During marriage counseling, I was told by no fewer than three mental health professionals that we marry one of our parents.
After the first one said it, my ex and I stood in the parking lot outside his office building and mutually agreed, “That’s a lotta Dr. Phil bullshit!” But the third therapist took us through a process that identified which of my parents I had married, then led us through an exercise that put a big, expressive, tear-gushing exclamation point on the truth of it. It was one of the most emotional, revelatory experiences of my life.
How appropriate the sessions were held in the dimly lit, low-ceilinged basement of an unassuming, small office building in my own neighborhood. Into the rabbit hole of our childhoods my wife of twenty-five years and I tumbled. What I saw down there rang true, like the details of a hazy, half-remembered, fever dream from childhood, suddenly recalled and focused. And so I tried to grip the feathery, blow-away edges of those truths and understand the formative events that led to my impulses.
The theory that we marry one of our parents begins with the idea that we grew up in conflict with a particular parent. It can be as devastating as sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, or as simple as a longing for the nurturing and love a parent withheld. When we encounter people later in life who have personality traits similar to that parent, we often connect with them. Subconsciously they speak to our hardwiring because we know how to play a role in that familiar relationship. We may even see promise of the emotional resolution we’ve always yearned for but never got with the parent – The nagging itch that never got scratched.
We yearn to be loved by THAT kind of person.
In the same way that good dramas require conflict, seems life is more compelling when we have something to push against, which might explain why we pursue things that actually make us unhappy.
Late last winter I had a couple interesting, intense dates with a lovely woman named Jan. I’m a talk show host on a date – part Johnny Carson, part Dr. Drew, so better be ready to talk about your life in detail or hear about mine. Over the course of two evenings I coaxed out of her stories of an emotionally abusive father, an emotionally abusive ex-husband, and an emotionally abusive ex-boyfriend. This cute, fit, brunette mother of 3 told the stories with no air of victimhood, like it was just bad luck. Clearly a strong woman, she talked like she, “ain’t takin’ that shit no more.” But the first thing I thought once the common threads of those three men dangled in front of my face: I don’t stand a chance with this beautiful, dynamic, intelligent, hardworking gal. Why? Because I’m not silent, emotionally distant, or abusive. I’ve got my own issues, but not those.
Jan didn’t choose her abusive dad, but she chose the husband and boyfriend. They may have been assholes, but she’s the common denominator. She knows their traits, understands them, and knows what to do with them. Whatever the abuser’s best behavior at the start of a relationship, those qualities speak to her, to her imprinting, perhaps echoing the joy and relief she felt at the moments her father actually treated her well. She can say all day long she’s looking for a kind, loving man, but I’ve met way too many woman – friends and lovers who expressed that delusion, only to watch them fall for the next charismatic abuser who showed up.
First time I faced this I was a teenager. The girl even sent me a tender birthday card gushing about what a “Nice guy” I was. It had a picture of Charlie Brown on the front. She soon dumped me and went back to the older, ex-boyfriend who had cruelly, sexually abused her.
It’s not just women choosing unconsciously and poorly. On another date with another bright woman, I shared my belief that while many women say they want kindness, they often don’t choose it. She rolled her eyes and shot back, “And men say they want an intelligent woman, but how often do they actually choose one?”
Now, don’t mistake my harsh honesty for disrespect. I’m feeling utter sympathy in these moments . . . and maybe my own dysfunctional urge to fix things for them. That illusion is called the “savior complex.” It’s about being attracted to “birds with broken wings,” thinking you’ll save them, lighten their burden and get their love in return. I had a lucky childhood. My male and female role models were fixers. They fixed people’s problems. I know how to do that. I know how to play that role. And in my love life I’ve chased that fantasy even when it didn’t serve me well. That’s why women who are attracted to abusers have broken my heart regularly. I fall for them thinking I’ll fix them, but that doesn’t speak to their hardwiring. Don’t get me wrong, they want to be happy – but unfortunately they’re just not attracted to people who can make them happy.
Which is kinda a problem.
