Albert Einstein once famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Working with both couples and individuals, I often see clients seeking the same type of dysfunctional relationships over and over again. They are constantly re-enacting the same “life trap” hoping that they will finally secure a different outcome. In the excellent book by Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want, he explains that we are always seeking someone who has the predominant characteristics of the people who raised us in childhood.
When we are very young, neural pathways are being laid down which will influence how we perceive the world and others. As in, the world is safe and my needs will be met or the world is unsafe and my needs won’t be met. These subconscious attachments or dysfunctions lead us to seek intimate partners or friendships which recreate a similar pattern as the primary relationships formed in our early childhood. Sorry to point a finger at Mom and Dad, but remember they did the best they could and they were probably re-enacting familiar patterns from their childhood.
It would be great if we all grew up in emotionally nurturing homes and if we all turned out to be smart, popular, and athletic in middle school/high school and if nothing bad ever happened . Most people, however ,have some emotional baggage from their family or from life events that led to loss or harm. While we may have functioned well through many good years, sooner or later our defenses stop working and we hit a wall or for some people “rock bottom”. As Socrates explained : “An unexamined life is not worth living” so we will need to examine our past
So if you recognize something isn’t working in your life or in your relationships, you may need to unravel unconscious patterns of thought that are so deeply ingrained you aren’t even aware of them. You may be seeking partners who can’t be intimate, or who have anger problems, or who can’t trust other people, or who keep putting you down.
In couples therapy, we are trying to look at which life traps each partner brings to the couple relationship. These life traps or sub conscious patterns are sometimes referred to as “schema” and can be identified using Jeffrey Young’s approach in his outstanding book Reinventing Your Life. We might have one partner with mistrust and one partner who experienced emotional deprivation So when they interact.each one triggers the other. We’ll look at the conflict the couples keep struggling with and try to show the couple how because of their ” life traps” clashing that they keep having this same fight over and over again.
Once these patterns are identified then new behaviors have to be practiced and choices should be made that may initially feel counter intuitive. Using the metaphor of what is healthy versus what is unhealthy in breakfast cereals, we all know that Cocoa Puffs are not as good a choice as the bran or unsweetened granola, so we steer away from the high fructose corn syrup cereal and buy the Fiber One even though Cocoa puffs may be much more comforting and tasty.
High Chemistry or a strong sexual attraction might be likened to the Cocoa Puffs or Fruit Loops choice. It implies that high chemistry, say a 9 on a scale of 1-10, represents our subconscious attraction to a partner who triggers our childhood life trap. We have this primitive need to heal old childhood wounds by re-creating a similar dynamic but hoping it will turn out differently this time. This may explain why we have at some point found ourselves in a relationship with very high chemistry which unfortunately ends up being unhealthy and dysfunctional.