Table of Contents
Subconscious mind and love
Do you enjoy loving your significant other? Seemingly paradoxically, for many people love is a source of pain rather than bliss. There is no other adult relationship in which the depth and strength of our needs, imprints and beliefs from childhood become so obvious and so strong, so persistent and so overwhelming, so resistant to both willpower and rational point of view.
The explanation is in understanding that a big part of what we call loving feelings is nothing but surfacing of the deepest, earliest memories which are the foundation of unresolved inner conflicts. We go through our lives constantly seeking for resolution of those conflicts, even if unconsciously.
Perhaps you will recognize that there are particular types of personality and behavior that you feel attracted to, even if they are problematic. Perhaps outer circumstances and behavior will not be obviously similar amongst your different partners through life, but you can recognize the patterns repeating in the way you feel inside and in the way the relationship develops. Love relationships are the key triggers of our toxic patterns, as well as the most important opportunity for healing.
Unhealthy triggers for falling in love
In the experience that we call love (or, more precisely, infatuation), our healthy enjoyment and appreciation of other human being is mixed with transference and bonds. There are usually three common types of unhealthy bonds.
First are our subconscious hopes and needs from childhood, which can make us prone to idealize the other person, just as we idealized our parents when we were small children, hoping for happy, warm relationships which would give us security, protection and a sense of self-worth. Remember the feelings of hope and elation in the first stages of infatuation; the irrational feeling that you’ve finally found the person who can fulfill your deepest needs and make you feel accepted, loved and valuable. If you explore what details in the appearance and behavior of the other triggered that flood of emotions, you might be able to recognize a pattern and perhaps connect it to memories from your earliest years.
The second way of bonding is through trying to heal our toxic, painful beliefs about ourselves, while trying to earn love in similar circumstances in which those beliefs were created. Unconsciously, we are attracted to a similar atmosphere our parents created in our early family, the consequences of which were never completely resolved within our subconscious minds. The child in us hopes to resolve the confusion and inner conflicts from the past, searching for a person to love who would replace the parent(s).
Same as, in the earliest years, we judged ourselves according to reactions of our environment, in the same way as a child is sensitive to every signal from parents, trying to understand what is acceptable and expected, adapting to even painful and confusing expectations, this is how we often feel in initial, and sometimes even later stages of infatuation.
You can see many people who are otherwise smart, confident and able to recognize unhealthy and unbalanced behavior, suddenly becoming aware of every their word or move, anxiously trying to anticipate feelings and expectations of a single other person, starting to feel like their human worth, fulfillment and future happiness depend of a person who they don’t even know well enough.
Remember the feelings of irrational confusion, pain and reviewing your behavior because of some tiny little detail your beloved said or did, and you will have the idea about how you felt as a child in relation to your parents. I’m not saying that children feel like that all the time – some children are naturally more sensitive than others, too – but keep in mind that there is a source of all of your emotions, and the source of many emotions that don’t seem to make sense is in our earliest years of life.
Many times we can’t recognize or remember how sensitive we were as children to our parents’ behavior, how dependent of them, how much we needed their love, approval and acceptance. These feelings are normally long forgotten, because they happened in an age in which individual identity, conscious memory and awareness, not to mention rational thinking, were not yet developed.
The more we grow up, the more realistic our perception of world (hopefully) is, so it’s more difficult to be overwhelmed with exaggerated hopes and expectations in adulthood than, for example, in adolescence. Still, in the right circumstances, if the right triggers come together in one person, the child parts of us wake up quickly and even mature people can find themselves overwhelmed with long forgotten emotions.
The third type of bond is being attracted to behavior and emotional atmosphere that we learned to accept as normal and even „loving“ in our early family, even if painful. The most obvious example are abusive relationships. People who repeatedly enter abusive relationships, often say that they perceive healthy people and relationships as not passionate, not loving enough, even boring. It comes down to what we feel „at home“ with.
