Why do some people fall in love at first sight? Why are some relationships full of anger, passion, jealousy and fighting while others are calm, friendly and companionable? Why do opposite yet also similar personality traits attract? Evolutionary biologists, biological anthropologists, interpersonal neurobiologists, social scientists, psychologists, visual artists and many others have tried to answer these questions. What is romantic attraction?
Numerous theories have evolved, each revealing different perspectives on this fundamental mystery. Here I‘ll be discussing ideas inherent in one perspective which argues that the unconscious mind (that which occurs below our conscious awareness) is highly influential in our choices, partly due to an idealised internal blueprint of love we each have and partly due to the fact that searching for satisfaction outside of ourselves is a given in unconscious human existence.
We meet thousands of people in the course of our life.
Why is it that only a few of these people appeal to our particularly unique and discriminating tastes? Most of the singles I counsel in my practice have some version of the following complaint “There just aren’t any good women (or men) out there. All the good ones are taken”. Another curious issue is that of the few individuals we find attractive, why do we eventually discover uncanny similarities in their personality traits, both the positive and negative ones? As a counsellor, I see recurrent patterns in the choice of partners my clients make. Could it be possible that each of us is repeatedly searching for a mate with a very specific group of positive and negative traits? That we are searching for someone who matches a deeply unconscious blueprint of love?
To understand what may lie behind the strong correlation of traits between the partners we choose, and our drive to choose them, we must take into account the role of the unconscious mind. Many of us highly underestimate the influence our unconscious mind has on our choices, including that of picking a mate. The apparently logical, slower and ordered functioning of our conscious mind is the surface layer obscuring the ever-active, fast, and always functioning unconscious mind. As psychotherapist Allan Schore says we have “…nonconscious insecure internal working models of strategies of affect regulation encoded in right brain implicit memory in infancy not available to left brain explicit memory recall.” Put more simply, in a baby’s preverbal growing time, its repeated interactions with carers imprint patterns of emotional response with them. These are stored in the unconscious mind and are not readily accessible to our conscious, more logical mind.
We are unaware of most of the functions and processes of our unconscious mind.
This is part of our brain which governs self preservation, reproduction, muscle contraction, breathing, circulation, digestion and sleeping. It is the source of physical action. Its main concern is “safety first”: it focuses on self-preservation. It is always on the alert and has only a generalised perception of outside phenomena. It takes in “big picture” information through the five senses (what we see, hear, smell, taste and touch) and makes lightning-quick assessments (which can often be wrong) based on what these senses pick up. For instance, when we meet a new person, we are instantaneously assessing whether that person is someone to attack, submit to, run away from, have sex with, be nurtured by or nurture. This is the basis for our intimate attachments, but we can learn, through repetition, to be more conscious and have more choices when prompted in these ways.
The best way to think about how the unconscious assesses people and environment is to remember that it has no conception of time. Everything that’s been imprinted in the unconscious exists only in the now and it responds to any stimulus that resembles past experiences as if they’re the same thing. Our unconscious is hard-wired to have only three responses, fight, flight or freeze/appease. This one fact about our unconscious mind helps us to understand why at times we have extreme responses to others, and particularly our partners, which are totally out of proportion to the stimuli that trigger them. One of my teachers humorously says “We have a $20 reaction to a 10 cent stimulus”.
This all relates to romantic attraction
Our unconscious mind stores memories of repeated childhood interactions with our carers in great emotional detail. Until the end of the first few months of life we had no awareness of ourselves as separate from our carers and the rest of the world. We were immersed in blissful union. If we received “good enough” caring and attunement, our unconscious mind was deeply imprinted with the felt sense of oneness and unconditional acceptance that each baby is born with, due to the developing brain’s incapacity to see itself as a separate being. But, even if we were very lucky and had safe and nurturing carers, no human carer could be available 24/7 for the complex and very dependent needs all infants have after the first few months of life. Herein begins the tale of frustrated needs and expectations.
