking for it or having a holding time. It took me a year to become comfortable with what I most deeply needed.
Bob: So you said it was understanding attachment theory that was a breakthrough for you in your marriage relationship?
Kay: Yes; it was.
Bob: So explain what happened and how that “Aha!” happened for you.
Kay: Well, I actually began to study attachment because I was working with a woman, on a very part-time basis, that worked with adopted children. What I discovered was that there are five love styles or attachment styles and that we learn these very early.
They were researched by stressing a mom and infant—well, the baby is 18 months old. The mom leaves the room and comes back, so that stresses a child. They observed patterns as to how those babies responded to a mom leaving and a mom returning:
The Avoider child just dismissed any need—didn’t cry when mom left; didn’t seek her comfort when she came back. At 18 months, that child has already learned, “Don’t go to mom for comfort.”
The Pleaser, who is a more fearful pursuer, usually has a parent that’s traumatized them or, like you said, an angry parent; so they just become the good kid. They’re the Pleaser. I thought “Well, that’s my husband.”
And then the ambivalent or Vacillator is a person who got enough attachment to want more but not enough to satisfy.
Then the chaotic or Controller / Victim is a person who came from a really difficult home, and there is no rhyme or reason to connection. There’s trauma in this home.
As I began to read through these styles, I realized: “I’m still the Avoider. He’s still the Pleaser. We don’t just outgrow these.” These are early imprints that really stay with us.
I feel like it was an open door—that God gave me and you so much wisdom as to what was at root of the brokenness. We began to have conversations about our background, so that we could understand “How did this happen?” That was a real turning point.
Dennis: Maybe you just answered the question I was about to ask you; but I’m thinking of a listener, who is sitting here, going, “I’ve never thought of that question of ‘When was the first time I felt distress and was first comforted?’” They, like you two expressed, have a blank slate. What do they do with that?
Milan: Well, for us, it was starting from scratch. We all have to realize God wants us to conform to the image of Christ. Our starting spot is where our family left us; or our starting spot is where life left us—including the pluses, the minuses, the joys, the sorrows, the traumas.
Milan: When we come to Christ, that’s our starting spot; so we need to all grow up. We had to learn a whole new vocabulary, Dennis. We had to just struggle through shame and embarrassment or—and get out that feelings word list you were talking about, Kay; and look at it and say, “What am I feeling right now?” It was hard to take amorphous things that were going on inside of me and put words to them. Eventually, we became more literate in our emotional intelligence and now we can then speak to one another, really, in another language.
Dennis: I think the key word you said is “grow.”
Milan: Yes; that’s absolutely right.
Dennis: You have to start where you are, and you need to commit yourself to grow. That’s what God delights in doing.
Milan: Right; He does.
Dennis: This book is a book of transformation.
Milan: It is.
Dennis: I like to say it this way—when I got married, I thought I understood what love was.
Milan and Kay: Yes.
Dennis: But in essence, what I did was—I enrolled in the first grade of faith and the first grade of love—
Milan: [Laughter] I love that!
Dennis: —and hopefully, I don’t stay in the first grade—
Dennis: —I don’t repeat the first grade—
Bob: —over and over again.
Dennis: —for 25 years.
Dennis: But continue to grow and learn the lessons that God has for me. I just would encourage the listener, who has a blank slate, and goes: “You know what? I don’t know what you guys are talking about. I’m emotionally illiterate.” Well, open the Book [the Bible] and go to 1 Corinthians 13. Begin to ask God to make these words a part of your vocabulary—it says: “Love is patient and kind; it does not envy or boast. It’s not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It’s not irritable or resentful.
“It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
The reality is—I don’t care whether you’ve been a follower of Jesus Christ for a year or for 50 years—you got to keep on graduating from the class that you’re in right now, and move forward and press into Jesus Christ, and pray that prayer. You talked about praying a prayer: “God help us in our marriage learn how to love one another better.”
Bob: Well, and after you’ve meditated on that list from 1 Corinthians 13 for a while, go online and take the “How We Love Inventory” that you guys have put together. We’ve got a link at FamilyLifeToday.com where people can go over and fill out the inventory and find out what your core style is. As you learn to put words to what you’re feeling and learn to relate more effectively with one another, you’ll grow closer in your marriage relationship.
Milan and Kay have written about this in their book, How We Love: Discover Your Love Style and Enhance Your Marriage. We’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. There’s a workbook that goes along with it. You can order both from us if you’d like. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about these resources or to take the “How We Love Inventory.” And again, you can do that online for free. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call if you’d like to order. Our number is 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
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Tomorrow, we’ll continue to explore how our emotions shape how we love one another and how we can do a better job of understanding our emotions and expressing what we’re feeling to our spouse. Milan and Kay Yerkovich will be back with us. We hope you’ll be back as well.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time with another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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