It's Not Just Who You Are - But Who You're With
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters are fictitious but represent real situations and psychological dilemmas.
Many people seek partners based on a list of qualifications or instinctive attraction to certain types. These approaches, though popular, do not consider the flavor that will emerge when features they are drawn to co-mingle with their own personality. Different matches create their own dynamics that emphasize or inhibit aspects of ourselves - impacting how we feel, our state of mind and who we become. Even with relatively consistent personality characteristics such as being anxious/insecure, who we partner with affects how these traits play out. Desired qualities, or attractions, typically have little bearing on whether a partnership will create a sustainable match, and instead can lead to unforeseen outcomes.
Roller coaster ride
Attraction to: excitement, emotion, intense connection, “soulmate” feeling
Taylor, 18, never felt so alive and stimulated as with Logan, a handsome, spontaneous rebel who epitomized defiance of norms and authority. Accustomed to trying to please her mom and live up to strict expectations, being with Logan offered a needed escape from feeling controlled and constrained.
Logan brought out a dormant more risk taking and fearless part of Taylor, experiencing a deep connection and identification with this part of him. Taylor saw herself in a new way and felt like she was “becoming her own person.” Experimenting with some defiance and rebellion herself, she rebelled against her mom and others - which Logan encouraged. It was her and Logan in their own bubble against the world.
This fantasy driven dynamic, and the longing for escape, is especially tempting for people who are rule bound, conventional, loyal, and/or constrained by needing to accommodate others or do the right thing. It’s also a common dynamic in some affairs and with people caught in midlife, or other existential and psychological crises who feel empty or trapped and want to break out. When these feelings are activated, submitting to them can have an intoxicating, addictive effect - causing loss of perspective.
In this example, a disavowed part of Taylor surfaced pressing for release. She felt connected and fulfilled in a way she never had, but it became difficult for her to function as before. Overstimulated and overwhelmed by the newfound chaos in her life and lacking grounding, Taylor became preoccupied and destabilized - unable to accomplish things that mattered to her.
Logan failed to provide the stability, space and support Taylor needed to securely develop aspects of her identity apart from the relationship, meet her other goals, or even stand on her own. Ironically, even though the attraction here was fueled by the lure of freedom - the merger and intensity with Logan, pivotal to this dynamic, overpowered previously anchored autonomous aspects of herself and values.
What Taylor needed was to have the chance to develop her own identity and claim all parts of herself - rather than be polarized and use her relationship to channel the “forbidden” part. She ultimately did well with someone a bit edgy who helped support that less developed part of her, but who was balanced and secure enough to allow her to truly be “her own person.”
The illusion of security
Attraction to: “love”/admiration, the upper hand, image: status/appearance
Madison, a “successful” and attractive 28 year old, hid her insecurity behind a publicly confident false self. Growing up with critical parents concerned with status and image, she often felt alone and rejected but learned to compartmentalize negative feelings and parts of herself that would create disapproval. Madison’s pattern of dating men of high status who liked her more than she liked them made her feel secure, providing a base from which she could feel stable and accomplish things without being preoccupied with fear of rejection or abandonment. This “worked” until certain repetitive dynamics developed - either they would become possessive or, if she needed emotional support and showed vulnerability, e.g., during hard times, they became critical and no longer idealized her.
Though being idealized seemed safe because it offered a feeling of security and the illusion of having the “upper hand,” it became unsafe emotionally when she couldn’t live up to the idealized image or role. Moreover, she continued to feel lonely while in the relationship, and then ultimately found herself in situations where she felt stalked and couldn’t easily break away.
As she became more aware of this pattern, Madison learned to connect more with her own identity, respect what felt right to her, and distinguish this from automatic forces driving her that were adaptive in the past, e.g. having to prove her worth, but not the present. She learned to show her hand more earlier on, be more curious - asking questions to learn about the other person - and identify “red flags.”
Attraction to: being taken care of to compensate for areas of perceived or actual real-world deficiencies
Michael, 57, was an intellectual, MIT graduate and man of integrity. He was introverted, insecure and awkward socially - lacking interpersonal skills and emotional awareness. He married Carol, another academic - a dominant accomplished woman who took charge of the relationship. Carol needed Michael to be omnipotent in ways that corresponded to his areas of unusual competence. However, she also required him to be invisible at the same time - but this was something familiar and comfortable to him - and all he really knew. In fact, he felt more loved and “seen” by her than ever before by anyone. Their unspoken arrangement suited him much of the time because it felt safe, protecting him from conflict and the shame associated with exposing his weaknesses.
Over the years however Michael began harboring resentment, feeling alone and trapped when personal career and life decisions that did matter to him were usurped by Carol. Being without a voice in the relationship spilled into valued areas of competence in Michael’s life - depriving him of the feeling of mastery that always sustained him. Carol needed Michael to be engulfed by her, and not exist in his own right if that diverged. Eventually, his anger built up and empowered him to leave, when it finally surpassed his fear.
Michael’s second marriage to Isabella, another bright, strong competent woman, brought out a different side of him. Isabella loved him deeply and was very attracted to Michael - a totally new and exciting experience. But the dynamic she required to fan her attraction (which he was highly motivated to maintain) was for him to be more of a leader in the relationship, and in the more typically “male” role. Practically, this meant having an “edge” by defining his own position and standing his ground when necessary - even being a bit more dominant sometimes.
What Isabella required fell into Michael’s area of conflict and avoidance, but now was connected to an intrinsically powerful enough reward to overpower his defenses and propel him to stretch his limits. This dynamic inspired Michael to master his fears, balancing security with a palatable push for positive growth.
Emotional contagion/ sensitivity overkill
Attraction to: deep understanding, connection with a similar sensitive type
Tracy, 45, struggled with worry, anxiety and self-doubt - often needing reassurance. At first, she partnered with someone more like her. Though it was satisfying when he could understand and connect on a deeper level, they both were sensitive - leading her to frequently worry about his reactions to her and fear driving him away. Further, the emotional climate was intense and variable, which further destabilized her.
Subsequently, Tracy married James who was solid, loyal and steady. He loved her deeply and unconditionally - at first even a bit more than she loved him. James was less sensitive emotionally, so he didn’t always understand her struggles. But because he wasn’t so permeable like she and rarely took her reactions personally, he provided the anchor and support she needed. This relationship was predictable and sustaining for Tracy, providing the right atmosphere for a family. With James, she knew she could count on his belief in her and didn’t have to worry about his feelings or driving him away with her insecurity.
A good measure of the health of a relationship is its effect on our overall well-being and identity rather than how it feels from the lens of a compartmentalized version of ourselves. Fantasy and instinct based attractions can mislead us and play out in unforeseen ways. Depending on the interplay of our own dynamics, unconscious agenda and the mix of both people - the same features that draw us in, for example, security or stimulation and intensity, can operate in the service of growth or at the expense of other goals and personal development. Recognizing unwanted patterns in our relationships can inspire us to rethink the type of partner we may need and be more conscious in our selection.