Peter Quarry is a multi-award-winning psychologist, whose book, If I Were You – A psychologist puts himself on the couch is available in all good bookstores and online. LinkedIn: @PeterQuarry
As St Valentine’s Day arrives for another year, it can be useful to reflect on why so many of us are attracted to (and fall in love with) a certain type of person.
What typically happens is that we feel this magnetic pull towards the person, have an unsatisfactory relationship with them, inevitably split up… and then repeat the same pattern again and again. It’s like we’re locked into a self-destructive habit that we can’t break.
Why we fall in love
There is an interesting explanation for such romantic attraction, called ‘Imago’ theory. Developed by American psychologist Harville Hendrix, it says that most of us have some unresolved damage or wound from childhood. It is something that we couldn’t fix back then because we were young and powerless. So, we seek to symbolically resolve this issue later in life by choosing a particular type of person to fall in love with. Our love interest represents an opportunity to work on our issue, to try and fix it in a way that we weren't able to when we were younger.
So let’s say you grew up in a family where your father abused your mother, both physically and emotionally. As a child you were helpless to do anything about it. So you carry around with you this image, an ‘imago’, of an aggressive person. This is the sort of person you are attracted to and tend to fall in love with. The reason? As an adult with power, you now want to tame this aggressive person, you want to change them in the same way you wanted to when you were a kid, but couldn’t.
In my book titled, If I Were You – A psychologist puts himself on the couch, I reflect on my own case - My mother was a very passive person, who wanted to be rescued from the multiple challenges facing her life, especially after my father died early. I couldn’t help her become more independent and strong when I was a child, as much as I wanted to.
So, I carry around an ‘imago’ of a helpless, stranded individual and this is the sort of person I tend to fall in love with. It creates the opportunity for me to use my adult power to change them in ways that I couldn’t earlier.
Are all romantic relationships doomed?
So does ‘imago’ theory mean all relationships are doomed? Are we destined to keep falling in love with the same inappropriate type again and again?
Fortunately the answer is ‘no’. But we need to do some hard work to get out of this spiral.
Become aware of your pattern
The first step is to become aware of the pattern. I’ve found from my own experience, and that of others, that when the penny drops and one realises what is happening, it can be a major life-changer. Developing self-understanding (also known as ‘insight’) allows you to make more conscious, informed choices. It helps you hear the alarm bell ring when you are feeling that initial burst of attraction and avoid falling down the romantic black hole.
So, ask yourself, what is the issue from my past that I am still carrying around with me, that I still need to resolve? Do the people I tend to be attracted to have something in common? Can I see a pattern? If you can’t answer this question yourself, ask your close friends for their opinion. Often they can see things about you that you can’t see in yourself.
What if you’re already in a relationship?
And what if you are already in a relationship and you realise that unresolved issues from your earlier life are driving the attraction. All is not lost. You need to talk with each other about your respective pasts and share your insights about your ‘imagos’, and how they have influenced you. Honest, open conversation, no matter how painful or uncomfortable it may be, is the key to moving to a newer, higher, better level of intimacy and connection."
(Adapted from ‘If I Were You – A psychologist puts himself on the couch’)
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