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The Psychology of Neurotic Romantic Attraction

Are you repeatedly attracted to inappropriate romantic partners?

Have you ever wondered why you gravitate to inappropriate, rejecting, or unrealistic love interests? Do you seem to relive the same or similar scenario with every new romantic partner you meet? Only not in a good way? What's up with that?

One of the most common problems psychotherapists see today is a chronic pattern of dysfunctional love relationships. The person's chosen partners typically share consistent similarities, such as physical and/or emotional abuse, unavailability, substance abuse, instability, lying, cheating, narcissism, etc. And each relationship eventually and inevitably ends badly because of these repetitive dynamics.

After a while, such destructive relationship patterns—totally obvious to everyone else—start to become more apparent even to the patient. And then the glaring therapeutic question becomes: Why would anyone in his or her right mind persist in pursuing relationships that are clearly doomed to frustration, humiliation and failure?

Is it low self-esteem? Poor judgment? Bad karma? There are no easy explanations for such baffling behavior. One important part of the self-defeating repetitive pattern puzzle sometimes has to do with fear of intimacy or of the opposite sex. (See, for example, my previous posts on Sex Wars.)

For example, if we unconsciously fear the opposite sex, how can we truly relate intimately to them? Instead, we defend ourselves from real encounters with thorny defenses that keep others at arms length, limiting emotional contact.

Or, when the fear is of intimacy itself, we unconsciously choose partners totally or partially incapable of emotional closeness, conveniently precluding the possibility of true intimacy. Sex is not necessarily to be equated with intimacy, since we can have one without the other. And sex can often be used as a defense against real intimacy. (See, for example, my prior post on promiscuity.) Since this is all done unconsciously, it becomes a seemingly senseless repetitive pattern, undermining and sabotaging every well-intentioned relationship we try to create.

But there is yet another neurotic phenomenon frequently afoot here. It is what Freud referred to as a repetition compulsion. A repetition compulsion is an unconscious, automatic psychological defense mechanism. Here's how it works: The repetition compulsion is a neurotic attempt to rewrite or undo one's personal history. The history we try to rewrite is typically the troubled or unsatisfactory relationship with our parents, particularly, but not always, the opposite sex parent.

When the early parental relationship is fraught with frustration, disappointment, rejection, abandonment, neglect or abuse, the child is in a precarious spot. As young children, we mistakenly conclude that the problem with the parent(s) resides with us, and that, therefore, we possess the power to rectify it by changing ourselves into someone more acceptable to our parents. This illusory cognitive core belief not only nurtures our magical hope, but provides a much-needed sense of power and control over our environment, of which, in reality, children have very little. Children are, for the most part, victims of circumstance, possessing minimal control over their lives. No matter how cleverly they try desperately to change the distressing situation, it is typically to no avail.

In order to psychologically protect themselves and survive, children must deny or minimize the painful and depressing reality of their predicament, as well as their frustration, resentment, anger, and rage. So instead, we cling for dear life to hope: childish, irrational, even magical, hope that, if only we can be good, perfect, smart, quiet, kind, funny, pretty enough, etc., that someday will win over Mom or Dad and he or she will finally love us as we need them to—just as we are, unconditionally and consistently.

Certainly, not even the best parents are perfect, and so we all go through this to some degree in one way or another. Just as our parents did. This, more or less, is the existential predicament or human condition. In extreme cases, the fervent hope of being able to improve the parent's response by becoming what we perceive he and/or she want us to be wards off what psychoanalyst James Masterson (1990) aptly terms the "abandonment depression." So long as we desperately cling to hope, we avoid sinking dangerously into despair.

Later, during adolescence and adulthood, this childhood scenario can be unconsciously and compulsively recreated. It is a painful, mystifying, yet wondrous, astonishing and impressive thing to behold! Our wounded "inner child" (see my previous post) remains alive within, still actively seeking to transform the rejecting or emotionally unavailable parent into a more loving one, so as to at last receive that which was missed during infancy and childhood. To finally have previously unmet dependency needs met. Only now, it is no longer only the parent (on whom the patient may have apparently given up), but potential love interests that are targeted. Symbolic stand-ins for the unavailable or rejecting parent. Again, this is powerfully unconscious behavior, compelled by what Jungians call a "negative mother" or "negative father" complex.

This magical hope of salvation helps us hang on and get through childhood with some integrity. It is in itself a potent defense mechanism. And perhaps the most difficult to let go of, which is why I refer to doing so in psychotherapy as "swallowing the bitter pill."

The reality is that the problem typically lies not with the child, but with the parent or parents, who, because of their own psychological issues or situational limitations, are unable or unwilling to provide the love, structure, discipline, support, security, and acceptance all children deserve and require to thrive.

In other words, we could say that the parent/parents are more or less physically and/or emotionally unavailable to their children in the ways children most need parents to be available. To look back from the vantage point of adolescence or adulthood and face the excruciating and frustrating existential reality of our childhood takes tremendous courage. And it demands not only a cognitive or intellectual recognition but, at least as importantly, an experiential or emotional one. A confronting of long-dissociated feelings of loss, abandonment, grief, sadness, anger, resentment or rage. We allow ourselves to feel now what we could not tolerate feeling then, and therefore, repressed. This is what happens in what I call "real" psychotherapy.

