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Avoiding Toxic Relationships: Intimacy, Marriage and the Unconscious

(3 minute read)

In my last post, I talked about why many of us marry the wrong person; picking those who remind them of their childhood relationships, or individuals who won’t leave them, or who offer the opportunity to fix a relationship with a parent, or who confirm them in their low self esteem.

This time I’m going to discuss the specific ways people manage to make these relationship mistakes: what is it that happens that takes them down the wrong road — and how to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

Picking The Wrong Person

I once had a friend who married and divorced three alcoholic men. She claimed she had no idea they were alcoholics until after she married them, despite the fact that at least one fiancé collapsed in a drunken stupor at 8pm at a small dinner party. That was an extreme version of denial, but we all, to some extent, selectively ignore aspects of our potential partners.

In the first few minutes of meeting someone, huge amounts of information are exchanged. Much of this is below our level of awareness. We are impacted by the tone of voice, the way someone looks at us and others, the way they include or exclude us or others in conversation, minute facial expressions, the way they hold their body, the things they talk about and don’t talk about. We quickly get a feeling of whether we like a person or not, and often ascribe this to “chemistry”. The truth is, we are unconsciously processing the information we’re getting from the other person, and that’s resulting in a feeling that we like, or don’t like them.

People who are emotionally abusive, or angry, or dependent on substances, or overly distant, or overly dependent — these people send signals about their character and their problems. Most of us sense those signals and draw away. However, for people who are unconsciously headed for a mistake — these signals draw them in. They don’t understand why, but they find themselves attracted and intrigued, drawn in by signals they probably don’t even consciously notice.

Playing Into The Wrong Patterns

Relationships are a complicated dance, where each partner is responding to the behavior of the other, who in turn responds to that response. People who get into troubled relationships don’t just get helplessly drawn to the wrong person; they actively help shape that relationship.

A person who feels worthless and expects to be treated badly will repeatedly tolerate behavior from a partner that most people would find intolerable. For example, they might forgive their partner for standing them up, or being disrespectful in public, cheating on them or borrowing money and failing to repay. The partner soon learns that there are limited consequences to bad behavior. Not only does that allow them to continue, it also lowers their respect for the person, which then encourages further unpleasant behavior.

Similarly, a person who is drawn to people who are dependent tends to behave in ways that encourage that dependence. They see the areas of weakness in the other person, and they step in to help, perhaps even taking over completely. Their partner feels helpless — and incompetent — in the face of such obvious ability, and reacts by doing less and becoming more dependent. Which triggers further ‘taking over’, and so on, until one partner is running the show and the other is doing a good imitation of a beached jellyfish.

Sometimes people find themselves in relationships where they are always the one who is abandoned. This can happen for many reasons, one of which is this: Based on previous experience, the person has a quite legitimate fear of being left. As a result, any indication that their partner is anything less than totally devoted, even besotted, causes anxiety. No partner is able to demonstrate besottedness 24/7, and sooner or later, the person becomes extremely anxious over their partner’s attachment to them. This can result in all kinds of behaviors — jealousy, anger, clinginess, helplessness and even withdrawal. Unfortunately, these behaviors tend to be unpleasant for the partner, and over time sometimes generate the very thing the person fears: the partner walks out on them.

Breaking The Pattern

If you haven’t yet married the wrong person, but you’re afraid you might, then you can make sure you put checks and balances in place to ensure your unconscious doesn’t lead you down the wrong path. That means getting specific input from friends and family about the people you date. What do they like and dislike about the person you’re interested in? How does that person treat you? Do you become a better person around that individual? Do you treat them well? What patterns of behavior do they see the two of you engaging in? When you have conflict, do you fight fairly? Are there things in your relationship that worry other people?

On the other hand, if you’ve already married what you think is the wrong person, don’t despair. Although some such marriages will end, many can be saved, and can prosper. Remember that picking the wrong person is only half the issue: playing into the wrong patterns is what keeps the relationship unhealthy. You have the ability to change the way you behave in your relationship, and that can change everything: Yourself, your marriage, and even your partner. You may have married the wrong person, but you can stay married to the right person.


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