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Mental & Emotional Health

Blind Spots: Repeating Patterns That Don't Work

There is a statistical assumption that the future will look like the past. Although psychoanalysis has little in common with statistics, ironically both disciplines agree about this assumption. Psychoanalysts believe there is a great probability the future will look like the past because you choose partners who represent aspects of people in your past—mother, father, siblings, etc. The initial conscious attachment may be that the man is handsome or you love his smile, or that the woman is beautiful or she’s so much fun. But the relationships that stick are the ones that have unconscious glue that still adheres to the past.

If you have had positive relationships with your parents or if you understand and have worked through the unhealthy dynamics you had with them, you choose partners with whom the dominant feelings remain: love, respect, and caring. However, if the dynamic you are repeating was part of an intensely ambivalent relationship that has never been worked out, you choose partners with whom you end up feeling abused, guilty, needy, suffocated or deprived. Thus when you have serial failures, the men may have different builds, occupations and interests, but there is usually some unconscious dynamic that you are repeating. Unfortunately, most people never understand what that unconscious dynamic is so they keep acting it out.

My patient, whom I will call Mel, is a financial analyst. His first marriage was to a woman who had a wide circle of successful friends and came from a wealthy family. Mel was drawn to her because he wanted those things and felt he could get them through his wife. The marriage was unhappy almost from the beginning because his wife wanted him to earn more money — like her father and brother. But Mel has continued to be attracted to women who are what he wishes he were.

“I have these ups and downs,” he said. “I saw Joan last night at a party and I just want to be with her. I’m never going to find anyone better than her.” Joan broke up with him about two months ago because she is ten years younger than Mel and while she wants to have children, she doesn’t want to take care of his three children on weekends. Initially Mel was very upset about this realization, but accepted that this relationship could not work out. He does not want to have any more children and she does not want to be involved with his children. But as the weeks have passed, Mel went hiking with Joan and has gone to several parties where he knew she would be.

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