Is it a bit like shopping?
Few questions play on people’s minds and popular media as much as this: How do I find the right partner?
Many of us hope that if we know what makes a good partner we can spot a good deal. We research online. We quiz our mates about their relationships. We compare (and often despair). Others wing it and just go with their gut. Sometimes we can even literally buy them online!
In this post I am going to discuss this issue from the point of view of psychoanalysis and attachment theory. To know how to find the right partner you need to know something about how people really choose their partners. I will try to help you start asking what I hope are the questions that matter.
The reason that finding the right partner is often so difficult is this: like many choices in our lives, picking a mate is partly based on unconscious decision making. The idea that we do not not fully know ourselves, that we make decisions for reasons we cannot explain, is very hard to accept for many people. However, strings of unsuccessful relationships bring people to my counselling and relationship counselling practice (at Earls Court, Kensington by the way). In very distraught states, they wonder why they can’t find the right partner and worse they believe they never will. There is a point at which this cannot be ignored. This should be our starting point. We don’t know everything about ourselves.
What do we mean by “unconscious”?
There are probably two categories of unconscious knowledge. The first one is what we might call “procedural” or “implicit”, or what I call the “riding-a-bike-unconscious”. This involves knowledge or beliefs that are outside of awareness, have been laid down very early in life and are based on our childhood experiences. They are the maps that help us navigate our social world letting us know what is OK and what is not. If I asked you to tell me how you ride a bike you probably would be able to say very little, although you know how to do it. However, you can become aware of these rules, usually with the help of another person.
Examples of unconscious beliefs about ourselves/others/the world that cause trouble:
If I show anger I am putting my relationship at risk
If I show emotions others will think I am weak
I am not good enough
If I show vulnerability I will be rejected
If I concede to others I will lose control forever
If you are not in the top you are in the bottom
The beliefs activate defences.
Examples of defences
I feel angry: Be a very nice person, kind, and polite
If I start to feel emotional: Change the conversation to something else
If I start to feel not good enough: Compensate by trying to be perfect
If I start to feel vulnerable: Start making jokes
If I am being challenged: Start shouting and dismissing others
If I start to feel like I am not good enough: Start to think about every time I have failed in something in my life.
There is a variety of defences for the same belief.
You may notice that the beliefs are quite black and white and that is often how they are.
The second kind of unconscious concerns the “forgetting” of “verbal content” such as painful memories. We are less concerned about this here.
When it comes to choosing a partner, we are interested in one defence in particular: projection. You may have heard of this. Stay with me, we are getting there.
How do we choose a partner?
A lot of what we look at other people we can articulate to ourselves: someone attractive, smart, and funny, a lot of people seem to say (which sounds like a mobile phone, the funny bit being how much it costs. Like not really that funny). We want to do things we them so we often chose people who have common interests: sports, travelling, books, films, and googling sugar gliders.
We often want someone who is confident and successful (this is usually so that we don’t have to look after them that much -massive post for another time).
The problem is that there is also a hell of a lot of processing happening under the hood.
Agreements spoken and unspoken
Psychoanalysis has advanced the concepts “unconscious contract” and “unconscious fit” between two partners. We now need to finally explain projection.
You may be familiar with this idea. “He is projecting”, we say, and we mean he is attributing his own thoughts, feelings, wishes, desires, characteristics to the other person. This is because he finds these unacceptable and he must not acknowledge them, they must remain unconscious. They belong to the other.
Let’s think of a couple called Mary* and John*. Mary is afraid of her anger. She does not want to think, or others to think, she is an angry person. Why? Firstly, because in her mind, being angry makes her an angry person. Perhaps when she was very small she would express her anger and her own mother would say “you’ re always complaining, what a fussy child!”. In Mary’s little mind anger is equated with disapproval. This kind of thing can never get “updated”.
One way Mary can manage this is to choose a partner who is naturally more prone to anger. He can then “carry her anger for her”. In technical terms she “projects” her anger into a partner who is a “suitable receptacle for her disowned emotional experience”. But, said partner, John, must also be a good fit for Mary. Mary is quite able to tolerate and feel vulnerable like sad or anxious. Perhaps because she was left feeling so every time mom called her an angry child. John’s family dealt a lot in anger; shouting, arguing, fussing. No one ever talked about how sad they were feeling.
The theory goes, the human mind seeks to grow. To develop. Coupling up is an agreement with which comes down to:
“By choosing you, slowly, slowly, I am going to learn from you, and start to “own” my anger. And you, partner, will become more able to experience, and share your vulnerability”.
We need both. With anger comes assertiveness and with vulnerability comes compassion.
What can also happen is the opposite. Both partners work towards keeping the status quo and keeping things separate. Like, we said we would do that, but it actually looks mighty painful business from where I’m standing.
This can often bring people to relationship counselling (for instance, at Earls Court, Kensington). Mary accuses John of being aggressive. John is not a wallflower, but he is not exactly the thug that Mary says he is. However, Mary is terrified of anger because she has learnt it is a destructive emotion. She sees John’s anger AND she also attributes her own anger to him. John ends up looking very scary. John projects his sadness ad more vulnerable feelings on Mary. Mary starts appears quite sensitive. They may even start to push each other to reinforce their positions.
So the story goes, there was an “unconscious fit” between those two people. Sometimes the couple do learn from each other and become the best version of themselves, overcoming their childhood wounds. Other times they move further and further apart and the relationship may end.
The bottom line then is
We partly choose partners based on their capacity to tolerate emotional experiences we cannot and they do the same with us. The aim is to learn from them and grow, but it can also lead to a joint effort to keep things the same. That’s when problems arise in the relationship.
I hope this incites some curiosity in you, and you begin to wonder:
Is it possible that I focus on my partner’s anger, sadness, vulnerability, demanding-ness, greediness etc. because these emotions are unacceptable to me? You may even begin to wonder about the existence of “unconscious beliefs” that explain why you see such emotions as unacceptable.
We probably do not know how much our unconscious attraction plays a role in partner choice, but it is usually very important when things go wrong. This is a sign that the couple have not taken from each other, but have remained as polarised as when they started, if not more so.
Sometimes we do need some help either as an individual or as a couple to decipher our bike-riding-knowledge. So if you want to take a ride into an exploration of your unconscious beliefs & rules, get in touch by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org (if you can access Earls Court Station). 07805945233 if you’re old fashioned.
*Mary and John are not a real couple, but a composite of people I have met in the last 10+years