Real psychotherapy recognizes the phenomenological reality of unconsciousness. For those who doubt or deny the reality and power of what Freud famously referred to as the "unconscious," the witnessing or experiencing of such irrational and self-destructive repetitive relationship patterns can be convincing, sobering and enlightening empirical evidence. The "unconscious" is a very real phenomenon, and its almost universal and blithe dismissal today by contemporary psychotherapy is a travesty for both clinicians and patients alike.

Many adults have an uncanny affinity, a kind of unconscious "radar," for particular members of the opposite sex (or, in some cases, same sex) who, in ways often initially imperceptible, resemble—psychologically or situationally, if not physically—the parent with whom the early difficulties occurred. And these are typically those they tend to "fall in love" with or become romantically involved. They choose them unconsciously, of course. And this begs some profound philosophical questions: Are we responsible for our unconscious choices? Can "unconscious choices" even be correctly called choices at all? Is our freedom negated or precluded by the unconscious? These are vitally important and clinically relevant existential considerations.

Psychologically speaking, the problem is that the person's rational, adult part is not making adult relationship decisions, but rather obliviously allowing the emotionally needy "inner child" to call the shots. That wounded, rejected, abandoned little boy or girl is still trying to win Mommy or Daddy's love, attention, and affection.

In order for the repetition compulsion to play out, the love interest must, by definition, possess at least some of the core emotional deficits or traits as did the original unavailable parent. Indeed, that is what the repetition compulsion is all about: a recreation of these dysfunctional relationship dynamics, so as to provide a hoped-for opportunity to, this time, change the outcome. To re-write how the movie ends, turning tragedy into triumph. The needy inner child thinks: "This time will be different. I will finally get this person to give me the love I need. I can change him or her, if I only try hard enough and never give up. I won't fail again. Then, at last, I will feel loveable."

But tragically, this futile effort is doomed to failure. For if, as part of the repetition compulsion, we specifically seek out and choose individuals who cannot love us because of their personal limitations and problems, what are the odds of making them do so? Can we "fix" them? Force them? Convince them? Not very likely. The rational, conscious, adult part of ourselves knows that. But the wounded and needy little boy or girl within is still trying, just as he or she originally did with the parents many years ago, each predictable failure painfully reinforcing old childhood feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and unlovability. And so it goes.

These unconscious choices in life which we are unaware of making but nevertheless still do, are potentially the most dangerous and destructive decisions. Because they are basically "blind" choices, driven not by the present and what is best for us, but by the past and what traumatized us, by that from which we are running. This is the nature of a neurosis. It's a "blind spot." Who would consciously choose---and painfully continue to choose to remain with--a romantic partner who is rejecting, unavailable or emotionally/physically abusive? That would be pure masochism. But it is not mere masochism or "bad luck" in most cases. Rather, it is a powerful unconscious repetition compulsion at play. It is as if one is operating under the irresistible influence of a "spell" or "curse" cast upon us by some evil wizard, witch or supernatural entity. But this evil "spell" or "curse" stems from the unconscious repetition compulsion exerting its negative power over us with a vengeance. Sounding familiar to some?

So, how can we resolve the pesky and painful repetition compulsion? With great difficulty. Because to do so requires relinquishing the defense mechanism itself. The repetition compulsion defends against the experience of all those passionate feelings we denied during childhood about our imperfect parents and ourselves: sadness, anger, rage, despair, hopelessness, shame, hurt. Feelings we were unequipped to cope with then, and continued avoiding into adulthood, finally must be faced. The childish hope that once kept us afloat must now be relinquished, and reality at last accepted: Never will we receive from our parents all we needed. Or wanted. Nothing can ever change that. "Healing," as I discuss in my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic, "entails the mature acceptance of the traumatic facts of one's emotional mortification, the causes and consequences, as well as a resolute willingness to swallow the following bitter pill: We cannot change the past nor undo the wound. . . We can, nonetheless, allow ourselves to feel our rage and grief over this irretrievable loss. . . . We may even—with some good fortune, time and grace—find within ourselves the capacity to forgive those whom we feel inflicted our agonizing injuries" (1996.p. 286). With this courageous, conscious acceptance, the repetition compulsion, like the past, releases its power over us in the present.

If you are currently experiencing this kind of repetitive Groundhog Day phenomenon in your relationships, first ask yourself: "In what ways is this relationship like the one I had with my father or mother?" "How is my partner's personality similar to my opposite-sex parent?" How is it different, or maybe even the polar opposite?"

Fascinatingly, sometimes we consciously or unconsciously choose romantic interests that are the antithesis of a parent with whom we had difficulties, so as to try to avoid having these same problems again. But even this strategy will not work, because it is still an expression of the repetition compulsion. Only this time, in reverse: We are still trying to get what we needed as children by finding someone opposite to our father or mother. In other words, we are choosing a romantic partner more on the basis of a negative reaction to our parents than what we really need and want right now.

Finally, ask yourself how you feel when with this person: Does the relationship feel familiar, reminding you of how you felt as a child in relation to your parents? Do you feel frustration, resentment or anger toward your partner as you did toward your mom or dad? Do you feel unloved and unlovable? Powerless? Helpless? Trapped?

If you answer "yes" to any of these self-inquiries, and have an established track record, you may be suffering from a compulsive repetitive relationship pattern problem. And it may be time to see a psychotherapist, one who acknowledges the power of unconsciousness, and the necessity to address the issue not just cognitively and behaviorally, but also psychodynamically, experientially and existentially.

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