The reason you’re attracted to someone isn’t why you think

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She likes to cuddle. You don’t.

She loves dancing. You don’t have a sense of rhythm.

She talks incessantly. You are quiet.

Sounds familiar? Sounds like the outcome of the adage ‘opposites attract’?

It turns out matters are a bit more complicated than that. It involves your childhood.

According to Imago therapy, developed by Dr. Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt, we are attracted to a particular person because that person can help us to recreate the conditions of our childhood so we can use our skills as adults to finish growing up.

Man, this is so NOT what I thought when I saw you across the crowded room for the first time. Ignorant me.

How does this work? What is it then that attracts people to each other if it’s not physical attraction?

Three things are at work here:

  1. Consciously, falling in love is a romantic experience with the butterflies in the stomach and feeling on top of the world. Unconsciously though, we are looking to have a deeper need met. That moment of happy recognition is not because you’ve found the ideal romantic partner; it’s an unconscious recognition of someone who matches an unconscious profile made up of positive and negative characteristics of your childhood caregivers. This profile is the “imago” (Latin for image) of “the person who can make me whole again” according to Hendrix.
  2. We tend to fall in love with someone who has the same childhood wound but has a different way of coping with it. You may feel that you were neglected as a child and might have kept those feelings to yourself, never verbalizing them. Your partner might be someone who experienced the same, but reacted by constantly demanding attention.
  3. We tend to be attracted to partners who exhibit aspects of our lost selves, the innate aspects of our personality of which we are not conscious. If we are shy, we seek someone outgoing; if we’re disorganized, we’re attracted to someone cool and rational.

So when we fall in love, when bells ring and the world seems altogether a better place, our brain is telling us that we’ve found someone with whom we can finally get our needs met. Unfortunately, since we don’t understand what’s going on, we’re shocked when the awful truth of our beloved surfaces, and our first impulse is to run screaming in the opposite direction, writes Hendrix.

This is the point in a relationship where couples struggle with anger and disappointment. Some are newlyweds who are shocked at how fast their relationship has deteriorated to conflict and dislike. Others who have been married or have been in a relationship for many years, suddenly find that they can’t stand each other any longer. The common phrase at this time is: we have nothing in common anymore.

If couples knew that they are supposed to help each other grow up, would it change things? Would they still, like so many thousands of people all over the world, settle for an empty, loveless existence “for the sake of the children” or tax purposes or because they’re afraid to grow old alone?

I suppose it depends on whether you accept the Imago theory. And whether you act on it.