One of the most interesting aspects of my work as a therapist is how much I learn from my clients. The insights clients make about the challenges they face can often combine with the theory and practice of therapy to genuinely help others.
Years ago, I worked with an engaging young woman who was struggling to find a happy, healthy relationship. She easily, breezily summarized her challenge:
"My sorority sisters say my problem is that I keep dating candy bars when what I really need is an apple. Their advice makes perfect sense. A candy bar looks so good when you first see it, and I crave it with passion, but whenever I have it I end up feeling sick and disappointed. I know that apples are much healthier, but I don't crave them with the same sense of longing."
This succinct summary of her dating pattern is one that I observe time and time again, among both men and woman who claim that all they want is a happy relationship, and they lament that this wish is never fulfilled. And yet, when exploring their dating history in more detail, they will frequently admit to a pattern of actively choosing unavailable or otherwise unsuitable partners.
The psychological theories related to this phenomenon are quite interesting. Systems theory might hypothesize that a happy, reliable relationship is not something that is familiar, and so it makes someone uncomfortable. Freud might wonder if the client is unconsciously repeating a painful pattern from the past with a fantasy that they might fix it and therefore heal old wounds. According to this theory, such fantasies are rarely successful and usually involve compulsively repeating something painful from the past and opening and reliving old wounds. Behavioral theory talks about learned behavior. Cognitive theory explores how one's thoughts about one's self and others play into the relationship experience. Regardless of the theoretical approach that a therapist uses to explore why the pattern occurs and how to change it, the language of candy bars and apples is a compelling way to begin the conversation.
Many times, the stated problem in therapy is, in fact, the opposite of what a client claims. In other words, if someone says they are in pain as they long for an intimate relationship, they may actually mean that they are terrified to be in a close and committed relationship. Fortunately, my client gave me permission to share the metaphor of candy bars and apples with others. When I presented this concept to another client she shook her head and replied:
"That's me, an overeating candy bar addict! If I date a functional man I can literally feel the walls closing in around me... I secretly love unavailable men. I love to look like the good one dating the mess. That way when things fall apart no one blames me. Also, you can't fear having the rug pulled out from you when there is no rug."
What are signs that you are dating a candy bar? While inconsistency, cruelty or unavailability are obvious signs, the best way to determine for sure is to write down the five qualities that are most important to you in a partner. Then think about the last five people you dated. Highlight the qualities you claim to be important that are not present in those you dated. The greater number of these qualities that are lacking, the greater likelihood that you are dating candy bars.
If you discover that you tend to choose candy bars over apples, keep in mind that you are therefore playing an active role in your unsatisfactory relationships. Choosing an unsuitable partner can be just as destructive as being an unsuitable partner. If you own your part in the problematic pattern, you can begin to practice dating apples and slowly train yourself to adjust to a new and healthier dating diet. I say "train" intentionally as making any significant change -- diet or otherwise -- involves hard work, commitment, discomfort and persistence that is similar to training for a marathon. Apples might taste strange at first, but if you stick with it and push through the discomfort, you will notice, with time and hard work, that you will begin to crave them. Before you know it, you will want to delete candy bars from your diet. Good riddance!
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For more by Elisabeth Joy LaMotte, LICSW, click here.
For more on relationships, click here.