In nearly 30 years treating intimacy issues, I have encountered just about every imaginable permutation of “love trouble.” Almost always, the ways in which clients relate to and connect with others (or struggle to relate and connect) reflects what they learned in childhood about bonding and attachment.
Before talking about relationship pathology, however, I want to briefly mention the people that I rarely see in therapy—individuals who grew up with consistently and reliably responsive caregivers who modeled the unconscious rhythms of healthy love and connection. These are people with an inherent ability to trust, bond, and connect in healthy ways. They are secure in their attachments, and they tend toward non-reactivity in relationships. And good for them. When things go wrong, they naturally lean into enduring relationships with family and friends, and they use that support to grow and move forward.
The people that I see in therapy are different. These individuals experienced less than ideal attachment relationships in childhood. As such, they did not learn to become vulnerable in ways that help them bond without fear of a dysfunctional response. For them, achieving something as simple as basic trust (in dating, marriage, or even friendships) can be incredibly difficult. Thus, they find themselves struggling to develop and maintain meaningful adult-life intimacy. For the most part, these cognitively competent but emotionally impaired folks find themselves repeating the problematic yet familiar style of insecure attachment they learned in childhood.
Much of the time this happens unconsciously, and all the client knows is that he or she just can’t seem to get it right with romance and other important relationships. Other times, clients are consciously aware that they are repeating an unhealthy pattern. Either way, the results are the same—they don’t know how to find and maintain a healthy relationship.
With romance, the problematic patterns of relational behavior generally fall into one of five categories, delineated below.
- The “Same Person” Dater: These clients say the people they date have different names and faces, but the same fundamental problems. Basically, they repeatedly date people who are addicted, abusive, emotionally and psychologically unavailable, prone to infidelity, in love with someone else, etc. Whatever the problem, these clients’ choices nearly always mirror the neglect, enmeshment, abuse, and inconsistency they experienced when young. On the rare occasions when one of these clients does date someone who seems different (“Hooray, this one’s not an alcoholic!”), they find that the person is profoundly problematic in some other important and relatively similar way.
- The Fantasy Dater: These clients conflate sexual intensity and love. They turn casual sexual encounters into fantasies of love and intimacy. They tend to have a lot of sex, even though what they’re hoping for is love. Every time they have a hookup—especially if the other person is kind, engaged, and good in bed—they think they’ve found true love. Nearly always, these clients were objectified and sexualized at an early age, often by a caretaker, and that abuse has created their confusion about the difference between sex and love.
- The Serial Searcher: The early stage of meeting someone new and feeling the rush of early romance is known as limerence. Limerence is when the other person’s existence seems like a gift from God because everything about him or her is freaking perfect. Limerence is a vital (though temporary) stage in the development of longer-term romantic connections, serving as the glue that keeps us together while we work to build a deeper bond. However, some people think that limerence should continue forever. And when it doesn’t, they either break things off or behave in ways that cause the other person to break things off. Often, they’re on to the excitement of a new relationship before they’ve fully ended their current relationship.
- The Push-Pull Dater: These individuals desperately want to develop an intimate connection, but they start to panic when that longed-for someone starts to get close. This occurs because they learned early in life (thanks to neglect and abuse) that others can’t be trusted. So, they invite people in, promising healthy love and intimacy, but then, when the other person accepts their invitation and moves toward them, they push that person away. They do this with anger, disinterest, infidelity, and any of a hundred other tactics.
- The Intimacy Avoider: The most frequent message these clients provide is, “I give up.” They complain that dating is too painful and they would rather be alone, even though feeling lonely is awful for them. Two roads lead to this type of full-blown intimacy avoidance. Most common is the client who’s tried and failed so many times that pursuing intimacy no longer seems worth the effort. Other intimacy avoidant clients find feelings of deep connection almost intolerable—almost always the result of profound physical or emotional abuse and/or neglect during childhood.
Whichever dysfunctional relationship pattern a person is stuck in, the process of healing and engaging in healthier and more rewarding forms of intimacy is the same. First and foremost, these clients must accept that they have a “defective picker,” meaning they’re just not that adept at choosing people who are good for them, and they’ll need to consciously approach relationships differently to overcome that. There are three steps to this:
- They need to figure out what they can and cannot accept from others with whom they’re in relationship. Based on that, they can identify the red flags they should look for before they start dating or continue dating someone. If they have a pattern of dating alcoholics, they should be wary of anyone who wants to have their first date in a bar, or who drinks a martini and most of a bottle of wine with dinner.
- They should identify character traits that are appealing in another person—employed, not self-centered, has shared interests, etc. Being able to identify positive as well as negative traits in a potential partner leads to better decision-making.
- Once they have a better idea of what they are and aren’t looking for in a relationship, this information should be shared with supportive friends, counselors, and family members—a “posse” that can and will hold them accountable for their dating decisions, pointing out things like, “Sure, he’s handsome and funny, but he’s unemployed and lives with his parents. Do you really need another guy who’s going to use you and take advantage of you?”
Before closing, I should state that some individuals who struggle with intimacy were very deeply traumatized in childhood, and these clients often need various forms of healing therapy before they can feel safe while seeking healthy intimacy and connection. In such cases, the three-step process described above may need to be put on hold while the client develops ego-strength, reduces shame, and develops a better understanding of how to recognize, form, and maintain healthy relationships. In time, however, even the most deeply traumatized individuals can develop feelings of “earned security” in relationships, in turn enabling them to form and enjoy healthy intimate bonds.