Avoiding the of Seesaw Repeated Toxic Relationships
I have noticed a negative pattern in many of the clients I work with. And I want to share it with you, so that you can think about whether it is operating in your own life and try to overcome it. Here it is: When a person’s early life history (childhood or adolescence) is marked by a difficult relationship with a parent (or both parents), that person is very likely to respond in one of two ways, as an adult—either by reproducing that relationship with others or by forging completely opposite, but still polarized and painful, relationships with others.
Put simply, when we grow up on a seesaw, many of us will either hold fast to the seat we’re in or run to the one opposite us. Too few of us find equilibrium at the fulcrum in the middle.
Think about this example: I worked with a man whose father was an authoritarian who took far too much control of his son’s life. You can picture his son sitting in the seat of the seesaw that was always in the air. His father vastly outweighed him, emotionally. So, the man I worked with had come up with an unconscious strategy to avoid being overwhelmed, again. He chose to marry someone who was so meek that she posed no threat at all of overwhelming him. She was too dependent on him and too unsure of herself. What’s more, he chose a business partner who fit the same mold.
You can probably predict the problems that ensued. These unconscious accommodations to his past pain only set him up for more. His marriage was lacking because there were times he found himself needing emotional support, but learned that his wife was ill-equipped to give it. After all, she was probably very unsettled seeing him as anything other than the strong, in-control partner in the relationship. That was part of the unspoken marriage contract. Similarly, when he was met with challenges at work that required bold thinking and the willingness to take control during a period of chaos, he was the only one able to summon both. It was exhausting. His partner was looking to him for strength, not able to be the source of it. That was part of the unspoken business contract. And that left my client feeling alone and very burdened when the business faced any significant challenge.
In order to avoid making similar choices in the future, it was crucial for my client to see clearly how his relationship during childhood and adolescence with his father was “contaminating” his choices of relationships as an adult. Once he was able to SEE that dynamic and feel some of the pain from being shut down as a kid, he was able to avoid reproducing it. He started inviting his wife to be more “present” in the relationship, and she took him up on changing their psychological “contract.” He grew, and she grew. He actually negotiated adding a third partner—a real partner—at work who was at least as much of a take-control person as he was.
Are you holding on for dear life to the seat of the seesaw you sat in as a much younger person? Or, just as concerning, have you leapt all the way to the other seat? If so, it’s time to find equilibrium. It’s time to find your center. It’s time to turn your pain into power.
Dr. Keith Ablow