How our conscious minds get cheated
Some children, depending of their constitution and temper, within a particular type of family – often surrounded with exceptional and uninhibited violence and injustice, but still having some other people around who are models of healthy and loving behavior – might be able to recognize in quite an early age that violent behavior is not some strange way to love, or anything that can be justified with the child’s doing. Such people might start their search for a partner with a strong decision to find a person healthier and more mature than the parent(s), and they can be successful to some extent. Still, patterns created in the earliest age, before the child was able to develop such a perspective, or even to feel an identity separate of parents, will still be there, although maybe showing in very subtle ways.
An example is Cherry, who grew up in quite an unhealthy family, but with a strong decision to choose a partner different to her aggressive, manipulative and narrow-minded father. She chose a man who appeared calm, gentle, responsible and thoughtful. But with years of marriage, after the relationship settled into a routine, it became more and more apparent that the gentle and sensitive appearance of her husband was hiding a cluster of suppressed emotions based on deep guilt and shame from childhood.
Because of those feelings, her husband slowly became more and more emotionally withdrawn, unable to enjoy intimacy or clear communication, and showing passive aggression in situations of conflict or misunderstanding. So Cherry, even if she was able to recognize and avoid an openly abusive relationship, had to eventually admit to herself that she was attracted to a relationship that reflected her feelings from childhood, although in a subtle way: her loneliness and feeling of being undervalued and unaccepted, lack of intimacy and warmth.
Just like Cherry, many people have told us that they couldn’t recognize the similarities of their partners to their parents, not just in the beginning of the relationship, but during the first few years either. Some people can control and suppress their unhealthy patterns for a long time… as long as it takes for a relationship to enter routine, daily stress, careless communication and taking one another for granted. But once those patterns emerge, we can, almost without exception, recognize the types of behavior which hurt us in childhood.
“My parents spoiled me and gave me everything I wanted. I can’t possibly see how my (painful and abusive) partnership could have anything to do with them. (…) I remember saying to my partner, “The only people who ever hurt me so much were you and my father!“
(quote from a client)
It seems that we all carry a deep unconscious sensitivity to subtle, almost invisible, signals that trigger feelings of familiarity and intimacy … even if all the outer, more visible signals indicate the opposite. This is probably the cause of the fact that, out of many people we meet, only rarely will somebody trigger an intense feeling of infatuation.
It’s only rarely that there is a combination of potential partner’s qualities that we consciously desire and appreciate, behavior which triggers the hope that our deepest longings can be fulfilled, joined with tiny and almost invisible signals that some patterns complementary to ours can trigger the unpleasant memories to come out. That is the combination which triggers the most powerful infatuation and obsession with the other person.
How our environment shaped us
There are three basic ways in which we create emotional patterns and beliefs that shape our relationships:
1) personal experience with parents: whether parents treat us with love and healthy appreciation, or in a controlling, humiliating and aggressive way, it will be the behavior that will become natural and expected to us, and we’ll probably start to associate it with love. As small children, we’ll also create an impression that it is what we deserve. If a parent acts like a victim, needy or dependent (e.g. addictions), we might develop a deep urge to help him and thus deserve love. In that case, even as adults, we’ll still be attracted to people who seem to need help and sympathy. A big part of our intimate relationships might be described as subliminal attempts to earn love in circumstances similar as when we needed it most – in early childhood.
2. modelling and identifying with parents’ behavior and way of life. Children learn through identifying with parents, taking over their gender roles, behavior, beliefs and prejudice. It all becomes particularly obvious in our intimate relationships.
3. Relationship between parents. The way parents treat each other and communicate to each other, words and idioms they use, the way they share (or don’t share) work and responsibilities… the younger we are, the more likely it is that we’ll accept it as normal. In our own misunderstandings and conflicts with our partners, it’s easy to automatically repeat our parents’ behavior and so create an atmosphere similar as in our early family. We might be so convinced such behavior is normal, that we might not even try to question or analyze our behavior.
