What qualities do you look for in a partner? Charming, sweet, good smile, sexy, smart, funny, good to their family and so on? So many people look for similar qualities in a partner, but it’s common to see people in relationships where their partner can be hurtful, neglectful, disrespectful, or downright mean at times.
How did they end up with this kind of person?
Attraction is an interesting and tricky psychology, and in order to shed some light on why people at times choose partners who are unhealthy for them, it’s first necessary to understand how attraction works.
What Causes Attraction?
If your answer is “good looks,” believe it or not, this is hardly an indicator of what causes a person to choose a relationship. Finding a person to be “attractive” isn’t the same as being emotionally drawn to them.
Who we become attracted to has a lot to do with how we grew up. But it’s not as simple as finding someone who reminds us of our parents. What’s crucial in attraction is that we find a person who re-creates the psychological and emotional environment of our childhood — an emotional comfort zone — while also setting up the potential for the repair of issues that were present in our childhood.
This comfort zone was created psychologically as we grew up, based on the role we played with our caretakers and within our families.
How Do Our Parents Fit In?
Essentially, as we developed into the world, we learned to suppress emotional pieces of who we are based on experiences that we had. We learn what of ourselves is more acceptable to hold onto, and what is less acceptable that we need to disown. These are generally determined through experiences at home with family as well as with peers.
For example, if you learned through harsh consequences from your parents that showing anger was bad, anger may have become a piece of your disowned self since you may have learned to disconnect from anger. You may have learned to smile when angry, or joke, or use sarcasm, or anything that will help you avoid being in touch with your anger, since experiencing anger was somehow threatening.
When it comes to attraction, it’s possible you then become drawn to someone who can connect to the emotional areas that you previously disowned — e.g. someone who can be outwardly expressive of anger would quite possibly be very attractive to someone who’s disowned outward feelings of anger. They become the safer vicarious expression of anger.
People are generally attracted to others who encompass positive and negative qualities of their caretakers. It isn’t just one parent, but different parts of the most consistent caretakers. Early in relationships, the emotional comfort zone described above brings a sense of euphoria, fooling us into believing that we’re finally going to repair those issues from our childhood that we never repaired with our parents.
Early in the relationship, our subconscious interprets our partner’s negative qualities as the potential for repair (potential holds a positive emotion at first). However, after the honeymoon phase of a relationship passes, those same negative qualities that helped bring two people together often start to become annoying and irritating.
We start to see that our new relationship isn’t necessarily going to resolve our painful childhood experiences, and now we are left to deal with frustrations of similar issues that we experienced in childhood.
Comfortable Isn’t Always Healthy
There’s more to the attraction mechanism than this (e.g. attachment, relationship role modeling, etc.), but what’s important here is that our subconscious seeks familiarity, potential for repair and someone who can elicit our suppressed emotional selves, whether or not it’s necessarily a healthy relationship for us.
So for people who were abused by their caretakers as children, it makes sense that they could end up with a person who is also abusive. In a sense, the comfort zone says, “I’ve lived in this type of environment before, and therefore I already know how to function in it and deal with it. It’s comfortable to me and I feel at home here.”
Understanding these elements of what emotionally draws us to someone, it’s part of our job as people to learn about our own relationship patterns, especially if we’ve had a history of unhealthy relationships. If our upbringing has wired us for unhealthy relationship environments as adults, it may take therapy to psychologically re-wire ourselves to seek healthy relationships.
No one is destined to unhealthy relationships — we are molded into it, and we can be molded back.
Contact Nathan Feiles to inquire about therapy.