A question for our time
To know how to find the right partner you need to know something about how people really choose their partners.
Few questions play on people’s minds and popular media as much as this: How do I find the right partner?
Many of us hope that if we know what makes a good partner we can spot a good deal. We research online. We quiz our mates about their relationships. We compare (and often despair). Others wing it and just go with their gut.
In this post I am going to discuss the issue from the point of view of psychoanalysis and attachment theory. To know how to find the right partner you need to know something about how people really choose their partners. I will try to help you start asking what I hope are the questions that matter.
(You may also want to check my new post Top 5 Relationship Killers to scan for some signs that you may need to have a talk with your partner [click here]).
The reason that finding the right partner is often so difficult is this: like many choices in our lives, picking a mate is partly based on unconscious decision making. The idea that we do not not fully know ourselves, that we make decisions for reasons we cannot explain, is very hard to accept for many people. However, strings of unsuccessful relationships bring people to my counselling and relationship counselling practice. In very distraught states, they wonder why they can’t find the right partner and worse they believe they never will. There is a point at which this cannot be ignored. This should be our starting point. We don’t know everything about ourselves.
What do we mean by “unconscious”?
There are probably two categories of unconscious knowledge. The first one is what we might call “procedural” or “implicit”, or what I call the riding-a-bike-unconscious. This involves knowledge or beliefs that are outside of awareness, have been laid down very early in life and are based on our childhood experiences. They are the maps that help us navigate our social world letting us know what is OK and what is not. If I asked you to tell me how you ride a bike you probably would be able to say very little, although you know how to do it. However, you can become aware of these rules, usually with the help of another person.
Examples of unconscious beliefs about ourselves/others/the world that cause trouble:
- If I show anger I am putting my relationship at risk
- If I show emotions others will think I am weak
- I am not good enough
- If I show vulnerability I will be rejected
- If I concede to others I will lose control forever
- If you are not in the top you are in the bottom
The beliefs activate defenses.
Examples of defenses
- I feel angry: Be a very nice person, kind, and polite
- If I start to feel emotional: Change the conversation to something else
- If I start to feel not good enough: Compensate by trying to be perfect
- If I start to feel vulnerable: Start making jokes
- If I am being challenged: Start shouting and dismissing others
- If I start to feel like I am not good enough: Start to think about every time I have failed in something in my life.
There is a variety of defenses for the same belief.
You may notice that the beliefs are quite black and white and that is often how they are.
The second kind of unconscious concerns the “forgetting” of “verbal content” such as painful memories. We are less concerned about this here.
When it comes to choosing a partner, we are interested in one defense in particular: projection. You may have heard of this. Stay with me, we are getting there.
How do we chose a partner?
A lot of what we look at other people we can articulate to ourselves: someone attractive, smart, and funny.
We want to do things we them so we often chose people who have common interests: sports, travelling, books, and films.
We often want someone who is confident and successful.
The problem is that there is also a hell of a lot of processing happening under the hood.
Agreements spoken and unspoken
Psychoanalysis has advanced the concepts “unconscious contract” and “unconscious fit” between two partners. We now need to finally explain projection.
You may be familiar with this idea. “He is projecting”, we say, and we mean he is attributing his own thoughts, feelings, wishes, desires, characteristics to the other person. This is because he finds these unacceptable and he must not acknowledge them, they must remain unconscious. They belong to the other.
Let’s think of a couple called Mary* and John*. Mary is afraid of her anger. She does not want to think, or others to think she is angry. Why? Perhaps because when she was very small she would express her anger and her own mother would say “you will be the death of me”. In Mary’s little mind anger is equated with hurting the other.
One way Mary can manage this is to choose a partner who is naturally more prone to anger. He can then “carry her anger for her”. In technical terms she “projects” her anger into a partner who is a “suitable receptacle for her disowned emotional experience”. But, said partner, John, must also be a good fit for Mary. Mary is quite able to tolerate and feel vulnerable like sad or anxious. So John can then project his sadness and anxiety in Mary. They will make a good fit.
The theory goes, the human mind seeks to grow. This is an agreement with the aim of “by choosing you, slowly, slowly I am going to learn from you and start to take back my anger and you will grow more comfortable with your vulnerability”.
We need both. With anger comes assertiveness and with vulnerability comes compassion.
What can also happen is the opposite. Both partners work towards keeping the status quo and keeping things separate.
This can often bring people to couples counselling. Mary accuses John of being quite aggressive. For sure, John is not a wallflower, but he is not exactly the thug that Mary says he is. However, Mary is terrified of anger because she has learnt it is a destructive emotion. She sees John’s anger and she also attributes her own anger to him. John ends up looking very scary. John projects his anxiety and sadness to Mary. Mary starts looking very very vulnerable to him. They may even start to push each other to reinforce their positions.
So the story goes, there was an “unconscious fit” between those two people. Sometimes the couple do learn from each other and become the best version of themselves, overcoming their childhood wounds. Other times they become further and further apart and the relationship may end.
The bottom line then is
We partly choose partners based on their capacity to tolerate emotional experiences we cannot and they do the same with us. The aim is to learn from them and grow, but it can also lead to a joint effort to keep things the same. That’s when problems arise in the relationship.
I hope this starts a thinking process in you, where you may begin to wonder if there are emotions that are less acceptable to you, but you can see them a lot more in your partner. You may even begin to link these to some unconscious beliefs that explain why the emotion is dangerous.
We probably do not know how much our unconscious attraction plays a role in partner choice, but it is usually very important when things go wrong. This is a sign that the couple have not taken from each other, but have remained as polarized as when they started if not more so.
In the future I will write about some ways that may help to notice that we are “projecting” into our partners and hopefully this can be a tool for reflection. So consider signing up to my newsletter by clicking here. You don’t want Brad from finance knowing all the cool psychoanalytic lingo before you, do you?
Sometimes we do need some help either as an individual or as a couple to decipher our bike-riding-knowledge. So if you want to take a ride into an exploration of your unconscious beliefs & rules, get in touch by emailing me at email@example.com (if you want to come to my Liverpool Street practice) or firstname.lastname@example.org (if you can access High Street Kensington). 07805945233 if you’re old fashioned.
*Mary and John are not a real couple, but a composite of people I have met in the last 10+years.