In our adult relationships, there is a deep memory of and yearning for this state of total connection, as represented by the myths, visual arts, poems and songs of many cultures. It appears that many of us have an expectation that our mate somehow has the supreme power to provide us with unconditional love and reconnect us to our lost feeling of wholeness. We have a fantasy that their love will magically intuit and fulfil our every need, and that it will return us to feeling adequate, whole and totally loveable. However, because our love object sooner or later fails to deliver, and in fact often unwittingly frustrates our unspoken needs and desires, partly because they are looking to us for exactly the same reconnection. So conflicts, disappointments and dissatisfactions set in.
This is similar to the original feelings of frustration and disappointment which begin in the first months of our life, when our needs were not instantaneously met. No carer can be totally attuned to a child, so all of us have had experiences of being neglected, frustrated or hurt. Because a baby (and the unconscious) resides in an eternal now and has no sense of time, if a carer takes a few minutes to respond, it feels like an eternity to the baby. These repeated gaps between becoming aware of a need, seeking its fulfilment and eventually having the need satisfied, gradually teach the baby that it is a separate being, that their parent and their environment are not there just to serve its every need.
This sense of being separate, of not being in total connection, is experienced by the unconscious mind as a huge threat
A threat to its survival, a threat to its very existence. Unconsciously, it is similar to (and therefore equated with) a fear of death. To ward off this devastatingly uncomfortable feeling, we have developed some very ingenious defences like anger, blame, attack, withdrawal, flight and holding grievances. Remembering and reacting to what has hurt us in the past is a survival mechanism. We don’t want to be hurt again like we were long ago in very early childhood and yet we seek the same sort of attachment that was “home” to us in childhood.
Every grievance that we hold has its roots in old hurts when we were not fully loved, and old frustrations at our powerlessness to do anything about it. This hurt and frustration is similar to a dormant virus in our nervous system which erupts whenever someone responds to us in the wrong way. This is exactly what triggers all of the emotional explosions that torment us in relationships. Remember that the unconscious responds to any stimulus that resembles past hurts as if they’re the same thing? This is why we have the disturbing experiences which arise in intimate relationships, much more frequently than in our friendships or work relationships. One moment we can feel connected, loving and drawn to our partner, and the next moment, if they say or do the wrong thing, we can be in a fight. What makes two people who swear eternal love for each other suddenly turn against each other with violent aggression or fright, behaving as if they’re each other’s worst enemies? It’s even more confusing that these flare-ups are usually triggered by minor incidents, such as a facial expression, a movement or tone of voice.
The answer lies in the fact that young children cannot understand how a parent can be “good”, a source of happiness and pleasure in one moment, and “bad”, a source of frustration and pain in the next. Because we are so totally dependent on our parents when we’re young, we need to see them as good. If we were to see them as bad our sense of safety and security would be totally undermined. So as children we repress the experiences of a hurtful and frustrating “bad” parent, they get pushed out of our awareness and abide deep in our unconscious minds. Children need to do this to maintain their connection to the good parent and a sense of safety.
Yet whenever any facet of our experience becomes unconscious, it takes on a life of its own.
Our repressed awareness of neglect or frustration slowly grows into a more generalised sense of the bad other. This is the one who cannot love us as we are, who may hurt or betray us, who we decide cannot be trusted. These eruptions of blame and rage happen when the bad other image, with all its painful associations, suddenly becomes conscious, and before we know it, we project it onto the one we love. The unconscious, which is always on guard to protect us from danger, reacts to our partner as if it’s a matter of our survival. Whenever our partner acts, speaks or treats us in any way that even slightly fits the blueprint of the bad parent, it triggers a deeply buried sense of danger and we switch into fighting to save our life. Suddenly the person we love (the good parent blueprint) becomes the personification of everyone who’s ever rejected or hurt us, the bad parent. To make matters worse, our retaliation of blame and aggression triggers our partner’s alarms. They then react to us with defensiveness or aggression because their unconscious is responding with alarm to this threat. We then become the personification of their bad parent! So their reaction justifies our “bad other” story and our reaction justifies their “bad other” blueprint. This is how conflicts begin and then escalate.
There is a way out of this cycle! Our partner may actually be the perfect person to help heal these unconscious wounds.
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