In my last post we looked at some simple ways to start increasing your self-knowledge in relationships.
Whether you prefer to talk about zodiac signs or attachment styles, whatever gets you thinking more deeply about who you are and why you act the way you do is going to help.
But of all the ways to increase your self-knowledge in relationships, there’s one that I’ve found particularly powerful.
It’s the most comprehensive theory I’ve seen on why we fall so hard for the people we do, and I’ll tell you what it is in just a moment.
But first let me rant for a second…. 🙂
As a woman, do you ever feel sick and tired of the mountain of advice telling you how to be more attractive to men? (Oh, yes, I’m guilty, too!)
Sure, attraction will get you someone to date. Attraction can get you a boyfriend.
But what attraction cannot do is deliver that powerful knowing that you should be married to this person.
Try this exercise. Look at all the married couples you know. Then look at all the married couples around you. The next time you go out shopping, look at the couples who are shopping together. Then tell me this:
Can you honestly conclude that being “attractive” is a requirement for love?
When I look around, I see couples of all shapes and sizes.
I am baffled as to why some of these couples ended up together. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to why people marry who they marry.
And that’s because the reasons we feel so powerfully drawn to one person over another lie beneath the surface.
They have to do with an unknown part of ourselves responding to mysterious cues in the other person. They’re irrational and illogical…
Until you do the work to bring them to light.
That’s what I hope I can start you on today: a process that will help you understand NOT what makes you attracted to someone…
But what makes you so powerfully pulled towards that person that you will marry them even if you know it will destroy you.
The Love We Seek
About 16 years ago, I sat in a little café scribbling away in my notebook.
In front of me was a copy of Keeping the Love You Find, a book for singles by psychotherapists Harville Hendrix and Helen LaKelly Hunt.
The book originally came out in 1992, and parts of it haven’t aged well, but the core of it is simple:
Here’s why you fall in love with the ONE person with the power to rip your heart to tiny shreds…
And here are some exercises to help you figure out your unconscious programming, so you don’t keep making the same mistakes.
Hendrix and Hunt are the creators of Imago theory, the idea that we are irresistibly drawn to relationships that seem like they’ll give us the love we always craved as kids.
Have you ever heard someone say that women tend to marry their fathers, and guys tend to marry their mothers?
This is similar to that, but it goes much deeper.
It’s not that we tend to fall in love with someone who reminds us of our opposite-sex parent.
We fall in love with our imago.
Meet Your Imago
Your imago is your image of ideal love, the perfect love that makes you feel safe and held and cherished and adored.
You began developing your imago as a child. From the time you were born, you felt warm and loved when your parents or caregivers did certain things, and you felt alone and abandoned when they did other things.
Each and every one of those experiences was a building block.
You absorbed both the positive and the negative, and combined them into your own uniquely personal template for love—all beneath your conscious awareness.
Then, as you grew into adulthood and went out into the world to find a mate of your own, you sought out love that matched that unconscious template. Love that felt familiar to you in all the right ways and all the wrong ones, too.
Sometimes you’d meet amazing men, but they just wouldn’t feel right to you.
Other times you’d meet men that you knew were bad news, but something inside you recognized them. It felt like putting on an old comfy coat.
How You Know It’s Love
Imago theory challenges the idea that what we are attracted to are the “attractive qualities” in another person.
The head isn’t choosing who we love.
The heart is, and the head justifies the heart’s decision.
The heart remembers what it felt like to be treated as a child. The unpredictability of your beloved father or mother. The way they talked to you. What took them away from you emotionally, and what brought them back.
And it recognizes some of those qualities in this man.
He has some of the same traits as your parents, but you’re so in love that you don’t make the connection. You just feel like you’ve met your soulmate. You feel at home with him. You feel like you’ve known him all your life.
I used to believe that this is how you knew it was love. When you were with him, it felt like home.
That’s what an Imago match feels like.
It feels like coming home to a person.
But once you marry each other, or you settle down into a committed relationship, the true nature of the Imago match begins to show.
You begin to drive each other crazy.
Our beloved parents, as much as we love them, also have the ability to drive us crazy like no one else.
We need their love so much, and it makes us so vulnerable. Their human imperfections feel like a betrayal.
The fact that you’re getting hurt again in the same way by your romantic partner isn’t a cruel twist of the universe, though. It’s an invitation.
You are being given the chance to do your childhood over again, but THIS time you are an adult, and you have the wisdom of adulthood, and you have the capacity to heal what hurt you so much back then.
For Hendrix and Hunt, marriage is a vehicle to heal our deepest wounds.
Wherever we felt unloved as children will come up in our adult relationships for the purpose of healing.
Hendrix and Hunt believe that marriage is so important because it’s supposed to be the unbreakable vow. The pain that will come up as a result of an Imago match will be so intense that only the bonds of marriage can keep two people together through the arduous process of healing.
Now, that’s not what we’re TOLD marriage is about…
Marriage is supposed to be about love and support and partnership.
But for so many married couples, marriage does feel like an ordeal. It’s tough. It’s painful. You don’t always feel loved in it.
And that’s where Imago therapy can help.
Hendrix and Hunt developed a style of couples therapy that helps couples really listen to each other and feel supported and loved. There’s lots of resources online if you want to check it out.
But when you’re single, what you need to do is understand your imago and why it’s leading you to partners who have the capacity to hurt you in all your most vulnerable places.
Do The Work
I wish there was a newly updated edition of Keeping the Love You Find, because, as I said, it’s 30 years old.
But I found the exercises in that book so helpful all those years ago.
I was getting over a painful breakup at the time, and I was shocked to figure out that the man I’d recently broken up with had many of the same qualities as my father. I was like, Yes! I’ve figured out my imago. It’s not going to trick me next time.
Except that I went straight into another relationship with a man who turned out to have many of the worst qualities of my mother. Groan… Out of the frying pan into the fire.
What I came to realize is that THIS is the work.
We pick these partners because they’re the perfect people to help us heal old wounds.
If we have self-awareness, and they have self-awareness, we can come through the fire and feel loved and whole in a way that’s impossible to achieve any other way.
So don’t be so quick to believe that you have to be attractive to attract a man.
Men fall for women who are an Imago match, who remind them of the people who raised them and the way they were loved long ago.
And when you find yourself hurting the man you love and not understanding why, and when you find him hurting you and not understanding why…
Look back into your childhoods for answers.
How is this like the past? What are you being invited to heal?