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September 24, 2020

Why we Fall in Love with Terrible People (& How to Avoid It.)

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What percentage of romantic partnerships would you consider happy?

Really happy—not in a “Notebook” kind of way—but in a, “Yeah, we bickered over the setting on the toaster, but I still love how you remember every dog’s name who lives on our block. I’m psyched to see you at the end of a sh*tty day, even if I know I’m also going to see your dirty coffee dishes piled in the sink. And if I had to choose between going out with you or my friends, it would be a tough choice but let’s face it, I’d choose you every time.”

Long ago, I didn’t even think that sort of love was possible, and I had good reasons for my skepticism—it’s not impossible, but most of us have a better chance at finding an entire T. rex skeleton than we do finding real, healthy love.

The idea of it was so mythical to me, so fantastical, that I didn’t even bother to wonder why good love never seemed to happen to good people (by which I meant me). I just accepted that it didn’t—and also accepted a seemingly endless string of relationships ranging from meh to downright horrific. Well, they each had their better moments, of course, mostly, and ironically, the downright horrific ones—but even that makes sense to me now, and it will to you too before you’re done reading this little essay.

When we look for our perfect partners, we may think our conscious mind is driving the bus, but in reality, only a fraction of our consciousness is on board. Most of the picking process happens in the unconscious, and what a weird and wily place that is.

Our unconscious existed long before our consciousness ever did, and it developed lots of beliefs and perceptions that we still act upon but are largely unaware of. One of these beliefs is that it can heal childhood wounds and recreate childhood happiness.

Because the people who gave us these wounds and that happiness were our primary caregivers, the unconscious looks to find the perfect replacement for them in adulthood.

The person we are (unwittingly) searching for is a combination of our parent’s best and worst qualities. When we find this person, we know it; it’s that wave of recognition or passion that can be so intoxicating—the honeymoon phase.

At first, we only see the good qualities, and our child mind thinks, hurray! All the wonderful things I’ve been deprived of since childhood, I can have once again!

Then we start seeing the negatives and we wonder, why would I have chosen this bully, this narcissist, this cheater, this liar—and so on. The reason is specific and it’s always the same. Our unconscious mind is trying to create an opportunity for a do-over.

Let’s say your father was a charismatic, hardworking, but also emotionally unavailable, self-involved individual who didn’t seem particularly interested in you as a person. And let’s also say your mom was a loving, caring woman who was additionally passive-aggressive, resentful, and depressed.

It would make perfect sense for your unconscious mind to pick someone who appeared at first to be some combination of both of their good qualities say, hardworking, charismatic, and loving—someone in whom these qualities are strong enough to really rope you in, so that when it comes time to experience the bad stuff, let’s say, a lying, resentful, passive-aggressive narcissist and have that do-over, you stay stuck because the good stuff was so good.

You’re hoping against hope that the person you knew in the honeymoon phase will reemerge, and you can’t believe you’ve ended up in this awful situation. You begin to lose faith in not only love, but in your ability to discern who is, or is not, a good person—or at least a person who is good for you.

“So that’s pretty awesome,” you may be thinking. “I’m destined to unconsciously pick out some freakish amalgam of my own parents that seems like Mr./Ms. Fantastic when actually he/she’s everything I’ve tried so hard to get away from, and now, because I married him/her and had kids, or even just because we have so much history together, I’m trapped in a big old nightmare.”

Or maybe you’re thinking this is all pretty far-fetched and I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. (If you are in this latter group, that tells me you’re in a newer relationship and haven’t had time to perceive the negative traits of your parents emerging in your partner.)

Either way, if you take a moment to reflect, to deeply and honestly think—what sort of person have I drawn toward me in the past? And what negative and positive traits do they have that, in different combinations, remind of the strengths and weaknesses of my parents—you might discover some surprising stuff.

So here’s the good news—our unconscious isn’t so stupid after all. As I said before, it is trying to recreate childhood feelings of happiness and heal childhood wounds. It is not picking people who will ultimately hurt us out of a sadistic need to simply replay old events but to give us the chance to have different outcomes.

And it’s possible to have these longed-for outcomes if we discover what the wound we are trying to heal in the first place is.

Our choice of partner gives us a ton of information in this direction. Do they make us feel invisible? Then someone in childhood did too. We know then, that our need is to be seen. Is your partner someone who can fill this need? If potentially yes, then you might be able to heal this wound in this flawed relationship, and that is where you can put the focus. If probably no, then the relationship will continue to hurt you, and the wound will remain unhealed.

Knowing this gives us a way to measure whether we should stay in a flawed relationship or get the hell out. Is your partner capable of growth and change? Are you?

As long as we are willing to grow, there is a chance both of you can heal the childhood wounds of the other, but if one or both of you can’t or won’t, you’re better off apart.

There are some basic truths I’ve come to understand through my work as a psychotherapist, and a few of them are these.

All of us have parents who have inadvertently (or in some cases because of their own broken parents, intentionally) hurt us. A part of our psyche is eternally stuck in childhood, weeping about that hurt, and wondering how the person or people we trusted most to love us could be a source of pain.

One of the main ways that we can be healthy and happy is to figure out what these hurts are and try to stop the bleeding.

It’s not easy, and it doesn’t happen all at once, but rather over the course of an entire life and through being engaged in all kinds of relationships.

If any of this feels resonant to you, my best advice is to find a professional with whom to chew it over.

If you’d like to learn more about the ideas I’ve written about here, try reading Getting The Love You Want, by Harville Hendrix Ph.D. and Helen LaKelly Hunt Ph.D.

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