Like Water: Why We Attract Who We Attract

The “water seeks its own level” posts were requested. Here are two of them:

by Susan J. Elliott, J.D., M.Ed.

Look to your mate choices to better understand yourself

Carl Jung said that everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves. People have twisted his words to mean that what we don’t like in another is what is wrong with us.  It’s not quite that simple.

In my books I talk about the concept that “water seeks its own level.” This means that if we want to know what is missing in us, what is lacking in us, what unfinished business we have, what our inner struggles are, we need not look further than the person we are involved with.

Usually our choice of a mate will tell us what we need to know about ourselves and the work we need to do if we listen carefully and look closely.  Sometimes one person can encompass all of what we are looking for and sometimes we change our choices to accommodate different issues.  As we grow and change, our choice of mate continues to reflect what we still need to work on.

Our mates will reflect one of three things and sometimes more than one of these things:

  1. What we are used to;
  2. What is unfinished business within us that we seek to conquer;
  3. Issues within us that we refuse to acknowledge.

In Getting Past Your Breakup and Getting Back Out There and in the Getting Past Your Past Workbook I ask my readers to write out the Relationship Inventory and the Life Inventory.  These two inventories are included in every book because they are the CORNERSTONE of breakup recovery and getting healthy in future relationships.

Why?  Because these inventories will reveal your relationship patterns and your early wounds.  I included these inventories in the books because these exercises helped my clients for many years as it did for me when I was looking at my historical stew – the many moving parts of your background and upbringing that contribute to who you are today and why you do what you do (a friend called hers a hysterical stew).  We have to go back to early relationships to figure out why we’re doing what we’re doing.

If we have had a parent who was engulfing and one who was never there, we might go back and forth between mates of the two extremes or try to find someone who can be both.  We will continue to act out our unfinished business, hoping on a subconscious level, to “win” over that which we have never won.  We continually gravitate to people who represent our unfinished business hoping that we can finish it this time.

The irony is that we pick people exactly like those before and it can never be finished this way.  We pick people who make us comfortable.  It’s not necessary comfort, but comfortable because it’s familiar – meaning LIKE FAMILY.  We are comfortable around that which we know, which is, many times a dysfunctional person who has the capacity to hurt us and probably will.

Another thing we might do is go to the completely opposite end of the spectrum, looking for people who are the opposite of what we have known but if they are still at the extreme ends, there is a whole different set of dysfunction there and in our relationship we will try to cast them in the roles we know.  We will work the last nerve of our partner until they are the one abandoning us or enmeshing us or behaving in a way familiar to what we know.  Another thing we do is accuse them of being what we know and they get fed up and go.  We orchestrate our many problems.  If a person with abandonment issues is with someone with enmeshment issues, they will start the dance at some point.  The person who has abandonment issues will sense the partner moving away in what can be a normal process in a relationship.  The person feeling abandoned (real or perceived) will start to reach for the person with enmeshment issues.  The person with enmeshment issues will start to flee, feeling engulfed, and abandon the person who has abandonment issues.  They will run out like their hair is on fire…yelling, “Trying to control me!  AIYIYI!”

A supreme struggle commences and the relationship can never work because we only know things one way and even if we are initially attracted to the opposite, we will work to make it into what we know.

Whether compliance or rebellion from our partner follows, we are in deep trouble.

We also attract people who will represent our chances to play out our core issues.  For example, if abandonment and abuse are our core issues, we will gravitate to abusive partners.  After the abuse, the abuser will show, at some point, “abuser’s remorse” begging the abused partner to stay, swearing to change, promising that it is all going to be different from now on…this “famous final scene” that plays out within days of a particularly brutal abusive episode satisfies the unfinished business of abandonment.

In acting out our unfinished business we are seeking to conquer it, to have triumph over that which has hurt us.  People who have been abandoned seek mates who will abandon them but who will dangle “I’m staying forever” in front of them.  Getting involved with abusers inevitably results in the “abuser’s remorse” scene, which gives comfort to the abandonment issues because it is a tease that “I’m staying forever.” Only abusers give such grandiose promises when they are trying to pull their victim back into the relationship.  It is in these scenes that the abandoned find comfort on some level.

When things go back to normal the victim is not only abused again, but also abandoned…and they hang on until the abuser is, once again, sorry and promising to be different and never leave.  This is the cycle of abuse.

