What makes us attracted to one person over another? What happens when we are continuously drawn to a personality type that we know is not good for us? Is attraction, and subsequently attachment, in relation to a significant other a conscious or unconscious process? The answer to these questions lies in an understanding of attachment templates. This understanding can make a big difference in determining who we choose to be in a relationship with.
Chani’s story is an example of an attachment template “gone awry.” Chani is a middle-aged woman who is divorced. Three years after her divorce, she met Daniel. Immediately, Chani determined that she was not going to marry Daniel. He did not fit into her paradigm of a suitable mate. A few years later, Chani entered therapy because she was experiencing a lot of angst regarding her letting Daniel go. She wanted to better understand what had happened.
We develop a template, often unconscious, of how relationships ought to feel based on the relationship we experienced with our primary caregivers. We are attracted to what’s familiar. According to Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago therapy, we look to repair the early hurt left by a parent, thereby seeking out a partner with similar qualities. In his self-help book Keeping the Love You Find, Harville Hendrix wrote:
Inevitably, the project of self-completion gets taken to our adult relationships. We present our wounds and burdens to our intimate others and expect them to undo the damage created by deficient nurturing. ‘Hi honey,’ we say, ‘I’m home. It’s your job to make everything all right.’
Unfortunately, that usually doesn’t bode well for a relationship. Self-awareness, good communication tools, and the ability to self-soothe make for a much better relationship recipe.
Chani grew up with a father who had a highly developed public persona as a charismatic leader. In his private life, however, he was often preoccupied and distant. At 22 years old, she married, and she described what ensued as a living hell. Her ex-husband was also a charismatic leader who presented himself as Torah observant. However, rather than living his life according to Jewish law, he privately did whatever was convenient for him, twisting or ignoring the laws altogether. He distanced her from her friends and family, claiming the former were using her and the latter betraying her. He dismissed her feelings as being reflective of emotional instability. He insisted that she host for him, which she did, but then never acknowledged her support of him; rather, he claimed that everything she did was for herself. Through it all, Chani kept trying to connect with him emotionally and be a supportive wife.
Chani was describing life with a narcissist. A narcissist is incapable of empathy and has a distinct way of twisting reality to suit their own needs, with the result of making their partner feel like they are going crazy. After 25 years of marriage, Chani’s husband one day picked up and walked out of their home, claiming that the demise of their marriage was all her fault. With their divorce, Chani looked forward to meeting a “nice” man and creating a healthier relationship.
Chani met Daniel. Daniel was a “nice” man, described by others as “what you see is what you get.” He loved her. He was giving to her. And she reciprocated the loving feelings. She referred to him as her best friend but could not see herself married to him. What Chani was up against was her unconscious paradigm of what made a man attractive. Based on what she experienced growing up with her father and, later, living with her husband, Chani was not used to being seen or feeling loved. What Chani experienced with Daniel was new and unfamiliar making her unable commit to him.
One day Chani met a man who was brilliant and successful. A rush of euphoric feelings coursed through her. Chani thought she had found “The One” and they dated. Unfortunately, he was also emotionally distant and often preoccupied. Eventually, he proposed marriage and invited her to go on a trip with him. On that trip she realized her mistake. “My dime, my time,” he responded whenever she expressed an interest in doing a specific activity, communicating that he would decide where they would go. In other ways, too, he was dismissive of her needs and wants. She had done it again—fallen for a narcissist.
Heartbroken, Chani called up Daniel, but it was too late. Daniel had committed to another woman.
Chani’s work in therapy consisted of understanding her early attachment to her father. The “dance” had been set up: she had to work very hard to get his attention and never quite felt seen by him for who she was. This dance played out remarkably similarly with her narcissistic husband. With him, too, she kept trying to connect emotionally and find ways to get him to appreciate her. Without better understanding her attachment template, it was going to be difficult for Chani to create a healthy relationship.
Chani was also struggling to forgive herself. Growing up with an authoritative father and hearing from her husband that she was responsible for everything that had gone wrong in her marriage made it difficult for Chani to forgive herself for having hurt both Daniel and herself. The therapy work made Chani more aware of her internalized “harsh critic” voice—the one that gave her no peace and that was constantly informing her of what she’d done wrong. Her awareness allowed room for a counter voice—a more loving, empathic voice. This new voice understood that it is human to make mistakes. She had done the best she could with the skills and the awareness that she had at the time. Therapy meant nurturing an inner voice that expressed loving acceptance and consolation.
Eventually, Chani moved into grief work. She cried bitter tears as she described missing Daniel—his love, humor, and moments of deep insight. It was a lot to lose. Chani slowly grappled with acknowledging the blessing of Daniel and appreciating that he gave her a taste of a new relationship paradigm. He helped her move to a new plateau in relation to appreciating herself.
Our attraction templates are important to examine and understand. Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.”
Healing our original hurt and working to create a healthy attachment template, enables us to engage more fully in consciously choosing a mate with whom we can build a healthy, satisfying relationship.
Dvorah Levy is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in individual, couple, and family therapy. She maintains a private practice in Cedarhurst and Brooklyn, NY. She works with a wide range of emotional issues providing services that span therapy for anxiety, depression and grief counseling to parenting support, couples counseling and trauma. Visit dvorahlevylcsw.com or call 516-660-7157 to learn more or to schedule an appointment.