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Hi, I’m Dr. Tracey Marks, and I make mental health education videos.
Today I’m talking about why you can get stuck repeating the same negative relationship,
despite your best efforts, or best intentions to find another person to be with.
This is based on a viewer question from Miss B, and here’s an excerpt of her question:
Miss B: “Great video! I was raised by two parents who were narcissists, and my mother pushed me away when I wanted hugs.”
Miss B: “My father did unspeakable stuff, and I believe was also borderline.”
Miss B: “My question is: if you were raised by people with these disorders, is it normal to attract people like this and feel like you can save them?”
Thanks for the question, Miss B! The short answer is: yes, you can be attracted to the same people with whom you had a very hurtful relationship.
It’s not always obvious though when you’re attracted to similar people. Let me explain.
There is a concept in psychoanalytic theory called the Corrective Emotional Experience.
The classical definition of the Corrective Emotional Experience is that it’s a therapeutic process,
where a therapist helps you experience what was previously a painful relationship by making it a healing relationship.
The therapist does this by re-enacting certain dynamics with you, and then reacts to you in a different way that’s positive and different from what you expect.
And when you continue to get these kind of positive responses – which is the opposite of what you’re used to –
you begin to heal, by having the experience in real time that corrects what happened in the past.
That’s the classic way the concept was defined and used by therapists who practice psychoanalytic therapy.
But there’s been an evolution in how the term is conceptualized.
It can be thought of more broadly, as an explanation for why you seem to be attracted to the same kind of negative relationship.
And this can even bleed into your close friendships.
The term comes from Object Relations Theory, which is where people are called Objects,
and it’s about how you relate to the central Objects in your life – like your mother.
The idea of the Corrective Emotional Experience can refer to the process of a person seeking a negative Object or relationship,
for the purpose of re-enacting that negative dynamic in a way that allows you to correct the original negative experience.
I know that’s a lot, so let me give you an example.
I’m gonna give you two examples – one man and one woman.
Let’s say you are man, who had a very critical mother.
You loved your mother, but she rarely praised you or validated you, and no matter what you did, it was never good enough.
When you have this kind of early experience, you can internalize that and believe that YOU aren’t good enough.
You see, as a child, it started out as “the things that you DO aren’t good enough”, but over time, it evolved into “YOU aren’t good enough”.
The usual trajectory would be for you to spend your entire adulthood searching for the validation that you never got.
So you end up with close friendships and romantic relationships that have a similar dynamic.
And this is unless something comes along to change that trajectory, like therapy, or some other form of enlightenment.
You may have a good friend who helps you see this pattern.
So, in a dating relationship, you may seek out women who nag you or criticize you.
A more subtle form of seeking a non-validating woman is being attracted to a super strong woman,
who may not overtly criticize you, but her competence and her accomplishments alone emasculate you.
So, initially, you admire her, but then you come to resent her, because she doesn’t make you feel good enough.
So you have a lot of fights, and you may even have an affair.
Then you get divorced, or you break up, if you’re not married.
And then you try and find another woman, and you say: “I’m not gonna date any more lawyers, because THAT’s the problem.”
“Women with high-powered careers just don’t know how to appreciate a man.”
So you start dating a woman who you think has a lower social position than you.
But then she’s always wanting you to do more and more for her, and she never seems to be satisfied. And once again, you’re not enough.
So you did it again. You ended up with another woman who invalidates you.
You thought you were getting someone different this time, because you were looking at the external things,
but it was the same woman, just wearing different clothing.
The problem is: you’re attracted to the invalidating woman, because of your early emotional experience.
And this is how you can get caught up in this cycle of repeating this negative dynamic,
because, on an unconscious level, you’re seeking the negative Object, so you can master the relationship THIS time around.
This time you ARE going to be good enough for her. You’re going to MAKE her appreciate you.
What can you do about this?
The real solution is to see a therapist. And this is not gonna be a quick process though.
