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The Truth About Romantic Love

How your parents shape your current relationship.

Key points

  • People often unconsciously choose romantic relationships to heal a core childhood wound.
  • The parenting style you grew up with, whether neglectful or intrusive, has a large impact.
  • It can be soothing to realize there is a reliable pattern to your life, including love.

If you're in a long-term romantic relationship of your choosing, there's a powerful—although often unconscious—reason you chose your partner: to heal a childhood wound.

 Marcelo Chagas/Pexels
How mom and dad shape who you choose.
Source: Marcelo Chagas/Pexels

The pattern plays out like clockwork.

To understand, we must take it back to the mothership: your parents.

Even the best of parents cause, to varying degrees, pain to their children. In the broadest strokes, there are generally two forms pain that parents deliver to their kids.

  1. The pain of neglect: Parents who were too consumed with their own affairs to pay attention to you. They worked too much, drank too much, stressed too much, whatever. The point is you were left to fend for yourself far too early. You show me a ruggedly individualistic child and I will show you an adult intimate catastrophe in the making.
  2. The pain of intrusion: Parents who relied on you for too much support. Perhaps they made you take care of younger siblings, tend excessively to the house, or looked to you far too early in your development for adult advice. Maybe they consulted you about problems in their own marriage. For example, maybe your dad said to 9-year-old you, "I'm so lucky to have you. I could never talk to your mother like this." Or, "You're wise beyond your years. You always know how to make me feel better." Comments like these may have even made you feel good. Special. This is natural and understandable. But you were set up, forced to deal with emotional and logistical responsibility far before your brain could really handle it. Often, people who call themselves "empaths" were asked to handle too much emotional content too early and too often.

Neither pain type is inherently better or worse. And these things certainly exist on a spectrum. Where precisely your parents stood is for you to decide. Importantly, this work is not about blame. It's about discernment. At its best, it's about redemption.

As a neuropsychologist who specializes in the intersection between the brain, emotional pain, and relationships, I'm in the business of pattern detection. Strong psychological work captures the deepest pattern.

People always think their situation is so unique: so complex, so shameful, so irreparable.

But there is a recognizable math to everything, including romance. The task is to find it.

Here's an example, a classic presentation of the problem occurring in many of the couples I work with:

Imagine that you are someone who had Parenting Style #2. You were smothered by your well-meaning but ultimately intrusive parents. So when it's time for you to pick your lover, you wisely choose someone who gives your radical freedom: they're flexible, compliant, accepting. They're not up in your business. They're not over the top with their opinions. Or their emotions. They give you space to breathe. To be.

For a precious moment, it's like a dream come true.

But, also like clockwork, in every long-enough relationship, the dream ends.

At a certain point, the freedom they gave you becomes a noose of absence. You start to wonder: Do they really see me? Why don't they ask more questions? How come they're not jealous? Why aren't they obsessing about me? Do they even care about me?

These moments when our relationships fail us are invariably painful.

But how you hold that pain determines whether you stay stuck or can convert your pain to power.

If you have the consciousness to realize what's happening—to refuse to pretend it's a new fight or a novel grievance and instead look for the pattern that is as old as you—there's a whole new world waiting for you on the other side.

The best advice I can offer is this: If you find yourself with the same problem long enough, it's time to stop calling it a problem and start calling it a pattern.

There is tremendous relief in the accurate naming of a thing.

If I went to a doctor and showed her something on my head and the doctor said, "OMG. What is that? I have never seen ... I just ... I mean ... I don't ... I need you to hang on."

And then she leaves, only to reappear wearing a hazmat suit, I would feel awful. Panicked. Hopeless.

But if the doctor offers: "Oh yeah, that old thing," I am immediately calmed by her recognition of my pain. But there's a more powerful point here: She can only recognize my pain because there is a more universal pattern.—a pattern that does not belong just to me but to many.

When you understand that there is a reliable pattern to your life, including love, it's soothing.

You do not have to travel this road alone because plenty have been here before.

When you come face-to-face with the oldest of your patterns, you are offered two choices: to do what you have always done and get what you have always gotten.

Or to step past the edge of your old childhood self and find the freedom necessary for true adult love.