Broken Pickers — Understanding the need to compulsively choose unsuitable partners

Why do human beings develop the tendency to fall again and again into unsatisfying relationships? Why do we repeat the past, even after developing awareness into the characteristics of unsuitable partners?

During our most vulnerable and formative years, each of us seeks reliable security, empathy, appreciation and encouragement from our caretakers, who serve as our developmental role models. We need to be presented with an array of aspirational skills, talents, behaviors and qualities worth developing over life, such as compassion, humor, creativity, resilience and so on; the human brain is a largely imitative organ, and we need observable targets if we are to evolve and progress throughout life.

While no parent or guardian can be anywhere near perfectly attuned or supportive, dependable caretakers understand how long their children can tolerate a break from visual contact and touch, or go without a supportive and caring structure, before restoring connection. Remember, infants cannot survive on their own, and losing the attention or care of a parent can result in great feelings of vulnerability. For a child to feel secure in the world it needs to be reassured of consistent monitoring; additionally, it needs to know that the emotional signals it expresses—hunger, fear, loneliness, discomfort—are received, understood, accepted and acted upon.  Emotional signals that are not received or understood will be emphasized by additional measures—stomping feet, screaming, other displays—while emotional states that are rejected or shamed will be abandoned and, in the future, experienced as disagreeable, wrong, dysphoric. 

Thankfully, as children grow older, and gain agency, confidence and self-soothing tools (such as security blankets or imaginary companions) the durations can grow longer, the breaks less daunting for the child, the obligations less demanding for the caretaker. Of course, some of the tools acquired to create a sense of security, are self-sabotaging: achieving validation via material success, by competiting with others in the marketplace, seeking replacement relationships through a series of hollow sexual encounters and, of course, the chemical replacements for courage and ease, namely the GABA neural inhibitory factors of alcohol, opiates to minimize the experiences of anger or sadness, the dopamine spikes of shopping, gambling and internet activity.

Until secure feelings of caring relationships have been internalized, the child’s social and psychic development will be inhibited, especially in the realms of emotion or affect regulation (which is primarily under the domain of the cortex’s right hemisphere). The importance of caregiver-infant relationships and family dynamics cannot be overstated, as has been documented by the psychological sciences and now, with increasing research, by developmental neuroscience (note the groundbreaking work of Allan Schore).

Without secure attachment, abrupt separations, losses, family changes and threatening experiences can lead to lasting states of felt vulnerability and unease; as the child grows into teenage and adult years, what is known as repetition compulsions often develop; this, in essence, is a tendency to pattern adult relationships on earlier, childhood templates, interpersonal maps, expectations. The grown child will seek out people whose behaviors remind them of their insufficient parents or guardians*. Why? The desire is to “re-write” the original, disappointing narrative towards a better, more satisfying result. For example, a woman who has endured childhood under the care of a cold-and-distant father will be attracted to cold-and-distant men, hoping to attain the love and support so desperately lacking in their earlier periods of life. Naturally, if she finds a man who is caring and attentive, she’ll invariably lose interest as he no longer represents her father; if he remains indifferent, she remains unsatisfied. And so an unsparing double-bind is created.

Repetition compulsion can be thought of as a desire for a ‘bad parent’ to be changed, later in life, into a ‘good enough’ one, which is, of course, impossible. Seeking to change one's history leads to inevitable disappointments, for the past has already been written and the traumas already experienced, and the needs of people who have grown up amidst unsatisfying relationships can become bottomless in adult years: complete acceptance and caring without break. As the Buddha said, “the world is not enough to satisfy craving.”  And so the disappointment leads to a campaign begins to protest one’s treatment, to demand attention indiscriminately, to expose the adult who currently represents the insufficient parent, as evil and immoral. There is no healthy alternative but to mourn what has been lost in childhood: feelings of love and acceptance.

Another setback, as mentioned earlier, is that the formation of future strategies for emotion regulation are established in infancy. If a child is nurtured by tolerant caretakers, capable of staying attuned and non-rejecting while difficult emotions (frustration, anger, sadness, disappointment, etc) are expressed, the adult version will be able to ‘hold’ and experience the same challenging states without repression or acting out. Children who experience rejection while expressing difficult emotions, however, will feel the need to inhibit or suppress these states, which otherwise bring about great feelings of vulnerability and unease; their earlier rejections are felt once again, and dysphoria results.

The way forward is for adults, or ‘grown children,’ to locate tolerant safe-containers in groups (such as buddhist, yogic or other spiritual communities, 12-step fellowships, social activities, etc), in therapy, or from a spiritual mentor. Communities can 'hold' or create a 'safe container' for emotions that single individuals may find difficult to bear. Once this is established, old feelings of abandonment and rejections are explored (without needlessly and continuously excavating old events), forgiveness for those who’ve failed to meet expectations are practiced, mutually affiliative friendships developed. Finally, new and secure relationships are embedded in the psyche. Relationships in the external world that don’t meet satisfactory levels are put aside in favor of healthy and reasonable boundaries and demands; the interactions in sangha, external friendships and romantic relationships become mutually reinforcing. And so rescue is not sought from one individual, but rather support from as many wise friends as possible. This is the path of healing.

*It is worth noting that parents and guardians who provide sporadic attention—perhaps due to prioritizing work or other relationships over the child—then coddle and indulge their offspring as a way to make up for their inconsistent care can instill as much damage as narcissistic, rejecting or consistently unavailable parents. The child will jump to false conclusions, believing one behavior or another lead to the abandonment, not understanding that the lack of connection was not a reaction to its actions.