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I Thought He Walked on Water...

Many years ago my mother was on her front porch which faces a lake.  My father was down by the lake doing work.  A few moments had passed when my mom heard my father shout up to her “Look Syl, I told you I could walk on water.”  As my mother turned, sure enough, there was my father walking across the lake.  

What I have left out of this story is the fact that it was the dead of winter.  His ability to walk on water was just an illusion.  My mother was actually on the porch to watch over my father as he needed to walk on our lake for one reason or another.  Being a good partner, my mother watched, intently taking care of her own needs on the porch yet, at the ready to provide support to my father if need be.   Having been in relationship with my father for many, many years my mother came to know a few things:  She believed in her heart my dad could walk on water.  She knew the importance of showing and telling him that she believed in him.  Having seen him “fall” into the very water he walked on she knew he was human – had disappointed her in the past and would likely do it again in the future.  She knew that accepting him for who he was while maintaining a sense of who she was is what kept her with the man who still gave her goose bumps after all their years together.  She also knew she wanted to throttle him about 200 times a day.

So why is that?  Why do we fall in love with and/or attract people who drive us completely crazy?  Why do we begin with Superman or Superwoman only to end up with Clark Kent or Lois Lane?   One source of answers comes from Imago Relationship Therapy.  In the book titled Getting The Love You Want: A Guide for Couples Dr. Harville Hendrix (1988) explains “each one of us is compulsively searching for a mate with a very particular set of positive and negative personality traits (p. 8).  Typically, the negative traits are more influential (p. 34).”  Most people are “attracted to someone who has the predominant character traits of the people who raised us (p. 14).”  According to Dr. Hendrix, co-founder of Imago Relationship Therapy, most people seek out people with particular traits in an effort to heal old childhood wounds inflicted upon them by their primary caregivers. 

So then why does my mate or friend change from what I was initially attracted to?  Your mate or friend does not necessarily change.  They are who they always were. Their best self is what was experienced in the beginning of relationship coupled with your unconscious projections of what was desired to be seen in them.  In the beginning of any relationship there is risk of seeing what one would like to see in a person; the characteristics that were yearned for in one’s primary caregivers.  Because the negative traits in caregivers may have caused wounds, many individuals subconsciously seek someone to heal those wounds.  According to Dr. Hendrix’s and Helen LaKelly Hunt’s theory the brain is trying to “re-create the conditions of your upbringing, in order to correct them” (p. 31). So, in the beginning of many relationships both participants are on their best behavior and typically both participants have on rose colored glasses that were obtained in childhood. Those “glasses” alter their perception of the very person standing in front of them.  Once your mate relaxes and no longer feels the need to put their best foot forward and the rose tint on the glasses begins to fade what is left is a mixture of a person very much like the people experienced in childhood.  Yes, you are back at square one!  What is that saying about never being able to go home again…?      

Why do I get so frustrated with my mate?  Many people who have traits that had to be repressed, disowned, or erected in childhood are attracted to those same traits in others.  Therefore, many people seek out individuals who have parts of themselves intact that they themselves do not.  For example:  If a person is shy they may be attracted to a person who is social.  When Shy was growing up he may have been told to be quiet, that his presence did not matter.  Shy therefore disowned the parts of himself that were outgoing and social.  When Shy met Social he felt like life had been breathed into him.  Social’s outgoing ways appealed to Shy and he felt drawn to them.  A part of him that was disowned had now returned and was being expressed albeit though this other person. 

Over time, Shy came to resent Social because Social was exhibiting traits Shy was not allowed to express as a child.  Shy tried to quell Social because Shy learned as a child that expansive traits were potentially dangerous.  It meant that caregivers would disapprove or worse, possibly abandon.  Now these traits expressed by Social irritated Shy and triggered a fear response in Shy because Shy unconsciously associated the feeling with past events not with what was happening in the present.  At times, fear may be expressed as anger.  Shy became angry with Social in his attempt to subconsciously keep both he and Social safe.  Shy sounded and acted like his critical parent and begin being critical towards Social.  Social resented Shy for trying to change her and became confused and hurt as to why her once loved trait is now so unlovable. 

If Shy and Social are not able to successfully communicate and understand where each are coming from the relationship may ultimately end unless each are dedicated enough to the relationship to work to heal themselves and help to heal each other.  If left unchecked, the likelihood of each person recreating this same scenario in a new relationship is quite probable.

 So what can you do?  A beginning would be to read the book Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples.  Another option is checking out the Imago Relationships International website:

Keep in mind the qualities we do not like in others are typically qualities we ourselves hold (or maybe repressed, disowned…). 

Hendrix, H. H. (1998). Getting the love your want: A guide for couples. New York: Henry Holt

Rebecca Cowell, MS, LLP, CBIS, BCBA, CIRT

Limited License Psychologist

Board Certified Behavior Analyst

Certified Imago Relationship Therapist