Initial chemistry is the spark that fuels a relationship, but that spark doesn't always ignite for all the right reasons. Attraction is, to many of us, a mystery. How is it that qualities that led us to a person in the first place, can later repel us so strongly and lead to problems down the line? How does that cool confidence that once made us swoon turn into the soul-crushing aloofness that distances us from a loved one? How does that first adorable hint of jealousy snowball into full-blown insecurity and dependence?
In my blog, "Why You Keep Winding Up in the Same Relationship" I explored this mystery, addressing why we often repeatedly choose similar partners and end up in the same unsatisfying or unsuccessful unions. How are we supposed to know when our attractions should be warning signs? What qualities should we steer away from when we don't even know a person yet? Here I want to address some of these questions and propose a way out of the patterns that lead us to choose the wrong partners so that we can establish relationships with the right ones.
Identify Your Pattern
We don't always fall for someone simply because their positive qualities complement our own but also because their negative traits fit ours so well. Therefore, the first thing to do when entering into a relationship (or improving one, for that matter) is to take a look at yourself and at the history of your relationships. What are the qualities that you typically look for in a partner? Are there certain negative qualities that always seem to show up and eventually drive you crazy? Do you have a pattern of choosing a person with specific traits, only to end up dissatisfied with them? Do your relationships seem to always break up for the same reasons?
Once you recognize a pattern, you have something that you can work with. By figuring out how you go about ending up with the same objectionable partner in every relationship, you will know what to do to break this cycle. With each choice you make and action you take in a relationship, it's important to have a good sense of what is operating within you that's motivating your behavior.
When it comes to love, it is advisable to not only go into it with your heart; but to go into it with your head. That way, instead of automatically selecting the same type of person for the same negative traits, you can try selecting a partner who is entirely different. For instance, if you grew up feeling invisible or ignored, you may avoid someone who shows a real interest in you. Instead, you may feel more attracted to someone who is distant or withholding of affection.
You can consciously decide to be open to the possibility of being with someone who is different from the people you typically choose, for example, someone who expresses a strong attraction to you. This change will most likely cause you to feel somewhat ambivalent. However, because you have identified your pattern, you can be aware of the negative factors influencing your decision. Perhaps your disinterest in this person may be largely motivated by the very interest that he/she is showing in you.
When you consciously choose to break a pattern, you can establish a better relationship with a better, albeit unfamiliar, outcome. If you hang in there, and give this out-of-the-ordinary person a chance, you can become accustomed to this out-of-the-ordinary relationship. Yours could be one of those stories of friends who fall in love or unlikely seeming couples who live happily together.
If you are in a relationship, and you recognize that it is heading toward the same negative outcome as past relationships, you can stop the momentum and avoid another tragic ending. You and your partner are most likely collaborating in creating the negative dynamics in your relationship. Not only is he/she the same kind of person you always end up with, it is most likely that you are the same kind of person he/she ends up with, too. Even though there are real qualities we love and admire in the people we choose to become romantically involved with, we must consider that each of us is also making sure that the negative baggage we each carry fits nicely into one another's undeveloped emotional compartments.
Talk with your partner about how your patterns of relating fit together and about how you may be playing out dynamics from your pasts with each other. As you discuss how they play out in your relationship, you will each have ideas of behaviors you can challenge and recognize that your relationship is not doomed. Remember that, in any relationship, you are going to face your own limitations as well as those of another human being. The better you know yourself and your partner knows him/herself, the stronger you will both be in dealing with these limitations. You can both evolve and grow in the relationship. As you each challenge yourselves and give up your old negative identities, you will discover new aspects of yourself and of your partner.
Listen to Your Friends
A helpful way of determining whether a strong attraction or a lack of interest is based on your true state of mind or elements of your past is to trust your friends. They tend to be much more objective about you. A friend of mine turned down her now-boyfriend for a full year because, according to her, he just wasn't her type. When her friends met him, they were struck by what a nice guy he was and by how much he liked her. They encouraged her to be more open-minded and give him a chance. She decided to trust their advice, and accepted a date with him. This move turned out to be the biggest hurdle in her relationship; from there she went on to develop a relationship that was meaningful and loving.
Don't Listen to Your Inner Coach
You can stop paying attention to the inner coach that predicts a negative outcome for your relationship, and promotes a negative view of you and your partner. You can ignore it when it is critical of you and when it distorts and exaggerates any of your partner's shortcomings. This negative way of thinking, or "critical inner voice," directs us to recreate the emotional environment we grew up in. If, as children, we were neglected, it warns us that we are going to be rejected. If we were intruded on, it tells us that a loved one is demanding of us. In almost no area is this coach as loud or tough on us than in our intimate relationships.
Think of your inner coach as an old dialogue that was scripted in your past and plays out in your current life. The goal of this voice is maintain a comfortable and familiar, yet highly negative view of yourself and your partner. Even when you're with a partner you like, your inner critic operates to push them away, a topic I covered in a blog for Psychology Today, "It's Not You, It's Me: The Truth Behind the Excuse." By challenging your inner coach, you can maintain an objective and compassionate view of you and your partner.
One friend of mine tends to choose men who are financially unstable and literally need to be supported. At one point she told me, "I've never been with a man who paid his taxes!" She describes herself as a "Daddy's Girl" who idealized her father. Her father instilled in her the importance of working and taking care of herself, despite the fact that he went bankrupt several times and even served time in jail for tax evasion. To break her pattern of choosing financially dependent men, my friend began dating someone who had a successful career, and was kind and generous to her.
She was enjoying their relationship, but at times she found herself having intensely critical thoughts. "What are you doing with this creep? He's doting on you now but what good are you to him? He'll probably get tired of you and leave you." Her inner critic ridiculed her relationship and tore her boyfriend down. Fortunately, she used her friends as a sounding board and listened when they told her that her attacks on herself and criticisms of her boyfriend were ridiculous. She chose to ignore her inner critic and took advantage of the opportunity to develop a relationship that is characterized by mutual respect, appreciation and love for one another.
Hang In There
Change takes work and time, so be patient and hang in there. Personal change also benefits from support. There is so much to sort through in trying to understand the dynamics in a relationship. First there is what each person is bringing to the union, and then there is what is at play between them as a couple. That is why therapy is helpful for people who are challenging themselves and wanting to create better relationships.
It is possible to achieve this goal on your own but it is advisable to accept all the help you can get from friends and family members as well as from a therapist. Giving up on being able to have a close relationship is a terrible solution; it guarantees that you will never get what you want. You are siding with a critical inner voice that you don't deserve anything or you don't need anyone in your life. Aligning yourself with this cynical self-protective process is a form of self-denial that limits your life. It is better to love and get hurt than to never love at all. When you hang in there and challenge your pattern of negative relationships, you will be rewarded by getting to know yourself and your partner in a new way, in the context of a loving and meaningful relationship.
To read more on relationships from Dr. Lisa Firestone visit PsychAlive.org