I cannot say this enough. Knowing your underlying dynamics will bring you more happiness, peace, and control over your life. You can't really live in the present when unconscious issues from your past determine your choices. People ask a lot about relationships, and I think we need to distinguish between what is done consciously and cognitively, and what is driven by underlying feelings, in which case we then use our rationale to justify it.
One complaint that I hear often is people choosing the wrong partner, over and over. I have seen many successful women, for example, in relationships with men with severe addictions, and they try time and time again to induce the person to stop using the drug of choice. I have known many men who choose women who are emotionally abusive and unstable, and they complain of the loneliness and anxiety of this choice. I have seen women with abusive men, who erroneously think that if they only think of the “magical” thing to say or do, that man will change, as if they have that control over other people. A person can make a mistake. A person can think someone is nice and then see a whole different side and leave right away. I am not talking about that. I am saying that when there is a pattern of behavior that leads to a bad choice, over and over, there is something else going on. To address it on a conscious level will not help and I believe that doing this also prevents people from getting the kind of help that will enable them to understand why they do this.
Labels are very popular now. Some people will say, I’m a rescuer.” Labels do not explain anything and do not help. Having compassion for others is not the same thing as selecting badly over and over. It is well known to therapists that many people leave one relationship only to start a new one with the exact same kind of person. It is very sad, heartbreaking, when people tell you the number of years they have spent learning that there is a pattern and that this has something to do with them. I feel that we owe our clients at least that.
While relationships are on everyone’s mind, the best you can do is learn your own dynamics. A chapter of my book looks at one particular dynamic of the PCS person, a person with a constellation of traits including perfectionism, control issues, and shame. There are others. One of those others that is often seen is the fear of dependence or needing someone. Problems with relationships are inevitable. In theory, relationships offer a tremendous healing opportunity for individual personality issues. In practice, certain issues make relationships that much more challenging.
As human beings, we tend to keep trying to get our needs met; often those needs aren’t even conscious. When powerful needs drive our behavior and we’re not aware of them,
they can devastate a relationship. Sometimes people are aware of hurting others, but they don’t know why and can’t seem to stop. A fear of dependence presents a huge challenge to a relationship. People with a fear of dependence usually aren’t aware that this is their fear. What they are more aware of is that they like to be needed. The sense of being needed makes them feel worthy and secure—a feeling they do not often have. Of course we all like to be needed, but the kind of person I’m talking about has needs that are stronger than the usual ones.
The problem is that people who fear dependence love to be needed so they can balance their fragile self-esteem. But they have difficulty letting others know that they are needed or appreciated too. In this kind of couple, one person has to be the lazy, incompetent, or dependent one in order for the person who wants to be needed to feel appreciated and valued. This is not healthy or helpful for the success of any relationship.
I’ve had many clients who did everything for their spouses and would make little jokes all the time about how their spouse couldn’t survive without them. They were always shocked and hurt when the spouse would reach a point where he or she felt worthless, unappreciated and unloved. For a relationship to be balanced, people must experience both sides. They must both need the other and be needed.
For people who have been let down in the past, the prospect of needing someone else can be terrifying. They see themselves as planning the best vacations, picking the best gifts, and doing all of the most important work in the relationship. While this makes them feel temporarily worthy, they are unaware of the damage this does to the partner when the partner tries doing something for them. They do not realize that if they are the best, by default, it suggests the other partner is the worst.
When the relationship is in trouble, the stronger partner becomes more and more of a perfectionist. These people have trouble believing that this is exactly the behavior that they need to stop, and without addressing their individual issues, they simply cannot stop.
Couples often come to therapy with one complaining that the other does not do enough of something, and the accused will say that he or she is afraid, because their efforts never seem good enough. They have not received gratitude, appreciation, or gotten to soothe a wounded vulnerability, and this becomes crippling to the relationship. They have had to play the weak one to the partner’s perfectionism.
Truthfully, people do not want a perfect partner. People want to feel needed and valued.
It is both sad and ironic that much of the damage done to people in a relationship has been by people not even aware of it, because they are so driven by their own needs. They’re not trying to be sadistic or malicious. But they behave in their insecure world in a way that makes them feel good about themselves and needed. Sadly, this does not allow for the feelings and needs of someone else.
In light of this dynamic, we can understand how someone might consistently choose a partner with severe/unacceptable problems and issues. They feel that this person will make them feel needed, and will be very unlikely to ever leave. It is very tragic to have this be the only force behind choosing a partner, and has very little to do with mature love. By learning one’s own dynamics and growing, it becomes possible to find a partner who presents a chance of helping each other grow and experiencing real love. So often the complaints people have about a partner are the very reasons that partner was chosen in the first place; it just wasn’t conscious.
I will end this by saying again, that giving a label such as co-dependent or rescuer does not explain or solve anything in terms of dynamics. And addressing choices that are so very influenced by unconscious forces strictly in a conscious, cognitive way won’t help. But knowing your own dynamics, processing your feelings, dealing with the real ones instead of selecting someone who can seem to drive them away, can give an emotional freedom I believe we are all meant to have.
Aleta Edwards, Psy.D.
I am a psychotherapist in private practice, with a strong interest in shame and perfectionism. I will periodically post my thoughts about these topics and other observations relating to emotional health.