Why Does This (or That) Always Happen to Me?

Surprise! Many of the patterns we enact in life started with our folks.

Posted Aug 18, 2010

Over the years I've grown into a believer that we take our patterns of relating with us wherever we go. As the saying goes: "Wherever you go, there you are."

But, even when those patterns don't work anymore and we find ourselves hurt or disappointed repeatedly (same sh*t, different day), we miss the lesson: that on some level, we're the one generating part of it. You know how I know? Because there is one common denominator in all our affairs: us.

It took me only a few days to finish Lori Gottlieb's newest book, Marry Him! Nope, I'm not in the market for someone to marry, but am in the market for insights about how people view the intricacies of relating or trying to relate. Call it people watching on the page.

Marry Him! was an instant New York Times bestseller, yet seemed to strike a difficult chord with some because they didn't agree 100%, though many critics admitted that the author got many things right in the book. As I see it, books and articles and documentaries are meant to provoke thought about oneself. To reflect. The details don't have to match one's life in order for someone to relate. I related to the book, and found the underlying (and overarching) message to be an invitation that readers be totally honest with themselves—about themselves—when it comes to intimate relationships and the patterns therein. Plus, it's a really entertaining read.

I wanted to interview Lori for this blog because, while she writes about marriage, these are in fact universal relationship issues. Many of the patterns we enact in life—everything from dependency to control to resilience—started with our folks when we were much much younger. Are these patterns working in your life today? It takes courage and stamina to delve in and evaluate if holding up our end of the pattern is still working, and, if not, what can we do about it. Think about that as you read our interview.

Meredith: When I met my husband-to-be, my own father was near the end of his life and weeks away from dying. I know, from talking to my husband (we ended up together) now, that this part was somewhat of a concern because how available could I be to a new relationship, if my personal life was in turmoil. Still, he kept this to himself, waiting to see what would happen and, if, indeed, I would be able to work through things and move on. I was, and I did. Is this the type of thing you're talking about in Marry Him! (albeit from the male's POV).

LORI: That's right -- a lot of people, especially in today's fast-paced culture, don't take the time to see how a relationship might develop. If the person sitting across the table on a first date seems interesting but isn't exactly your type, or has this or that quality that's less-than-ideal (not outdoorsy enough, doesn't read the same books), the tendency is not to go on a second date, even though all that means is spending a mere two hours with the person to get a better sense of him or her. Your husband might have gone looking for other women who didn't have that turmoil going on at that particular time, but he might not have fallen in love with any of them. I did extensive research for MARRY HIM, and study after study showed that we tend to dismiss people prematurely and for reasons that have nothing to do with whether we might fall in love with this person; and that those who are more open-minded and flexible not only have an easier time finding the right partner, but tend to be happier people in other realms of life, too.

Meredith: We're addressing issues with parents here, but many who have a desire to meet someone special find themselves tripped up over issues in their relationships with their own parents-and many are in denial about it. Without getting too Freudian, might looking for "Mr. Perfect" (and never finding him) be a symptom of this? What's your take?

LORI: That's exactly what I heard from many psychologists and from a neuroscientist who studies "chemistry" -- that often we mistake attraction for a dysfunctional pattern. Like, the woman whose father was a workaholic and is only attracted to men who aren't emotionally available. And when she meets men who are very present and available, she thinks they're "nice" or "smart" or "funny" or even "cute" but "there's just no chemistry." Often we're unconsciously drawn to qualities that aren't going to make us happy, but that feel familiar from our childhoods. So when people have a very specific "type," it's important to look at the healthy and unhealthy aspects of that type. There's also the issue that you bring up here of "Mr. Perfect." A lot of us forget that we aren't "perfect" either. We think, "Yeah, I'm not perfect, but my so-called flaws are cute, and quirky, and endearing!" We don't think, "Actually, some of my personality characteristics are things that some guy is going to have compromise on, too." Even in the best relationships, people compromise. That's not settling or lowering your standards. It's appreciating your partner's good qualities, being grateful that he accepts our less-than-ideal qualities in turn, and experiencing a real, deep, and meaningful love.

Meredith: Taking the stance that what is truly important in a happy and fulfilling marriage/relationship might be different for different people, what did you learn in writing Marry Him!, and how can the book open our eyes to appreciating the good qualities of our spouses/partners rather than focusing on the less-than-ideal ones?

LORI: Yes, different people want different things. But given that, the research shows that there are some common themes that emerge with happy couples -- couples who are happy for the long-term, especially. And the irony is that when we're dating with this consumerist mindset -- I want a partner who's this tall, has these hobbies, etc. -- we're not looking for the qualities that research shows over and over are important for long-term romantic happiness. In fact, we're so blinded by our "mental checklist" -- what some psychologists call our "shopping list" -- that often we overlook those qualities that truly matter. For MARRY HIM, I spoke to sociologists about how the culture influences our ideas above love; neurobiologists about chemistry and attraction; behavioral economists about how we make choices and whether those choices reflect what we really want; psychologists who work with couples and who study marriage and divorce. So I suppose the most valuable part of writing this book was doing the research and realizing that the way I looked at love and romance growing up was so at odds with true love and true romance -- the kind most of us are seeking.

Your book has caught the eye of many many major media outlets. Is there something particular that interests them? Might it be that your message transcends marriage as well? (That's what I think!)

LORI: I think they're intrigued by the idea of "good enough" because it goes against our culture's push for "the best." You've read the book, so you know that the book has nothing to do with lowering your standards or settling. The media hears that word, though, and it hits a nerve. There's a survey where men and women were asked if you got 80 percent of all your ideal traits in a mate, would you be happy with that? 93 percent of women said, "No way! That's settling!" The majority of men said, "Eighty percent of ideal? That's a catch! I'd be thrilled!" So I'm not asking anybody to settle. I'm asking them to think. To look at the research and read the interviews I did with about 200 married and single people and really explore what makes for romantic happiness and fulfillment and what doesn't. The funny thing is, I get so much mail from married people who say, "You know, I gave this to my daughter to read, but I found it made me much happier in my marriage as well. It reminded me of all the things I love about our marriage, and it really made me appreciate my husband even more!"

To learn more, visit Lori Gottlieb's website.