That is not to blame the victim but to show how abused people can recreate their situation over and over again until they go to their own places to heal their own wounds and not try to hold sway over it in relationships.  It’s never going to happen.

The only way to heal the wounds is to face them and not try to act them out with equally deficient people.

Abusers rarely, if ever, change.  The only way to “win” over an abuser is to leave and work on the abuse issues in therapy and in support groups.  People kid themselves when they think “it will be different this time.”  No it will not be.  If you are in an abusive relationship GET OUT and stay out of relationships until you have done your work.

Not every relationship is in that extreme category.  But we can still look at our relationships to determine what in us needs attention.  For example, if we have been in relationships with people who cannot commit, we must look at ourselves and find out if we are trying to finish unfinished business or perhaps we ourselves cannot commit.  This is the “issues within us we are afraid to acknowledge” type of relationship.

Usually people who are involved with commitment-phobes are either trying to resolve an unresolved relationship with a distant parent OR they are afraid of intimacy and cannot act it out on their own, or both.

If you are still trying to “win” over the distant caretaker, you will be attracted to people who are not emotionally available for one reason or another.  If you are afraid of intimacy because you’ve been hurt so many times before, you might be attracted to someone who cannot or will not become intimate.  You not only quell your fear of intimacy but you have someone to blame.  Sometimes one partner is the person who acts out the same issue for both partners.  Usually in commitment-phobic relationships, this is the case.  It is harder for the person who thinks they DO WANT intimacy because it is difficult for them to admit that they really don’t and they truly hurt over the other person’s inability to commit.  I have had people argue with me that YES I DO WANT COMMITMENT, but their behavior – involvement in a string of relationships with people who can’t or won’t commit – tells me otherwise.

If you look at your partner and your issues with him or her, you can be clued into who in your past you still have issues with.  Our relationships are our best reflection of our emotional health.  No relationship can be healthier than its sickest partner.  If we are used to chaos and dysfunction, we will gravitate toward that.  It is not only what we are used to but it keeps our minds off of what is wrong inside us.

If our family was a dysfunctional mess, we are attracted to dysfunctional messes.  It’s what we KNOW and until we change our comfort zones, it will continue to be what we know.

Usually people who are involved in highly emotional, dramatic relationships are not only used to it and it also gives them a “payback” of not having to look at their own stuff.  How can you go inward if what is happening outside is so exhausting, emotionally draining and time consuming?  You can’t. That is the payoff.  So long as we are involved in these high wire acts of a relationship, we never have to do our own work.

Instead of blaming and staying caught up in the “repeated patterns of the past” it is time to step outside and take responsibility for that which we own.  Which is our own stuff.

There is NO WAY our partner is responsible for everything.  Every addict has his or her enabler.  The enabler feels like a savior and/or a martyr and cannot, for the life of them, understand how they are responsible for all that is going wrong.  The addict is the problem.  Right? WRONG. The enabler/codependent/savior is often responsible for a lot that is going wrong including not making the addict responsible for his or her own behavior.

Many enablers are too busy sailing on the good ship Self Righteous to be able to see their complicity in the on-going sickness of the relationship.  They are getting something from the sick relationship and they have some stake in keeping things status quo.  Yet to tell an addict’s partner this is to risk bursting their self-righteous balloon.   Often the addict has an easier time of getting help than the codependent.

And so it goes…think of your own situation and what you own and take responsibility for it.  Water seeks its own level. Look at your partner and learn from that what YOU need to work on in yourself and then GO DO THE WORK. You can learn much from doing your inventories, going to therapy and digging up what messages and seeds were planted long ago.

If you want to know what is not working in you, look at your relationship.  It will reveal much to you.

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About Susan J. Elliott

Author, Attorney, Grief Counselor, Media Commentator, Motivational Speaker, Relationship Expert, Breakup Coach BA English Mount Holyoke College, magna cum laude, High Honors, Phi Beta Kappa M.Ed., Counseling Psychology, Cambridge College J.D. University of California, Berkeley Licensed to practice law in federal and state courts in NY. Licensed but Inactive in Texas and District of Columbia Creator of the Getting Past Your Past and Getting Past Your Breakup programs, seminars, workshops, bootcamps, videos, blogs and podcasts Author of Getting Past Your Breakup, Getting Back Out There and the GPYP Workbook
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