I work with a lot of couples which almost always consist of two very lovely and perfectly likable people. Together, however, they are often harmful to each other. They don’t want to be in the situation they are in but they struggle to relate to each other in healthy, respectful and loving ways.
There are numerous theories on why we attract the partners we attract ranging from healing childhood wounds to their strengths balancing out our weaknesses and vice versa. I like to identify causes for problems by simplifying what appears apparent to me so that I can then find effective solutions that actually work.
The one thing that almost all couples I work with have in common is that they have an insecure attachment style. People with an insecure attachment style have relational challenges due to struggling with their own sense of self-worth and somehow trying to find it through their partner.
In their childhoods, their caregivers were not attuned and responsive to their feelings and needs and so did not form the secure bond a child needs to have in order to grow up feeling good about themselves and others. Their feelings and experiences were not validated and so these children are left with a sense of confusion about themselves. No one has reflected their inherent worth back at them and so they have not internalized it.
So far, I have not met an insecurely attached person who does not struggle with toxic shame. Toxic shame describes a sense of worthlessness and defectiveness. It is the belief of being broken or the fear that you might be a bad person.
When we carry toxic shame, we suffer. We also struggle in relationships because healthy relationships require us to open up and be emotionally available, which is something we can’t do when everything we do serves to hide who we are. Because who dares to be seen by another person when they fear that they are defective and inherently bad or unlovable. It’s not a risk we take. We fear rejection and abandonment too much to show who we really are.
And who we are, we believe, is shameful. We don’t feel right. We sense that there’s something wrong with us. Sadly, most of us don’t realize that the only thing that is wrong with us is the belief that there is something wrong with us.
But if we hate ourselves as much as we do, then why would we choose someone like us? We wouldn’t and therefore don’t. But this creates a completely new set of problems: those of incompatibility.
Securely attached people often choose compatible partners is because they like themselves and have learned to choose well for themselves. They partner up with someone who shares many of their preferences and points of view. This makes it easier to navigate life together as our differences are not viewed as problems but rather as interesting enhancements.
As insecurely attached people, we choose unsuitable partners because we don’t like ourselves so we don’t choose someone like us. Typically, we choose the polar opposite, which is exciting at first but often becomes highly irritating the longer you stay together.
The problem is that when we choose someone with opposing views, traits and temperaments, we often choose someone who is often incompatible with us on a practical level. There is always going to be increased conflict when we live with someone who does not share our opinions, preferences or outlook on life.
Not only are we making it hard for ourselves and are setting our relationship up to fail, but we also reinforce our toxic shame. No one feels loved when there is constant conflict. No one feels accepted when their partner disagrees with them most of the time. And so we end up feeling alone, rejected and wholly unlovable.
Relationships are challenging for all of us – secure and insecure – but they are not meant to be a boot camp or relentlessly offer one opportunity of growth after another. There is stretching and growing and then there is martyrdom and enduring. Relationships are not made to practice the latter. That is not the kind of growth that is meant for us.
The growth we are meant to experience shows us the truth about us; that we are not broken, that we are innately valuable as a human being, and that we are lovable for who we are. But no one can give this to us. We need to be willing to see it.
There are some circumstances that help us to do so and there are some that don’t. Choosing a partner just because they are not like you is not a wise choice. You are not really choosing them for who they are. You are choosing them for who they are not: you. You are only choosing them because you have not yet understood your own worth.
Because once you do, you choose well for yourself. You only welcome people you can harmonize with. People who help you see your worth and then reflect it back at you. People you will do the same for. And together you co-create a positive relationship cycle because you see and help maintain each other’s sense of worth.
You are not distracted by arguments over who is right or who has the better and more righteous opinion. Instead of conflict, there will be connection. Connection that heals. Connection that helps us reintegrate all the parts we once mistakenly rejected within us.
And it all starts with one choice: the one to learn to love ourselves.