I’ve heard it said that people with troubled pasts tend to attract each other. Do you agree? If so, can you elaborate? – T.F., Detroit
You make me smile, remembering how many people come to my office, especially in the aftermath of a failed relationship, saying, "What is it about me that I keep attracting (these sorts of people) into my life?" And it’s not just individual people.
You say, "I’ve heard it said …" Yep! There’s a well-oiled worldview out there insisting it is no accident when people, for example, divorce alcoholic mates only to find themselves dating/marrying another alcoholic. Many people will go so far as to say that, until we resolve our "troubled past," until we face some important life learning we have been thus far avoiding, then we’ll continue to "attract" that troubled past and yet unlearned learning in the form of the relationships to which we relentlessly attach.
I had a clinical supervisor once with this same worldview. He said to us fledgling therapists, "Whatever you haven’t yet figured out about yourself will make an appointment with you and come to your office for therapy." I laughed when he said that, and I laugh now remembering it. It’s true. He was right.
Sometimes patients will present a dilemma, and I will say, in as many words: "That dilemma is very familiar to me. And I’m still trying to figure it out, myself." In the moment of silence that follows, I’m always curious to see if they will ask for their money back. Who could blame them?
Having said that, I no longer embrace this worldview literally. I see it more as hyperbole – a dramatic literary device that tries to make sense of a felt experience. I’m saying I see the world as more ambiguous, mysterious and random than a literal hearing of this worldview can embrace. Maybe we don’t "attract" anybody, particularly. Maybe we are merely noticing that everybody has wounds and injustices in their past. And, more importantly, maybe we are finally willing to notice the Comfortable Miseries that we comfortably choose, from force of developmental habit, over and over again.
I’m saying the human brain is so uncomfortable with capricious ambiguity, it often retrofits unexamined explanations trying desperately to find patterns. I’m saying it’s just as likely that I don’t attract (people like that); rather, on some unconscious level, I continue to seek and find myself miserably comfortable choosing (people like that.)
It’s odd to say it out loud, but like most people, I easily default to preferring a familiar misery over the risk and work of new, freer and more creative ways of living.
One of my heroes in the field of marital therapy is Harville Hendrix:
"Until Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, it was little guessed that our unconscious minds are deeply involved in our personal choices and that our past interpersonal experiences have a powerful impact on our present adult relationships. The discovery that this was so led to the awareness that our choice of a partner, if it is romantic, is influenced by our unconscious minds more than our rational preferences. The partner we unconsciously choose is dauntingly similar – warts and all, and especially the warts – to the caretakers who reared us. Thus, the needs we want met in our adult intimate relationship – those that were not met in childhood – are presented to persons who are woefully similar to the persons who did not meet those needs when we were children."
So, I would not say we are attracting anyone. I would say we are choosing folks out of thousands, albeit unconsciously.
Neither Hendrix nor I means to be observing a pathology, merely a humanness. When marriage thrives, the partners face these needs in themselves and each other with empathy, nurture and kindness. In marriage’s current cultural evolution, one of the possibilities is an invitation to resolve unmet childhood needs. In simple terms, a good marriage provides both a context for continued healing/wholeness and an expectation that both partners will continue efforts to grow. To grow up. Not the most romantic part; but, among other riches and benefits, great marriages re-parent us.
I like the idea of "choosing" more than the idea of "attracting" because it feels more responsible to me to think of it that way.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Review-Journal. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.