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Do You Repeat Patterns That Don't Work?

Why your future may end up looking a lot like your past.

Munch/Roberta Satow
Vampire in the Fire/Munch
Source: Munch/Roberta Satow

There is a statistical assumption that the future will look like the past. Although psychoanalysis has little in common with statistics, ironically, both disciplines agree on this assumption. Psychoanalysts believe there is a great probability the future will look like the past because you choose partners who represent aspects of people in your past—mother, father, siblings, etc. The initial conscious attachment may be that a man is handsome or a woman is beautiful or she is so much fun. But the relationships that stick are usually the ones that have unconscious glue that still adheres to the past.

My patient, who I will call Mel, is a financial analyst. His first marriage was to a woman who had a wide circle of successful friends and came from a wealthy family. Mel was drawn to her because he wanted those things and felt he could get them through his wife. The marriage was unhappy almost from the beginning because his wife wanted him to earn more money—like her father and brother. But Mel has continued to be attracted to women who are what he wishes he were.

“I have these ups and downs. I saw Joan last night at a party and I just want to be with her. I’m never going to find anyone better than her.” Joan broke up with Mel about two months ago because she is 10 years younger than him and while she wants to have children, she didn't want to take care of his 3 children on weekends. Initially, Mel was very upset about this realization but accepted that this relationship could not work out. He does not want to have any more children and she does not want to be involved with his children. But as the weeks passed, Mel went hiking with Joan and went to several parties that he knew she would be at.

I asked Mel what made Joan better than any other woman. He said: “She’s talented and smart and pretty. I’ll never find someone like that again.” I noted that those were characteristics that didn’t have a lot to do with having a relationship with someone.

Then I said: “It’s interesting that you don’t seem to count the fact that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with your children.” Instantly understanding the implication, he said: “Oh, God, that’s amazing. I’m more interested in how talented she is than I am in whether she wants to be part of my life and share it with me.”

I asked him how he understood that when his children are so important to him—he is a very loving and involved father. Shamefully, he told me: “She is the proof of my worth. If I am with someone who is talented and smart and pretty then I must be worth something. I don’t feel like I’m worth anything myself.” Mel saw his blind spot.