When Romance Goes Wrong and Prince Charming Becomes a Frog

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Why do you pursue the wrong partner? Why does Mr. Right turn into Mr. Wrong? Why do your fairy tale romances miss the happy endings?

“Proper” mates do come along. Yet they lack the allure — the moth to the flame attraction — of the person everyone but you knows will break your heart.

Often the reason can be found in a history of early rejection, most often by parents. Being a social outcast in school creates a similar hurt. Or, perhaps your first love permanently diverted Cupid’s arrow. I’ll focus on your folks, mention social marginalization as you grew, and segue to the first love who reworked your erotic steering wheel to take you over a cliff in search of his or her duplicate. In each case, the only love worth having became the one out of reach.

On the surface little connection is obvious between inadequate child rearing and a misdirected amorous future. Allow me to reveal what is below the surface.

Was your parent too distant, unreliable, or punitive? Did your guardian work too much or travel too often? Was sibling competition insurmountable?

No matter what you achieved, was a parent oblivious?

Was mom too preoccupied with her own life, too involved with friends or work? Did your guardian not guard — not protect you from abuse? Did you (and do you) keep trying to win your dad’s appreciation?

Children can transfer their search for love from an unsatisfying parent to an unsatisfying romantic partner. Some are mysteriously drawn to the person who treats them poorly. In other words, they are repeating a pattern of striving for what is just out of reach — a tendency developed with a parent who didn’t offer reliable interest and attention.

Kids without proper guidance and approval at home risk uncertainty in early social challenges at school. Lacking confidence, they are easily targeted by mean-spirited peers who resemble their parents to the extent that they seem stronger and more authoritative, as well as rejecting. A cycle of repeatedly wishing for acceptance and approval from those least likely to provide it will sometimes be established. Meanwhile, self-esteem is diminished.

Why would anyone choose to replay the futility of this pursuit? Why not select someone more available and nicer, less critical or disappointing?

Not all loves are identical. Our youthful need is not to achieve the love of any adult, but our specific mom and dad. They own our affection. We are captured by them and are drawn to them, wanting their devotion, even if a neighbor, relative, or teacher is more available and more giving.

Like geese who follow the first moving object they see within hours of hatching, the maltreated child might, over a longer period, imprint on a rejecting parent. Once grown, the offspring seeks someone temperamentally similar when he looks for romance. The unconscious “pull” offers a mirage-like second chance to win a game impossible to replay.

By this, I don’t mean the new love bears a physical resemblance to mom or dad, or even to the idealized first love of years past. Rather, he displays something similar to the distant, punitive, or inconsistent quality of the one whose love you could not win or hold.

Romance is now equated with human qualities present in a person who is not as good as he first seems. No inadequate parent is ever seen realistically from the start. A first love, too, is born on a pedestal. Once the original lover departs, only others like him feel right.

New romance is dazzling with “bad boy” Mr. Wrong. The love-thirsty desert traveler sees an overflowing well at the center of a human oasis. In time, the first refreshing sips become less frequent and satisfying. The hours available to drink from the pool are restricted. His greater focus on friends, work, alcohol or drug use — any of these parch the wayfarer’s throat and her need to be quenched by the lover’s affection.

Soon, Mr. Wrong’s criticism becomes personal, the distance increases, and you find yourself in a version of the futile, striving, reaching desperation of trying to capture the love you always wanted. Your chance of gripping the slippery ledge of a tall building is greater.

You might try to change him. Maybe you do everything you can to please him, but that never seems to be enough. Or perhaps you criticize him in turn, and now he blames you and your jealousy. Once again, you are back to being rejected and told if only you were different the relationship would work. Worst of all, having heard it from a parent, early peers, and perhaps other partners, it sounds familiar. Your insecure grasping for a hold on the slippery ledge of romance demonstrates his point.

GrouchoCaricature

Groucho Marx, the mid-twentieth century movie and TV star, used to say: “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” His quip mimics your disinterest in the people who show a healthy desire for you. Those people, of course, don’t resemble your parents or the one who first put a stake in your heart. Their affection doesn’t appeal.

Like vanilla ice cream when you yearn for a hot fudge sundae, he doesn’t satisfy. The hotter the topping, to the point of pain, (when paired with the ice cream) achieves just the combination of danger and reward you have known with mom or dad. Indeed, the kind or faithful person seems a bore. He lacks an edge — doesn’t create the familiar challenge and internal tension you know so well from an earlier time — doesn’t fulfill the unconscious longing to capture the love of someone elusive, a man who embodies both hazard and hope.

The good and decent partner, the man who would be Mr. Right, offers no “chemistry” of this kind. Meanwhile, your internal earthquake detector is deadly still when Mr. Wrong is nearby. Disaster is not signaled. You move toward the fault line.

Like Charlie Brown in the Peanuts comic strip, you are fooled repeatedly. Charlie Brown wished to place-kick a football held by his sister Lucy. Hapless Charlie kept trying, even though, time after time, Lucy pulled the ball away and he landed on his rear end.

Perhaps you are asking, “How do I avoid becoming bewitched, bothered, and bamboozled?”

First you must recognize the pattern, the automatic plan you didn’t plan on. You must acknowledge your poor choices of people you believed wonderful, but who turned out like all the others.

Therapy can take you from there.

You will likely explore old experiences you dismissed. If you think you have “gotten over” the past, you might discover only your head has “moved on,” leaving your heart behind. It was imprinted with the image of an impossible love and vainly searches to find it.

This problem withstands purely intellectual solution. As Blaise Pascal wrote: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

Therapy involves grieving the failure to win over the unavailable parent or early romance(s). Time is required to open up to yourself and your therapist — strip away all the protective shielding over your heart that, however formidable, has not shielded you.

Treatment leads to tears and to anger. The process is never easy and never as fast as you would like.

If you stay the course, you may discover that Mr. Wrong’s spell — and all the Mr. Wrongs out there (too many ever to run short of new ones) — is broken. Their lost appeal permits you to identify those partners who might be (no guarantees here) Mr. Right.

Prince Charming may still be waiting, if only you can recognize him.

The top image is of Trapeze Artists in a Circus, an 1890 lithograph by Calvert Litho. Co. available from the Library of Congress, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second image is a caricature of Groucho Marx by Greg Williams, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final illustration is Charlie Brown trying to kick the football held by his sister Lucy.

The Causes of Insecurity

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Insecurity is in the nature of being human. It is a commonplace, even if most people make a serious effort to disguise it. Too many things to know, too many to learn, too many rejections — most everyone has had significant experience of the things that undermine confidence. But, what makes for more than the usual amount of insecurity? What contributes to some people becoming “insecure?” Here are a few of its causes:

  • Temperament: Little human personalities can be different from the moment of birth. Just as not all children have the same color eyes or hair, neither do they have the same temperament. Pre-school kids have distinctive and lasting characteristics on such dimensions as being reactive vs. calm, tending to approach or avoid new situations, and being introverted or extroverted. While not guaranteeing fractured confidence as an adult, inborn qualities can make a contribution to it.
  • Overly Critical Parenting: Security can be undermined by parents who are too critical, neglectful, or frankly abusive. Sometimes neglect is unavoidable, as it tends to be in families where there are lots of children or the parents are working long hours outside of the home to put food on the table. But sometimes the insecurity develops because of something more subtle. If you are born to extroverted parents and you are introverted (while your siblings are more like your folks), you may feel like an odd-duck, not quite fitting in. If your dad was hoping for an athlete and you are an artist, the same sense of parental disappointment might be hard to miss.
  • Bullying: Kids can be targeted by the classmates for all sorts of reasons including the way they look, where they live, how they dress; and racial, religious, or ethnic differences. Gender matters too, especially if you are the sole female in a physics class with a wise-guy classmate who makes fun of you and a teacher who hasn’t the capability to stop it, as I witnessed back in high school.
  • Body Image: In a society filled with spectacularly beautiful advertising images, it is difficult to be plain; and worse yet, unattractive in any way. Too tall, too skinny, too fat — God help you. Too much acne, bad hair, a lack of finely-tuned motor coordination, same problem. Some of us continue to see ourselves in terms of that early self and struggle with the sense of insecurity produced back then.
  • Learning Problems: This can take the form of a learning disability, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or even being average in a school filled with high achievers.
  • Multiple Changes of Residence: Being the new kid is not usually fun, especially for introverted young people who struggle with fitting in and finding friends. Insecurity can follow.
  • Parental Overprotection: When parents prevent their children from doing things that are simply a part of growing up, they can communicate to the child that he isn’t up to the task. Moreover, they rob the young one of the chance to grow from experience, learn what he needs to know in the social sphere, and become more confident. He may also be at risk of being seen as “different” by his peers, because he is the kid who “isn’t allowed” to do things most other parents freely permit.

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  • Parental Expectations: For some parents, life won’t be complete until their children go to Harvard, become famous, and have a building named after them. Even an objectively accomplished person can be insecure if he feels he has failed to reach that standard, unless he throws off this requirement by dint of self-examination or therapy. In today’s civilized world, we compete with the best brains and ideas on an international scale, quite a change from most of human history, when you could easily feel great being a big fish in a small pond; that is, standing out for athletic or scholarly excellence in your tiny community.
  • Money: If your classmates and their parents have more money, nicer homes, or better clothes than you do, this can cause you to be noticed in an uncomfortable way and make you feel less worthy than the others.
  • Guilt: Do you have a secret? Do you feel guilty about something others don’t know about? Are you adopted or is your father alcoholic or your mother depressed? Such things can make you feel vulnerable, in the belief others would disapprove “if only they knew.” And if they do, the talk behind your back is predictable.
  • Being in Someone’s Shadow: While there are a great many good things about being the child or sibling of a person who is extraordinary, it can create a high bar to any kind of recognition or acceptance of you for your own sake, someone who has his own identity and is worth knowing even if he isn’t an Olympic champion or a captain of industry.
  • Blushing and Sweating: We all get nervous, but some of us do stand out in a visible way. President Richard Nixon was famous for the amount of perspiration he generated during the Kennedy-Nixon Presidential Debates in 1960, so much that most people who saw him on TV thought he lost, but the majority of those who only heard him over the radio thought he won. Whatever insecurity you are prone to can be amplified by knowing your discomfort will sometimes shine like a lighthouse beacon.

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  • Isolation: Children whose living conditions offer little opportunity to socialize with same-aged kids are at a disadvantage. The talented and extroverted among them are more likely to have confidence when they enter the social arena, while the introverted may have more difficulty. Living at a distance from other kids your own age or being home-schooled can fuel this problem. The distance also doesn’t afford the opportunities of living in challenging social situations that contribute to a growing sense of competence and mastery. Once behind the curve, whether through the peculiar circumstances of childhood or your own avoidance of challenges as an adult, you might come to feel you are now too lacking in practice and even further behind others in any number of work, social, or sexual situations.
  • Life Failures: The frustrations of life can take their toll. Confidence might be undermined by too many jobs lost, goals unfulfilled, rejections, and relationship failures.
  • The Depredations of Aging: If your self-image depends largely on just one thing, a loss of that thing can make a big difference in your sense of security. Athletic prowess fades, as does beauty. Worse yet, the former prom king and queen can discover their bodies no longer demand positive attention (or perhaps now get the wrong kind of attention). Some feel mocked by the photos of their youth.
  • Instinctive Biological Insecurities: Evolution contributed to our tendency to pick up on the signs revealing disapproval or anger in others. Those pre-historic humans who didn’t notice their compatriots were unhappy with them risked being thrown out of a protective group. Worse still, they failed to detect hostility in their enemies. Only individuals who were sensitive enough to notice passed their genes to us. For more on this, read Insecurity and Our Preoccupation with Appearances/

None of these factors will undermine every person. Many of them interact with one another, making confidence more difficult. But getting over what is past and challenging yourself to master new and difficult situations tends to be productive. Therapy can be helpful in coming to terms with a history anchoring you to the ocean’s bottom, as well as a present that looks too daunting given your internal shakiness. The important thing is moving forward.

Metaphorically speaking, humans are like the Great White Shark, which must swim in order to breathe: either we keep moving forward or we die.

You might also find this of interest: On Being Insecure and Alone/

The top image is called Shamed Man by Victor Bezrukov, The second photo is called Cutest Girl Ever by Lindsay Stark. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Guilt about Betraying Parents: “They Did the Best They Could”

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Young children are not the only ones who believe that their own mom and dad are the best in the world.

You know the sort of thing I mean: “My dad is stronger than your dad” and the like.

Adults do this too. Or, at least, try very hard not to think the worst of them.

Any therapist with experience has heard many heartbreaking stories about children who have been abused, deceived, lied to, cruelly and unfairly criticized, used, mistreated, and neglected. He has heard from the adult children what their parents did do and didn’t do — about folks who perpetrated the abuse directly and others who looked away or simply told the son or daughter to “try not to upset dad” rather than protecting him or her from dad.

The now-adult children will make up lots of excuses about such things: “They did the best they could” or “They didn’t know any better” or “Lots of parents were that way when I was growing up” or “How can you expect anything better when my folks had even worse childhoods themselves” or “They were having so many of their own problems at the time” or “Other people had it worse than I did” or “They’re old people now and I wouldn’t want to hurt them (by bringing this up)” or “It happened a long time ago; what is the point of talking about it now.”

Or simply, “It feels wrong to talk negatively about them.”

Most of the patients about whom I am speaking come to therapy with some sense of personal inadequacy, low self-esteem, and unhappiness, if not depression. Some have these feelings despite a considerable set of personal achievements. They may be captains of industry, millionaires, doctors, lawyers, college professors, and professional athletes. Many of them have a good and loving spouse and adoring children. But, no matter what has been accomplished or how good their current life is in an objective sense, it doesn’t seem to be enough.

Others try to fill themselves up with acquisitions: a new car, a new house, a new spouse, a new watch or appliance or piece of clothing; and, for a brief period — an hour, a day, a month — this might even boost their mood. But then, things return to the steady-state of emptiness as the shopping-therapy fails.

For these people, the ones who seem to “have everything” but remain unhappy, the Marilyn Monroes of the world, the solution usually requires that long-standing internalized negative self-attributions (critical thoughts or beliefs about oneself) be reviewed and challenged. Sometimes cognitive behavior therapy is able to achieve this.

But there are other instances when the negative verdict of a difficult childhood is so indelibly stamped on the soul of the patient, that he must look back at the original painful source of his injury, grieve his losses, and reevaluate who his guardians were and what they did, or didn’t do.

In cases such as this, the set of excuses I mentioned earlier becomes a problem. Words like “They did the best they could” stand between the patient and his ability to look frankly at his early life without feeling that he is betraying his parents in so doing.

Here is what I frequently say to those of my patients in this predicament:

First, you will do no harm to them in talking to a therapist. There is no rule that says they must be told what you are relaying to a counselor. Indeed, if your parents are dead (as is sometimes the case), then they cannot be told and are safe from any injury that you believe you might do to them.

You need not concentrate only on what they did that might have hurt you. It is equally important to look at what they did that might have helped, and at the complications in their own lives that made good parenting a challenge.

But, even if they showed you some consideration and kindness from time to time, if it really wasn’t so bad, why are you careful to raise your child differently than you were brought up?

Realize that good child rearing is not simply the sum total of all the positives and negatives of your parents’ approach to you, such that the former will always balance out the latter. Imagine that your parent gave you a million dollars and put it in your right hand; and then said, “Now in return, you must allow me to disable your left hand.” Would this be an example of good parenting? Would the provision of a million dollars compensate you for the lost use of your left hand? Not to just anyone, but due to the behavior of your parent?

Yes, it is likely true that some others had it worse than you did. But does that mean you are free of injury? Imagine that you are walking down the street. You pass a man in a wheel chair. He is moving the vehicle by use of his two arms and you think to yourself, “Poor man.” But, a few blocks down, you now encounter another wheel chair-bound individual. Unlike the former person, this man’s arms are incapacitated.

If you are to measure the physical state of these two men against one another, you are likely to evaluate the second man as worse off than the first. But, just because the first person is better off, one must admit that he still is unable to walk.

As I said, there is almost always someone worse. But that doesn’t mean that your injury counts for little or nothing.

Finally, the look back is intended not to keep you focused there, but to liberate you so that you can live more fully in the present; it isn’t to be angry with your parents or to harm them (although anger might be involved in the grieving process). Rather it is to free you from the weight of a childhood that you still carry, the sense of your own falling-short that you can’t otherwise shake, to leave you lighter and less burdened by the long reach of your youth.

Wouldn’t loving parents want this — for their child to be happy and free from any hurt they might have caused? What would you want for your child?

You see, the heart has no clock built into it. Even though you may think very little about the time elapsed, the heart still keeps a living record of the damage, as fresh as the day it was inflicted. You’ve tried ignoring it; you may have tried other types of therapy. Perhaps it is time.

You needn’t feel guilty. You needn’t feel disloyal. Your heart waits patiently for its cure. The therapy is not intended to place blame or to harm your parents, but to heal you.

Looking back may be able to help with that.

The image above is Parent with Child Statue, Hrobákova street, Petržalka, Bratislava by Kelovy, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.