A common example of complementary patterns is an emotionally closed, cold man and emotionally hungry, demanding woman. This is partly based on gender differences, but unhealthy family patterns are of crucial importance. Most commonly, such a closed man grew up with a pushy or needy mother, whether she was controlling him or playing victim. He developed coldness and withdrawal as a defense, often following a role model of an emotionally distant father. Sometimes both parents might be needy, or the roles might be reversed. The female partner in this case most likely experienced growing up with a cold parent(s) who ignored her, often but not always father. Trying to get close to him and win his attention, she learned to use different approaches: trying to please him, crying, anger or complaints, sometimes manipulation and playing victim – whatever worked best or whatever she observed from her mother, for example.
A withdrawn, distant partner will trigger father-related memories and emotions in such a woman: abandonment, neglect, feeling unworthy. She will then automatically try to use her childish reactions, first in a mild, then more intense way. Her partner’s own memories are then instantly triggered: a feeling that his boundaries are threatened, that he’s being used and manipulated and has nowhere to hide… except within. Add to that low quality communication by both partners, also learned in their families… and a vicious circle is started, that creates more and more stress, disappointment, anger and resentment. In the same time, such partners hope that the other will change, and feel childish feelings of being trapped, as well as fear of abandoning all hope for love if the relationship is ended.
Unfortunately, most couples start looking for help only after their mutual trust is deeply damaged and motivation almost exhausted. Then even tiny details in the partner’s behavior remind the other partner of all the past frustration and resentment. To start again, to practice noticing and correcting unhealthy emotions and communication together, might be extremely difficult if partners don’t have patience left to allow each other to occasionally repeat old mistakes, while learning to communicate in new, unfamiliar ways.
Some other examples of bonding based on childish emotions:
1. A woman attracted to a domineering, controlling man, who she perceives as strong, decisive and confident, just as she perceived her father who acted in a similar manner. Like she did as a child, she starts to hope that she will win and “earn” his attention and approval, becoming bonded by that hope. The man maybe had a mother who was childish or weak, and learned to perceive all women as such, probably following his father’s model. In the same time, he might feel deep attraction based on unconscious hope that the important woman will finally change, take responsibility and start giving him the kind of love and approval he really wanted.
2. A woman attracted to ambivalent, unpredictable men who act gentle and warm in one moment, only to change into aggressive and arrogant in the next. Their unpleasant behavior reminds her of her childish feeling of not being worthy, but then she longs even more for the comfort and support she feels in the moments of the man’s pleasant and warm behavior. The man is likely to carry a deep inner conflict between different parts of his personality and defense mechanisms. For example, conflict between his healthy, warm feelings and anger and resentment towards parents, or perhaps he had to act one role in front of father, another in front of mother. Such a conflict cannot be resolved by rationalizing, willpower or external relationships.
3. A man full of guilt and self-doubt, who enters a relationship or even marriage mostly to avoid hurting the woman. Of course, such decisions make him feel even more bonded by guilt and suppressed resentment, instead of by love. He might hope for resolution and forgiveness. He might fall in love with another woman, who will trigger his hopes of love and bliss, but will feel too guilty to leave the current partner. His partner might be controlling and manipulative, out of early childish conclusion that she can’t earn or be given love, but has to control people to receive at least some kind of attention.
Everybody who ever fell in love, had a chance to experience to what extent the emotions from childhood are deep and overwhelming, to what extent they evade all rational arguments and decisions. If you are in such a relationship now, you have a perfect chance to recognize how you felt as a child and what do you still carry within. A chance, also, to change those feelings, primarily through healing your inner child, exercising self-love and learning quality communication. Under condition that you’re not abused, it might be better not to force yourself to end the relationship by rational decision only.
If you end the relationship without resolving your emotional patterns first, it’s highly likely that you will repeat similar patterns in your future relationships. Instead, focus on working with your emotions and inner child, until you feel the attraction to the unhealthy partnership diminishing, so that you can end the relationship without strong emotions and inner conflict. Or perhaps you will notice that, the more healthy and mature your behavior becomes, the more your partner will change in a similar way.