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Recognizing Your Attractions of Deprivation

Why we fall for people who are bad for us.

Why do our most intense romantic passions so often end in disaster? Why do these "attractions of deprivation" feel just like true love, even as they lead us off the edge of a cliff? There is an insight which can help us solve this mystery, but it's one we don't get taught. As I explain in this episode of The Deeper Dating Podcast, our most painful attractions actually arise from our deepest intimacy gifts, and these gifts are the brick and mortar of a love that can survive in this often treacherous world. This post will teach you how to recognize and avoid your own attractions of deprivation, but, even more important, it will help you name the intimacy gifts they conceal.

All of us are attracted to a particular type that stops us dead in our tracks: a physical type, an emotional type, a personality type. These "iconic" attractions make us weak in the knees, and they trigger our insecurities as well as seismic longings. How does that happen?

Harville Hendrix's model of the Imago explains that they draw us in part because they embody the worst emotional characteristics of our primary caregivers! Even though we may be adults, we often have unresolved childhood hurts due to betrayal, manipulation, abuse, and neglect from our caregivers.

Unconsciously, we seek the healing of these wounds in our intimate relationships. But that means we're most attracted to people who can wound us in just the way we were wounded in our childhood! Our psyche seeks to recreate the scene of the original crime, and then save us by changing its ending. The child in us believes that if the original perpetrators—or their current replacements—finally change their minds, apologize, or make up for that terrible rupture of trust, we can escape from our prison of unworthiness. Our conscious self is drawn to the positive qualities we yearn for, but our unconscious draws us to the qualities which hurt us the most as children.

What lies at the heart of this inexorable hunger for healing? The answer lies in the deep strata of our emotional self, where we create what I call our "myth of lost love." As we grow beyond the relative paradise of infancy, each of us crashes into the painful wall of our parents' dysfunctions and the cruelty of the outside world. This experience feels like a deep loss, a betrayal of what we know life should be like. So we create a "myth of lost love" to explain why this loss occurred. Like any powerful myth, this one frames our understanding of how life—and love—works. As we grow into adults, it becomes the mold that shapes our love lives.

The myth of lost love has two aspects. First, it articulates how the world is unsafe, and what we should do about that. It creates rules for us to follow to protect ourselves from new assaults upon our heart. The second part of our myth is equally destructive. It explains our parents' limitations in the way that makes the most sense to a kid—"It's my fault, and in some essential way, I'm unlovable." And then it continues its path of damage by articulating the flaws which make us unworthy of love. It homes in on our most vulnerable, needy, and nonconforming qualities and tells us that they are to blame for our loss of love.

Most of us will be in a battle with that voice for the rest of our lives, trying to disprove it even as we stubbornly remain loyal to it.

When we find someone who awakens the unconscious memory of lost love, our buried hopes are awakened too—in spades. Yet if we choose a relationship of deprivation, our hopes are likely to be crushed once again.

The part that's both heartbreaking and hopeful is that, in most cases, the very qualities we are ashamed of are the ones that can best attract the love we need! I call them "core gifts." It's important to note that these gifts are not the same as talents or strengths. They are simply our areas of deepest sensitivity and feeling, and they are usually tied to our most passionate, creative, and loving qualities. But gifts aren't easy things to have. People take advantage of them. Our gifts have an intensity which can make us behave irrationally, a sensitivity that can bring us to our knees. The truth is, our gifts get us in trouble again and again in our lives. If we don't understand our gifts and the way they've influenced our history, then in some essential way, we won't understand the deep storyline of our lives! (More about core gifts in future posts.)

As long as we keep following our attractions of deprivation, these gifts will remain disempowered, and so will we. So how do we stop following these wildly compelling attractions? The first step is to recognize them for what they are. The second step is to identify the core gifts they conceal. This important exercise will help you to do both.

Exercise: Your Attractions of Deprivation

I use this very helpful exercise in my workshops. It can help you identify the negative, withholding qualities that keep drawing you in. With this knowledge, you'll have a rudimentary map of your path to healing intimacy—complete with warning signs to protect you from once again choosing pain.

Step 1: Take a sheet of paper and write at the top: "My attractions of deprivation." List all the traits of your former partners which hurt you, frustrated you, or made you feel unseen or unacknowledged. Don't worry if the fault might have been partly yours. Write them down anyway. Include physical traits that are sexy but also negative, like a cocky swagger or an angry, tight mouth.

Tip: If you're having a hard time identifying your attractions of deprivation, ask your closest friends; they've probably wished they could tell you for years!

Step 2: Take a second sheet of paper and write on top, "A portrait of my attractions of deprivation." Read through your notes from step one, and put together a profile of the types of people who draw you in and cause you pain. For example:

"I'm attracted to bad boys. Guys who have no problem expressing their anger or their needs. I'm talking about angry people. Guys who don't seem to need me like I need them. Guys who don't need the validation I need. A lot of them have drunk too much. Some of them—at least three—have cheated on me. All of them were sexy in their self-confidence. Most resented my successes, or at least couldn't celebrate big accomplishments with me. They were critical of me, and I ended up feeling guilty a lot of the time. I'm attracted to guys with a sort of disdainful look on their face. A bit of arrogance turns me on."

Step 3: Underneath that part, write a new subtitle, "My gifts." Remember that our greatest wounds point to our greatest gifts. Write down which of your gifts felt degraded, minimized, or not fully appreciated in these relationships. What parts of you did you most yearn for your partner to understand, appreciate, and make room for? Those are your core gifts. This information is invaluable, and here's why: In all likelihood, these are the very gifts that you haven't been able to fully honor, which is why you allowed them to be neglected, minimized, or even abused. These gifts lie at the cutting edge of your growth. They are the qualities in your personality that you need to embrace and express. Not to mention protect—which is why it's imperative that you choose people who honor and treasure them as well. These are your relationships of inspiration, not deprivation.

Take a few minutes to read what you wrote, and notice your feelings as you let it sink in. Remember not to judge yourself; this knowledge is exactly what will set you free from future replays, and open the door to a relationship where you are loved for who you really are.

© Ken Page, LCSW 2015

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