The therapist has to understand you and your backstory, to help you recognize the pattern that you’re repeating.
Then the therapist can help you change the course and break the pattern.
Now, if you recognize the pattern on your own, you could try and find someone opposite,
but it’s not as easy as it seems though, because chances are you’re not going to be attracted to the positive Object.
In this case, you’re drawn to the person for the wrong reasons, but you’re drawn to them nonetheless.
Here’s another example, using a woman this time.
Suppose you’re a woman who keeps being attracted to the man with swagger who doesn’t seem to appreciate you.
He gives you his attention at first, but as the relationship progresses, he starts disappearing, and you stop hearing from him on a regular basis.
And just around the time you start to get frustrated, he comes swaggering back and pulls you back in.
But in the end it doesn’t work out, because he strings you along while he’s dating other people.
He never wants to be exclusive, and you realize that you always end up with these kind of men.
Now, you may recognize this pattern, and decide that you’re gonna go for the nice guy this time.
But, as soon as that man fawns all over you and calls you his queen, you’re turned off, because you think he’s boring and weak.
You know he’s a good man, but it’s hard to fake attraction.
So that’s why, superficially, just trying to make yourself be attracted to someone you’re not attracted to isn’t the complete answer.
It’s a start, but the real answer requires some soul-searching and looking at the past, to see what it is that you’re really attracted to.
Then you wanna learn to appreciate the opposite of what you’re drawn to.
Once you see this pattern, you have to look at what is it about YOU that makes you get caught up in this pattern.
What do you fear about the situation? Looking at what you fear may help you recognize what’s going on.
To illustrate this, let’s go back to the woman example.
On the surface, she says she finds nice men boring,
but when she really looks at what it is she likes about the charismatic men, she realizes those men know how to handle her strong personality.
When she looks at her dad, she sees that he was nice, but he was a passive man,
and she always felt like she had to tiptoe around his feelings, because he would ignore her when she was being too assertive.
So, in essence, she felt rejected by him, just for being herself.
She feared his rejection, and would hold back on expressing herself, so that she could get the attention she needed from him.
So fast forward, as an adult, she stays away from the nice man, because she’s really afraid she’ll push him away with her personality.
Now, this is deep stuff, and you really need a therapist to see these kinds of things in yourself,
but, in the absence of seeing a therapist, you could still try and peel back the layers of your pattern.
You start with examining the negative relationships and asking yourself the following questions (and I’ll have these questions in the description).
And they’re just conversation-starters – a conversation that you would have with yourself or a close friend who really knows you.
So, start with your current repetitive relationships.
In these relationships, what does the person do that makes you feel bad about yourself? It could be what they DON’T do – like, she never compliments you.
Then, look at your relationship with your parents, or your close caretaker. Which parent had the stronger impact on you, and who were you closest to?
Which one did you have the bad relationship with, and why? If it was both, like with Miss B in her question, which was worse?
As important as it is to have a nurturing relationship with your parents, the negative relationship is the one that’s going to be the squeaky wheel here.
That’s where you wanna go deep and see how that parent made you feel, AND what you did in response to it.
So, one more example, to illustrate what I mean by this (and this is more subtle).
Suppose you were a child who had an absent parent – either because of divorce, or because your parent worked all the time and just wasn’t around very much.
If it’s an opposite sex parent, you may be attracted to a person who’s aloof, or emotionally unavailable.
So, in this case, the absent parent wasn’t necessarily mean or abusive –
the emotional damage in your case comes from the absence of validation and the love that you needed from that parent.
You didn’t get it, because they weren’t around to give it.
These are just some things to prompt you to think about your pattern, and what’s at the root of it.
I can’t emphasize enough though how you really need a therapist
who can help you uncover some of these things, and to help you get unstuck from the negative cycle.
If you didn’t already see my video on signs of a toxic relationship, you can watch it right here. See you next time!