If we were asked, as an exercise, to craft a personal ad detailing what we want in a partner, it may read something like this:
Seeking someone who is kind and patient, independent yet loving, laid back yet energetic. Someone who is confident but isn't afraid to laugh at him/herself. Someone attractive but down to earth. Someone who is up for anything but knows what he/she wants.
An ad for the kind of partner we always seem to end up choosing may look very different:
Seeking someone who is moody and unpredictable, aloof yet jealous, low energy yet temperamental. Someone who has low self-esteem and no sense of humor when it comes to his/her flaws. Someone who concentrates too much on his/her appearance and often feels insecure. Someone who likes to control the situation and changes his/her mind about goals for themselves and their relationships.
A person can rarely be reduced to the black-and-white character outline of a newspaper ad, especially when it comes to how they behave in relationships. Every human has strengths and weaknesses, and all of those traits are bound to surface in the emotionally invested space that makes up an intimate relationship. Every individual is unique and complex and carries their own set of baggage from the past that impacts and informs their close relationships.
Given the variety and diversity of people in the world, one is often left to wonder: So why do I keep choosing the same partner? Why, no matter how many new criteria I mentally create, do I seem to be addicted to the same type of not-so-great relationship?
For the answer, every one of us has to first look at ourselves.
The experiences that make us who we are also influence who we choose as a partner. While most of us claim to be looking for true love, with real compatibility, and no drama, there are often unconscious influences, thoughts, and behaviors leading us to just the opposite. Many of us pick partners who help us stay within our comfort zone, even if that zone turns out to not be all that desirable. People seek what is familiar. If our past was filled with feelings of rejection or inadequacy, we are drawn to scenarios in which we feel the same way as adults.
Often, we select partners who reinforce deep-seated critical views we have of ourselves. For example, a person who had a parent who was emotionally unavailable or who was inconsistent in offering warmth and affection may think of themselves as unlovable on a basic level. As an adult, they may be initially attracted to someone whose attention makes them feel good about themselves, but eventually, they start to notice that their partner is resistant to getting close and can be disregarding. Even as they are tormented by feelings of rejection, they usually fail to realize that the very reason they were so drawn to this person may be because they sensed that he pr she supports those all-to-familiar feelings of being inadequate and undeserving.
People who find themselves on the other side of this scenario—feeling trapped or clung to by their partner—may want to consider how much they were intruded on as kids. Did they have a parent or caretaker who was overbearing and imposed on them for attention or reassurance? Are they now reacting (or overreacting) to their partner, because he or she is looking to them for similar qualities?
While we aim to find partners who complement us in a positive way, we are often compelled to find people whose opposing traits can rouse negative dynamics between us. For example, how many couples do we know in which one person does the talking, and the other stays quiet? While one person tells the stories and attracts attention, the other acts as a listener and falls into the background.
A married man I know once told me a story about how he and his wife had mutually acknowledged that, in the course of their relationship, he had become passive and she controlling. He refused to make any decisions, and she insisted on making all decisions. As an exercise, they decided that for a week he would make every decision, and she would go along with it. The very first night, they got in the car to go out to dinner, and as soon as they got to the driveway, the husband hit the brakes and the car came to halt. He found himself literally paralyzed as he waited for his wife to tell him which way to turn.
Instances like these are indicative of a larger problem: We frequently choose people we can depend on to fill out our personalities, then resent them for the very traits that make them our "other half." The wife in the above scenario resented her husband for being weak and indecisive, yet she refused to give up control. Her husband felt victimized by her demanding patterns but refused to voice his own opinions. Their dependency left them addicted to each other.
When we choose partners who complement us positively, we step out of our comfort zones, forcing ourselves outside our own heads and into an interaction with someone unfamiliar. The scenario of getting to know a stranger forces us to push ourselves, to be our best selves, and to treat the other person with respect and interest.
As we get closer, our defenses start to arise. We start to feel more vulnerable, and influences from our past start to seep in. In this stage of a relationship, we must be wary of how we can distort our partners. We may start to insert hidden meaning into their words to suit a way we feel about ourselves. We may start to project qualities onto them or exaggerate characteristics they possess.
For example, a friend of mine recently told me how upset she was when her husband wouldn't commit to going away for the weekend. Having just returned from a business trip, he thought it would be nice to have time at home alone with her. She instantly interpreted his resistance as a rejection. What she came to realize in the course of our conversation was that, while her husband did have trouble committing to certain plans, he had every intention and desire to spend the entire weekend with her, a reality that clearly contradicted her assumption that he was rejecting her.
In addition to distorting our partners, we sometimes provoke them into giving us a specific response. For example, the friend who wanted to go on a weekend getaway recognized that, although her husband preferred to live more spontaneously and not spend too much time on practicalities, she would often insist on talking to him about travel plans, home renovations, and financial matters well in advance of when it was necessary. She admitted that she didn't even care all that much about these things; it was as though she was compelled to push her husband away by bringing up topics that would distance him from her. By "nagging" at him, not only was she preventing more personal and meaningful interactions—she was provoking him to lose interest in certain activities, which then made her feel critical of him.
When dealing with our addiction to bad relationships, we must always be aware of how we select, provoke, and distort our partners to fill roles that recreate our past. The better we understand ourselves, the better we'll be able to choose partners who support us just as we support them—as the unique, complex, and independent individuals we are. We can then interrupt our compulsion to alter the relationship by misinterpreting our partners' actions to fit an old feeling about ourselves. We can also resist the temptation to provoke our partners into acting out in ways that hurt us and them (and our relationship).
By remaining aware and not engaging in these destructive behaviors, we can break our addiction to repeating our past today, and develop relationships that are long-lasting and that make us happy.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on relationships at PsychAlive.org
Learn about upcoming Webinars with Dr. Lisa Firestone on The Fantasy Bond