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.
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.