Somehow as adults, we seek roles familiar to the skill sets we learned as children. And it seems to form what we think we’re worth, what we deserve, what we’re worthy of, where we “belong.” And it can go way dark and way ugly.
Long ago in my teaching days I worked with another teacher, Mike. He was lovably nerdy, a good guy, and a good teacher.
The week before classes started one August in the 1990s I stopped in the empty central office of our school to check my mailbox and heard fingers typing furiously on a keyboard in the back room. I poked my head around the corner and found Mike at a keyboard, sweating bullets.
“Dude, you okay?” I asked. He motioned desperately for me to step in and close the door.
In a confession that clanged like fire crackers set off in a dumpster, this seemingly kind, gentle man explained that he’d been arrested during the summer for child molesting. “I want you to know that I never touched a child,” he said urgently. At this point, I didn’t care, I just wanted out of that room. “I was molested as a child,” he said. “I know I’m screwed up and I need help and I’m gonna get it. But I plea-bargained that I would never again work around minors. So I’m typing up my resignation.”
This guy was a great teacher. Visiting grads stopped in before holidays for years after asking me where he was, saying they wanted to thank him for preparing them for their intensive college courses.
I guess beauty and damage are tangled together in all of us.
I totally believed Mike when he said. “I got screwed up as a kid.” And as an adult he got caught doing weird, upsetting things near children, things that echoed what was done to him in the real life nightmares of his childhood. It excuses nothing, but explains a lot. Though I wish he hadn’t, he told me the whole story. Things I can’t unhear, though I wish I could.
How do we get imprinted so deeply in the half-forgotten dream of our childhood? Following and re-acting out the hurt of our early years like little ducklings who got one good look at their mother, whether matron or monster at just the right developmental moment, and so would follow her or anybody who looks like her off the edge of a waterfall, again, and again, and again, thinking this time it will be different, or more likely, we’re not thinking at all, just following a feeling.
The psychiatry world tells us that children who were abused often grow up to be abusers? That’s their norm. That’s what their roll models did. You think it would be the other way around – that they’d resolve to be different. But the human mind is a rabbit hole with immeasurable variations.
Even folks like me with minor childhood issues can find it hard to shake their imprinting.
Even folks like me with minor childhood issues can find it hard to shake their imprinting.
Just like I read between the lines on those two dates with that lovely women named Jan – the one with a habit of choosing abusive men? Any psychologist reading this story is reading between the lines, doing what any smart person does when they hear someone judging others; they’re pulling my common threads together, for often judgments say more about the person pronouncing them than about those he’s judging.
There was another rabbit hole in my life, one that at first looked like clear-eyed, adult clarity.
In a spare, darkened bedroom, on a mattress that lay flat upon freshly refinished, blonde oak floors, in a late night argument with a woman I dated after my marriage ended – a woman I thought I loved more than anyone else I’d ever met in my life – she silenced our angry debate with a simple, searching observation about herself, and me. Lying on her stomach, leaning up on elbows, her long, dark hair falling over her shoulders, she softly but urgently whispered at me, “Well maybe I’m attracted to birds with broken wings – thinking I’ll fix them.”
Occasionally, in that bed I awoke in a sleepy fog in the middle of the night to the glow of an iPhone screen cast against the wall. I’d turn to find her using it as a flashlight, her face illuminated in the blue-white glow, writing furiously on a small notepad. First time it happened I mumbled, “What are you doing?” She replied without looking up, “Writing down my dreams before I forget them.” She told me often she wanted to understand her dreams, tease out their hidden meaning.
The night of that earlier argument, we fell asleep back-to-back, then woke in the morning with our arms apologetically wrapped around one other.
But that didn’t fix anything. How I wish it could.
You see, I was still me and she was still her. We talked a lot about changing for each other, but never got there. The tea leaves of her dreams and my rabbit hole journeys with a therapist couldn’t outrun our old impulses or keep us from stomping out the last remaining embers of each other’s innocence.
Though the relationship ended painfully with us at odds with each other, perhaps we were more alike than we ever realized – both of us fixers, trying in vain to repair the other person’s broken wings. And how that urge got imprinted on our little duckling hearts in our long distant childhoods is anyone’s guess.