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An Interesting Paradox

March 22, 2022

Let’s talk now about an interesting paradox. We are initially drawn to our future partners precisely because of the unchangeable. In my years of talking with couples, when I asked what was the initial attraction, they say things like:

• He was just so funny. The life of the party.
• She was very serious and business-like in her dealings with people.
• He was so hard-working and committed to excellence.
• She could take charge of any situation, and lead people effectively.

Over time, these traits were converted into irritants:

• He can never be serious. Everything is a big joke to him.
• She never lightens up. She just tramps through life as if everything were a burdensome task to be performed.
• He never has time for me or the kids. Work is everything. Getting ahead is all-encompassing.
• She’s so bossy. She has to have her own way, not just with me, but with everyone.

What is happening here? Actually, to a greater or lesser degree, this happens with all of us as we are drawn into close relationships. One major attraction is arguably the familiar. People constantly remind us of people of the past, beginning with our parents and primary caregivers.
One theorist also speculated that we are drawn to characteristics in potential partners that we found negative in our caregivers. The idea is that if we can find partners who exhibit these negative characteristics, we have the chance to set things right. As an example, let’s say my parents never praised me or gave me credit for my accomplishments. So I set out to find a partner who is equally not affirming. This now gives me the chance to get the affirmation I never received from my parents, for which I secretly longed and quite possibly still long to hear. The only problem? Because my partner is equally un-affirming as were my parents, I will pursue and pursue seeking this affirmation, only to be turned away again and again. Interesting theory.
Whether or not it’s valid, it does point to why we seem to seek out the same sorts of people, especially those who might exhibit behaviors that are more negative or even toxic to us. This is especially true for those who come from more toxic households.
People from alcoholic households growing up often seek out alcoholics. Those from abusive backgrounds will find abusive partners. These toxic partners are both familiar (he’s just like dad), and they represent the opportunity to make right what was wrong in my initial family story.
Unfortunately, as you might guess, the present irritating behaviors are now supercharged with emotions from the past. The ability to deal with one another in any rational way, at least around those particular behaviors that represent my toxic past, is constantly compromised.
Remember what I said in an earlier blog post. There is a minimum emotional and relational requirement for each of us to be able to enter successfully into a close, intimate relationship. The less able a person is able to commit, to communicate clearly and honestly, to seek the good of the other person, etc., the less able they are to draw close to another and share lives together meaningfully.
But we’ve now moved toward the toxic side of relationships. Let’s draw back to where the majority of us live, where we can have satisfying relationships, with the occasional ups and downs we all experience. The reason I brought the paradox up in the first place – that we are initially drawn to behaviors in potential partners that have a toxic underside – was to make each of us more curious as to what percolates under the surface for each of us. I have found that the more aware of our behavior and the motivations that often lie hidden behind that behavior, the more we will be able to bring that motivation to the light and alter its toxic effects.
Take some time to think about those one or two behaviors in your partner that you’ve always found most irritating. Think of those persons of the past who also exhibited those behaviors. Now notice how you react to those behaviors. There’s a good chance that the way you react is a stimulus for your partner to repeat the behavior (My husband withdraws all the time. My reaction is to pursue. Now I realize that my pursuit only makes him withdraw faster). Hopefully you now have a way forward, where you can begin to change your perspective and your behavior.


About Dr. Jim Osterhaus

Dr. Jim Osterhaus is the Senior Executive Coach at Leighton Ford Ministries with extensive experience helping ministry leaders and organizations
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