Some of the most profound patterns we have can be found within our most significant relationships. As I say in the book, “We marry our unfinished business.” But that notion extends beyond romantic entanglements; we can, and often do, reckon with the past through many types of relationships. How we engage with a boss or other person in power can tell us something important about how we historically respond to authority figures. The kinds of friendships we seek out—loving, supportive, loaded with drama, toxic—speak to early formative relationships that taught us what we can expect from others and what is expected of us.
When I began seeing Charlotte, she laid out a relational pattern of hers pretty quickly, though it was dressed up in different language. She told me repeatedly that when it came to romantic interests, she had a type: unavailable. What most people mean by “type” is a sense of attraction—a type of physical appearance or a type of personality that turns them on. But what underlies a person’s type, in fact, is a sense of familiarity. It’s no coincidence that people who had angry parents often end up choosing angry partners, that those with alcoholic parents are frequently drawn to partners who drink quite a bit, or that those who had withdrawn or critical parents find themselves married to spouses who are withdrawn or critical.
Why would people do this to themselves? Because the pull toward that feeling of “home” makes what they want as adults hard to disentangle from what they experienced as children. They have an uncanny attraction to people who share the characteristics of a parent who in some way hurt them. In the beginning of a relationship, these characteristics will be barely perceptible, but the unconscious has a finely tuned radar system inaccessible to the conscious mind. It’s not that people want to get hurt again. It’s that they want to master a situation in which they felt helpless as children. Freud called this repetition compulsion. Maybe this time, the unconscious imagines, I can go back and heal that wound from long ago by engaging with somebody familiar, but new. The only problem is, by choosing familiar partners, people guarantee the opposite result: They reopen the wounds and feel even more inadequate and unlovable.
This pattern of behavior happens completely outside of awareness. Charlotte, for instance, said that she wanted a reliable boyfriend capable of intimacy, but every time she met somebody who was her type, chaos and frustration ensued. Conversely, after a recent date with a guy who seemed to possess many of the qualities she said she wanted in a partner, she came to therapy and reported: “It’s too bad, but there just wasn’t any chemistry.” To her unconscious, his emotional stability felt too foreign. Much better to repeat the pattern it knows so well, despite the fact that it was forcing her romantic life to spin in circles. Same guy, different name, same outcome.
I always say that people don’t have to tell you their stories with words because they always act them out for you. That’s why noticing the patterns in our behavior is where we’ll start. In these these next exercises
we’re going to try to coax some of our patterns out of hiding.
This is an excerpt from Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: The Workbook
by Lori Gottlieb. Copyright © 2021, Lori Gottlieb. PESI Publishing.
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? Be sure to check it out here
and see how picking apart pain points can unearth opportunities for growth.