“The beginning of love is the will to let those we love be perfectly themselves, the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image. If in loving them we do not love what they are, but only their potential likeness to ourselves, then we do not love them: we only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them” Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island Place
When we first meet a person we find attractive, the first things we notice and hone in on are our similarities. In fact, we are hard-wired to look for those similarities. Chris Crandall, professor of psychology at Kansas University, who studied this says, “You try to create a social world where you’re comfortable, where you succeed, where you have people you can trust and with whom you can cooperate to meet your goals. To create this, similarity is very useful, and people are attracted to it most of the time.”
Having the same values, similar life experiences and life-goals is a good thing; it obviates the need for one person to compromise more than they feel is right or fair. But even with similarities in place, we come to relationships with a set of underlying beliefs about ourselves. These may be completely at odds with what we think we believe. For example, a woman may be a huge and outspoken proponent of women’s rights. But, if she grew up in a home where women were seen as less than, there will be a disconnect between what her brain believes and how she behaves. It’s this disconnected behaviour we recognise in others and seek to work out through relationship.
Psychology describes childhood experiences that lay the groundwork for ‘attachment styles’ – this speaks to how we bond with a person and how we cope when that person is separated from us. The four basic attachment styles are fluid and change according to your partner’s attachment style. In brief, these are the attachment styles:
Secure | Usually people with secure attachment grew up in a supportive environment and their parents were consistently responsive to their needs. These people are open, able to ask for help and support others. They are generally positive, comfortable with closeness, with minimal fear of being overwhelmed or rejected.
Dismissive-avoidant | If parents or care-givers are unresponsive or ignore a child’s needs, they learn to pull back to avoid feeling rejected. They become uncomfortable with emotional openness and place a high value on autonomy and independence. They tend to keep secrets to maintain independence and tend not to say they love someone, even if they behave as if they do.
Fearful-avoidant | Children exposed to prolonged neglect or abuse, grow up to be adults who fear intimacy, but also fear not having close relationships. They have a hard time trusting others.
Anxious-preoccupied | If parents have been inconsistent with their responses to children, they grow up to be adults who are at times caring and nurturing, but at other times cold and emotionally detached.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” C.G. Jung
Our experiences develop neural pathways that drive behavioural patterning. A parent’s attachment styles and personality greatly influence a child’s patterning. Humans are geared towards solving problems and unearthing truth, specifically about ourselves. This is one of the reasons we get into similar relationships time and again – repeating the same issues over, even when aware of them and don’t want to repeat them.
For example, if you grew up with a narcissistic parent, you likely have feelings of not being good enough. You will tend to walk on eggshells and not trust your partner to be consistent with their emotions or in the way they treat you. This is especially true if the perfect storm existed in your parent’s relationship – if the non-narcissistic partner enabled the behaviour – you will have been taught how to love in a way that isn’t healthy. That’s not something you would want to repeat.
But, as a child, you were likely unable to stand up to the narcissistic parent, nor set any real boundaries. Children are consummate survivors and instinctively do what’s required for continued care-giving playing into the dynamics of the parents even if dysfunctional. As an adult, identifying any issues is key before you can find your true self outside the construct of the parental relationship. So, in this case, you will most likely be attracted to someone with underlying narcissistic traits you need to stand up to and solve. On the reverse side, your partner with narcissistic traits will be attracted to you because your unconscious behaviour feeds into theirs. It’s definitely a two-way street.
It’s not easy to figure out. The first step is recognising there were issues in the first place. This is done by uncovering any negative beliefs. That little voice that says things like, “you’ll never amount to anything”; “Everybody leaves eventually”; “Nobody is really there for you, you have to do it yourself.”
These are untrue messages built into our neural pathways through childhood conditioning. You don’t have to have been abused; your childhood may have appeared to be relatively idyllic. We all have voices inside that say something we intrinsically know is not true. Our authentic selves know this, which is why we find ways to break the patterning by entering into relationships that present us with the opportunity to change the narrative.
The basis of most relationships, then, is a learning opportunity, allowing us to delve deeper into our own selves and discover the beautiful truths that can be crowded out by learned behavioural patterning. If you view relationships as such, then when they end, you can also learn to take stock and insight into the learning and how it served your deeper purpose.
You can find gratitude for the entire relationship, even the hard times and the ending. So, rather than heartache and constriction, have heart opening and joy at finding another piece of valuable information about your true self. You become closer to getting in tune with your unique, valuable, precious core. You don’t need to wait for an ending though, to take stock and unravel behaviour patterns. If you don’t solve any underlying issues with a current relationship, you’re bound to repeat the pattern with the next. It may present in a different way than before, but it will surface.
Solve your life’s questions, answer the call of your innermost longing and you’ll be more equipped to have balanced and healthy intimacy that is supportive and honouring.
“I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teaching my blood whispers to me.” - Hermann Hesse