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.
It is usually difficult experiences that lead us to research this question. Perhaps a string of unsuccessful relationships with partners who we experienced as unavailable, unreliable, or abusive.
In this post I am going to discuss how to choose the right partner from the point of view of psychoanalysis and attachment theory. To know how to find the right partner you need to know something about what goes into partner choice. 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”?
One form of unconscious knowledge is what psychologists 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 can never be recalled in the form of memories (because we can only do that at about 4 or 5 years of age). They are more like models 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 will make others angry and will be punished
If I show sadness I will burden others with guilt and will be rejected
If I depend on others they will neglect me
- If I depend on others they will control me and hurt me
If we begin to experience “illegal” emotions around others, we may need to use defences to supress these emotions. So we:
Dismiss our emotions
- Play down or emotions
- Put others’ needs and wishes first
- Use alcohol or drugs to suppress our emotions
- Punish ourselves for having emotions
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.
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 belief has not yet got “updated”. Mary is a “suppresser”. One way Mary can manage this is to choose a partner who is naturally more expressive of anger, someone who is more of “discharger”.
John, must also be a good fit for Mary. John’s family dealt a lot in anger; shouting, arguing, fussing (what Mary was not allowed to do). However, no one ever talked about how sad they were feeling and John heavily defends against feeling sad because he has not had an experience when this was listened to and validated. Mary is more able to experience sadness and display that to others.
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 sadness”. We need both. With anger comes assertiveness and with sadness 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.
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. We often want someone who is confident and successful. We want to do things we them so we often chose people who have common interests: sports, travelling, books, films, and googling sugar gliders.
The tricky thing is that there is also a hell of a lot of processing happening under the hood as we saw. 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 and people who begin to wonder what they need to do to find the right partner.
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, 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 11+years