Recently I have been noticing a recurring phenomenon in many clients and patients with regard to their intimate adult relationships. It appears that many of them are attracted to or have even married someone who is remarkably similar to a parent that they had unfinished business with.
By that I mean a parent from whom they had not succeeded in receiving unconditional acceptance and love that would have helped them develop a stable sense of self-esteem and self-worth and fully develop their personalities. By not having such a parent, these clients and patients felt that they were never good enough and/or that they always needed to achieve more to receive the love that they needed to feel worthy from the inside out.
Having never received that from their parents (or a specific parent), they go into young adult life feeling that something within them is missing. As a result, they are often attracted to people with personalities similar to the withholding parent from whom they are still seeking unconditional love and acceptance. The sad truth of this is that their antennae work too well and they indeed connect with someone so like that parent that instead of gaining what they never received from that parent, they recapitulate the same relationship with the person they marry and continue to feel that they are not good enough.
What is the solution to this?
One of the ways to finish the unfinished business with a withholding parent who could only give conditional love is to realize:
- You are not unworthy of being unconditionally loved (i.e., you are worthy of being loved unconditionally)
- Your parent was and is incapable of loving you in that way (most often due to what they didn't receive from their parents).
If you can realize and accept these two factors, you can then go out and find people who are capable of loving you unconditionally (often this is the appeal of mentors in our lives). As you begin to find people who view you that way, you may begin to let go of needing it from people who are incapable of giving it to you, and you can stop looking for love in all the wrong places.
That happened to me during medical school. My mind stopped working for three years and the Dean of Students saw value in me (in the form of goodness and kindness) when I felt I lacked any value. Furthermore he not only saw it in me; he went to bat for me. As a result it enabled me to climb upon the Road Back from Hell and walk out of it. It changed my life and I have been paying it forward ever since.
Mark Goulston, M.D. is the author of "Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone" and "Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior."