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.

Why Therapists Want to Talk about Your Childhood

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Why do we have to talk about my childhood? Shouldn’t I be over that? What difference does that make now?

Sometimes, it makes all the difference.

Not everyone requires an in-depth therapeutic look at their childhood. Many people can benefit from short-term treatment to get over a crisis, a recent loss, or current relationship issues.

Others will profit from a cognitive-behavioral approach (CBT) that works to change present day action, thought, and emotion.

But there are times when the past is a dead-weight on one’s life, preventing any kind of lift-off into a more productive, joyous, lofty, airborne, less anxious and guilty way of being; one that is not grounded by a gravity — an invisible force — that seems to pull one back to a repetitive cycle of sadness, regret, and chronic avoidance of challenges.

An example:

Take an intelligent young woman in her 20s — movie-star beautiful — with a quirky sense of humor, and more than average intelligence. Her parents praised only her beauty, but derided everything else about her. From an early time their constant criticism made her worried about displeasing friends; and later on, lovers.

She learned that she could make a dazzling first impression while hiding her anticipation that others would find out what she offered was only skin deep.

This woman’s super-model exterior and surface gaiety belied her belief that there was nothing inside of her that was really valuable. She hid the thoughts and feelings that her parents had always put down, so as to prevent people from discovering her vulnerabilities.

But even when she was successful at “fooling them into thinking” that she was better than she really was, the praise and approval she received only persuaded her that she was a good actress — that beneath the stage makeup she was nothing — just nothing but an empty, worthless shell.

Her anxiety about being “exposed” for the fraud she felt herself to be was combined with a depression that grew out of her failure to win her parents’ love. And, in order to achieve that love, she continued to try to extend herself and prove herself to them, only to be rejected or neglected or taken advantage of once again, thus confirming her sense of worthlessness.

Unfortunately, she was also drawn to potential boyfriends and platonic companions who resembled her parents in their mistreatment of her — as if the only love worth having was one that would allow her to triumph over rejection and win the affection of someone who resembled her parents in their lack of affection for her.

Our heroine succeeded in graduating from college and getting a good job. But none of this filled her up more than temporarily, just as a new purchase of an attractive dress might make her feel good for a few hours or days until she sank back into her default state of sadness and misgiving.

Now imagine that you are her therapist. What would you do?

Tell her that she is beautiful, talented, and accomplished (as evidenced by her academic and vocational success)?

She has already tried to tell herself this, she has already heard this from others, and she still feels bad.

Work with her to improve her social skills?

She is already skilled socially; “a good actress,” as she would characterize it. She is able to be assertive professionally and put-up a good front; until, of course, it involves a personal relationship about which she feels strongly.

Send her to a psychiatrist for anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication.

Perhaps, but this does not guarantee that she won’t continue to have the same self-doubts and make the same bad relationship choices of people who treat her poorly.

Use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help her “talk back” to her negative self-attributions (put-downs of herself) and help her to evaluate herself more objectively.

This is not likely to be sufficiently helpful by itself if she continues to favor people who reject her, caught in some version of the old Groucho Marx joke: “I wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.”

Use CBT to help her gradually stand-up to the people who are treating her badly.

Again, this might be somewhat useful, but will be countered by her belief that there is something wrong with her, and that she deserves the mistreatment she receives. Moreover, it will be hard to be assertive because of her terror that she will lose these same people if she pushes back against them.

What then is left?

In my opinion, this lovely young woman will have to begin to see (really see) and feel what has happened in her life, going back as far as necessary to the mistreatment she received at the hands of her parents: their failure to give more than lip-service to loving her, their cruelty, their inattention when she did something that should have been praised, their criticism, and their tendency to make her feel deficient and guilty.

If she does not see them for who they are, she is likely to continue to believe that it was largely her own inadequacy that caused her to fail in her quest for their love. And, if she continues to place them even on a relatively low pedestal, she will also keep reaching out for love from all the wrong people — the people who remind her of those parents; those who possess the only kind of love she wants because it is unconsciously associated with her parents.

It is not enough that this patient becomes intellectually aware of all that I’ve described.

For therapy of this kind to be successful, she will have to feel it, not just know it.

Feel it intensely.

Why?

Early life is a “hot” moment in virtually any life. Emotions are highly charged in children. We have not yet learned how to regulate those feelings, and so we are very, very vulnerable to injury. Nor do we have any of the defenses or the intellectual understanding of things and of people that will help us later to navigate the choppy waters of life.

