You meet the person of your dreams. Your heart pitter patters. Your brain becomes awash in rapidly rising levels of phenylethylamine, oxytocin and dopamine. You’re suddenly hit by cravings, the likes of which you might have only experienced when gripped by substances you’ve chosen to leave behind.
Is this what being in love feels like? Yes and no. You’re in the throes of a chemically induced state that could evolve into a relationship that involves love, devotion and commitment. And experts say that higher levels of oxytocin — the “cuddle hormone” — increase the likelihood that the relationship will endure. That’s the good news.
But sustaining loving interactions also takes work. Though you might be romantically involved with only one other person (although some choose to engage in polyamory, also called conscious non-monogamy), many other people — and things — will factor into your relationship.
Many of these factors are impressions that might have been made upon you and your significant other before the two of you met. Each partner has biological parents whose genetics affect his or her nature. On top of that, each partner was raised by people whose proclivities, attitudes, choices and behaviors shaped his or her outlook. Among these influences are the interactions as partners that parental figures modeled with each other. Multigenerational patterns play a role in who you and your partner are — as individuals and with each other.
Meatloaf Meets Real Life
Take this story for example: A mother and daughter are preparing dinner. The mother molds a meatloaf and cuts off an end of it before placing it in the pan. Curious, the daughter asks why she did that. “That’s how my mother did it,” the mother answers. Her own curiosity now piqued, the mother called her mother and asked the same question. “Hmm. That’s the way my own mother cooked meatloaf.”
They went to visit the great-grandmother in search of an explanation. She got a good laugh out of the situation: She told them that her pan had been smaller than the ingredients put together, so she lopped off an end of the meatloaf to make it fit. In relationships, some people simply follow family patterns without questioning them.
Parents’ interactions are likely to be templates for the way you behave with your partner, whether you’re conscious of this influence or not. If adult caregivers aren’t comfortable with safe, respectful and loving communication with each other and don’t have a grounded sense of who they are, how can they model healthy communication and sense of self for their children?
Do We Marry Our Parents?
According to experts in the therapeutic field, we are unconsciously inclined to attract someone who reminds us of our primary childhood caregiver. This happens regardless of gender or level of attachment the child feels to the parent.
Imago therapy, created by Harville Hendrix, PhD, and Helen LaKelly Hunt, PhD, addresses unmet nurturing and relational needs from childhood that spill over into adult partnerships. “The Latin word ‘imago’ — meaning ‘image’ — refers to the ‘unconscious image of familiar love,’” explains the website. “What we find is that there is frequently a connection between frustrations in adult relationships and early childhood experiences.”
Comfort in Chaos
You might notice a pattern of attracting the same type of partner, despite attempts to avoid repeating past mistakes. If you’re accustomed to conflict, then anything else might seem strange.
Fold your hands together, and notice which thumb naturally falls across the other. How does it feel when you switch to put the other thumb on top? Many people have said this so uncomfortable for them that they feel anxious.
Discomfort over an unfamiliar feeling is that powerful. Attracting a loving, responsive partner can spark the same anxiety if you’re used to drama and trauma. Consider what you’re willing to invest into maintaining a healthy partnership. Would you step outside your comfort zone if that’s what it takes to form a relationship that nurtures and heals?
A Goodbye Letter
Addiction further complicates relationships, almost as if there’s another person between the partners. You’ve likely heard of the idea of being “married” to the bottle. Someone who drinks or uses is putting the substance above other relationships. The situation becomes even more complicated when both partners have an addiction.
One powerful exercise to help you step beyond those harmful patterns is to write a letter to previous lovers. You and your partner can do this individually or together. Your letter can express things you regret and those you celebrate. Remember these details provided lessons that have made you who you are today.
Perhaps a previous partner seems like “the one that got away,” and the memory prevents you from moving on. Writing this letter can be freeing, and you don’t have to send it. You might even want to destroy it to help you symbolically release the emotions.
Other people have valuable advice on the personal growth that romantic relationships can spark. “I feel we attract those who force us to look into the mirror and heal our deepest wounds,” one woman said. “Only when we’re aware of these wounds and begin to let go of our buried emotions around them do we attract those who help us find the answers toward healing.” Another woman, who’s been married for decades, shared this: “Marriage is a sacred circle, and the only ones who belong in it are you, your partner and God.”
By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1