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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.

I asked Mel what it was that was better about Joan than any other woman. He said: “She’s talented and smart and pretty. I’ll never find someone like that again.” I noted that those were characteristics that didn’t have a lot to do with having a relationship with someone. Then I said: “It’s interesting that you don’t seem to count the fact that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with your children.” Instantly understanding the implication, he said: “Oh, God that’s amazing. I’m more interested in how talented she is than I am in whether she wants to be part of my life and share it with me.” I asked him how he understood that, when his children are so important to him. He is a very loving and involved father. Shamefully, he told me: “She is the proof of my worth. If I am with someone who is talented and smart and pretty then I must be worth something. I don’t feel like I’m worth anything myself.” Mel saw his blind spot.

Blind spots can result in repetitive failures at work as well as love. Jonathan spent 25 years depressed and unhappy at a series of sales jobs. Each time he left a job he was hopeful that he would be happy at the next one. Finally, at 48, he decided to quit his job and go to social work school so that he could work at something that had meaning for him.

Jonathan feels his unhappy work history is directly related to his relationship with his father. He describes his childhood fear of his father’s constant criticism.

I remember I would get very poor grades in math. I would come home from school with my report card and sit petrified on a milk box on the back porch. He’d say: “You’re never going to get into college.”

Jonathan feels his father’s derogatory attitude toward him had tremendous ramifications in his life. After college, Jonathan went to college at night to take pre-med classes. He recalls:

There were no pressures. Nobody knew about it. I was paying for it. I got straight A’s.

But Jonathan did not go to medical school. He took a job doing something that didn’t interest him. He put his dreams aside because his father’s belittling attitude toward him undermined his self-confidence. Jonathan had a blind spot. He became what his father thought about him. It kept him feeling like a failure and feeling angry at his father. Once he realized it, he decided to go back to school to become a medical social worker and was able to forge a more positive connection with his father before his father’s death.

Roberta Satow, Ph.D. is a psychotherapist in Manhattan and the author of Doing the Right Thing: Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents Even if They Didn’t Take Care of You (Tarcher, 2006 paperback). Please visit http://www.robertasatow.com/#psychotherapy-psychoanalysis