If we were asked, as an exercise, to craft a personal ad detailing what we were looking for in a partner, it may read something like this:
Seeking someone who is kind and patient, independent yet loving, laid back, yet energetic. Someone who is confident, but isn't afraid to laugh at him- or herself. Someone attractive, but down to earth. Someone who is up for anything, but knows what he or she wants.
What we wind up finding in a partner can look very different. This may be a better ad:
Seeking someone who is moody and unpredictable; aloof, yet jealous; low energy, yet temperamental. Someone who has low self-esteem, and no sense of humor when it comes to his or her flaws. Someone who concentrates too much on his or her appearance and often feels insecure. Someone who likes to control the situation and changes his or her mind about goals for themselves and their relationships.
When it comes to how we behave in our relationships, a person can rarely be reduced to the black-and-white character outline of a newspaper ad. Every human has strengths and weaknesses, and all of their traits (good and bad) are bound to surface in the emotionally invested space that makes up an intimate relationship.
Every individual is diverse and complex and carries with them a unique set of baggage from their past that impacts and informs their close relationships. Given this complexity, one is often left to wonder, "Why do I keep choosing the same partner? Why, no matter how many new criteria I mentally create, do I keep winding up in a slightly varied version of the same, not-so-great relationship?"
The answer for every person is to first look at ourselves. The experiences that make us who we are also influence who we look for in a partner. While most of us claim to be looking for true love, real compatibility and no drama, there are often unconscious influences -- thoughts and behaviors leading us to just the opposite. One influential factor is that many of us seek partners who help us stay within our comfort zone, even if that zone turns out to not be all that desirable. People seek what is familiar. If our past were filled with feelings of rejection or inadequacy, we are likely to seek scenarios in which we feel the same way as adults.
Often, we look for partners who reinforce existing views we have of ourselves. For example, if we had a parent who was not always emotionally available to us, or who was inconsistent in offering us warmth and affection, we may think of ourselves as unlovable on some level. When we look for a partner, we may be initially drawn to someone whose attention makes us feel good about ourselves. Eventually, we may start to notice that this person is resistant to getting close and can be disregarding. Even as we are tormented by feelings of rejection, we often fail to realize that the very reason we were so drawn to this person may be because we sensed that they support those all-to-familiar feelings of being inadequate and undeserving.
If we find ourselves on the other side of this scenario, feeling trapped or clung to by our partner, we may want to consider how much we were intruded on as kids. Did we have a parent or caretaker who was overbearing and imposed on us for attention or reassurance? Are we now reacting (or overreacting) to our partner, because he or she is looking to us for similar qualities?
While we aim to find partners who complement us in a positive way, we often wind up finding people whose opposing traits can rouse negative dynamics between us. For example, how many couples do we know, where one person does the talking, and the other stays quiet? While one person tells the stories and attracts attention, the other acts as a listener and falls into the background.
A married man I know once told me a story about how he and his wife had mutually acknowledged that in the course of their relationship, he had become very passive and she very controlling. He refused to make any decisions, and she insisted on making all decisions. As an exercise, they decided that for a week he would make every decision, and she would go along with it. The very first night, they got in the car to go out to dinner, and as soon as they got to the driveway, the husband hit the brakes and the car came to halt. He found himself literally paralyzed, as he waited for his wife to tell him which way to turn.
Instances like these are indicative of a larger problem for couples. We frequently choose people who fill out our personalities, then resent them for the very traits that make them our "other half." The wife in the above scenario resented her husband for being weak and indecisive, yet she refused to give up control. Her husband felt victimized by her demanding patterns, but refused to voice his opinions.
Even when we choose partners who complement us positively, we run the risk of eventually distorting them or provoking them to become someone who we are less compatible with. This is often not the case when we first get involved with someone. In the beginning of a relationship, we naturally step out of our comfort zones, forcing ourselves outside our own heads and into an interaction with someone unfamiliar. The scenario of getting to know a stranger forces us to push ourselves, to be our best selves, and to treat the other person with respect and interest.
As we get closer, our defenses start to arise. We start to feel more vulnerable, and influences from our past start to seep in. We must be wary in this stage of how we can distort our partners. We may start to insert hidden meaning into their words that suit a way we feel about ourselves. We may start to project qualities onto them or exaggerate characteristics they possess.
For example, a friend of mine recently told me how upset she was when her husband wouldn't commit to going away for the weekend. He thought it would be nice to have time at home alone with her. She instantly interpreted his resistance as a rejection. What she came to realize in the course of our conversation was that, while her husband did have trouble committing to certain plans, he had every intention and desire to spend the entire weekend with her, a reality that clearly contradicted her assumption that he was rejecting her.
In addition, to distorting our partners, we sometimes provoke them into giving us a certain response. For example, my friend who wanted to go on a weekend getaway recognized that, although her husband prefers to live more spontaneously and not spend too much time on practicalities, she would often insist on talking to him about travel plans, home renovations and financial matters well in advance of when was necessary. She soon realized that she didn't even care all that much about these things, but something was compelling her to push her husband away by bringing up topics that would distance him from her. By "nagging" at her husband, not only was she preventing more personal and meaningful interactions between them, but she was provoking him to lose interest in certain activities, which then made her feel critical of him.
We must always be aware of how we select, provoke and distort our partners to fill roles that recreate our past. The better we understand ourselves, the better able we are to choose partners who support us just as we support them, as the unique, complex, and independent individuals we are. We can then interrupt patterns that would prevent us from "seeing" our partners -- misinterpreting their actions to fit an old feeling about ourselves. Lastly, we can then be careful not to provoke our partners to act out in ways that hurt us, them and naturally, the relationship. By remaining wary of these negative influences, we give our relationships the best chance possible of lasting long and making us happy.
To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on relationships, visit PsychAlive: Alive to Intimacy.