And so, in this “hot” and challenging early time in our existence, we begin to formulate solutions to the difficulties of life.

For example, if voicing opinions different from dad’s beliefs results in his condemnation, many kids will learn to keep their mouths shut and internalize their feelings. Meanwhile, they are likely to feel diminished and less good about themselves if there is too little love and too much criticism.

A parent’s opinion counts enormously in the formation of the child’s self-image.

Time passes and the child perhaps has succeeded in reducing, at least a little, the amount of displeasure, anger, and targeted discontent coming from his mom or dad. So the behavior of keeping a low profile and “acting the part” that the parents expect is reinforced, even though depression and self-loathing are below the surface.

Such choices are made by the child unconsciously, but seem to make the best of a bad situation and become a well-ingrained pattern of behavior.

Eventually the child becomes a teen and soon a young adult, away from a good portion of the daily parental disapproval. Now, having established some defenses and skill in handling life, the crackling tension of early childhood is over. Instead of the ever-present hot moments of early life, existence now consists mostly of many more “cool” moments in which the pattern of behavior becomes solidified and habitual.

Think of it this way. A small child is like a piece of metal in a forge or foundry. The searing affective cauldron of early life is like the super-heated nature of a forge, designed to make the metal malleable so that it can be wrought or cast. Unfortunately, in the childhoods I’ve been describing, the little piece of metal that is this tiny life is shaped by the destructive forces of the household into a form that is warped; not fully serviceable.

With the passage of time and the “cooling down” of the emotional intensity of that life, the newly shaped adult — like the forged or cast piece of metal — is no longer malleable. The pattern and outline he or she is now in — the self-opinions and self-defenses that were established in the forge — have taken on a permanent, fixed form. The same ways of living developed while young continue to be used to some extent, even if they are not all that useful; even if conditions have changed.

Obviously, new learning is still possible, but at the deepest level — the level of self concept and self-love, as well as the tendency to be drawn to certain kinds of people when looking for love — alteration of the shape or form or way of living is much harder to achieve.

What then does therapy do to assist with this much-needed alteration?

The therapist and patient work together to re-enter the “forge” of childhood, that time of “hot” moments when personality was fashioned into its current image.

Once back in the foundry, the emotion generated in recollecting that time can make one malleable again: capable of being reshaped and of reshaping oneself into a less self-critical person who believes in his value and no longer seems so drawn to people who are excessively critical.

Therapists who do this kind of “depth” or “psychodynamic” psychotherapy may well encourage the patient to journal — even to write autobiographical essays. They can be assisted in remembering what seem like incidental details of early life such as their school teachers, the friend who sat next to them in third grade, the path they took to walk home, what TV shows they watched, the time of day that mom or dad came home, the summer vacations that were taken, the sounds present in the home, the aroma of cooked foods, and so forth.

Anything that might be useful to jog emotion and memory is fair game, including old photos and report cards, conversations with siblings or childhood friends, and revisiting the neighborhood in which one was raised.

The process can be painfully difficult. Indeed, it must generate significant emotion to reproduce, as far as possible, the forge-like nature of early life — the conditions which permit a realignment of internal interpretations, understanding, and feelings. Grieving over the losses of the past can only come with openness to whatever is felt and discovered in digging up the psychic “can of worms” that sometimes is to be found in one’s past.

And it is the emotion connected to the early trauma that, when finally re-experienced to at least a partial degree, proves cathartic and informative; allows one to realize that “it wasn’t your fault;” at least not to the disqualifying extent that you have come to believe it.

Sometimes there is a “break through” moment, as in the film Good Will Hunting with Matt Damon and Robin Williams. But even without that kind of emotionally generated epiphany, this type of treatment can be transformative.

Of course, not everyone needs to do this. A more cognitive behavioral approach along side this type of exploration may also be helpful in some cases.

But sometimes there is simply no substitute for the hands-in-the-dirt and feet-to-the-fire process that I’ve described.

Take heart.

If your therapist wants to talk to you about your childhood, sometimes it might just be exactly what you need; just exactly the cauterizing instrument that your hurt is waiting for.

Remember — the heat of the forge can be hard to withstand, but upon emerging from it perhaps you will notice that its warmth has healed your lonely heart.

The above image is Metallurgist working by the blast furnaces in Třinec Iron and Steel Works courtesy of Třinecké železárny, 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.