The beginning of relationships is exciting and emotional. You can be so distracted by intensity and passion that you discount or fail to notice warning signs that indicate this relationship won’t produce the growth and happiness you desire. Debriefing your experiences allows you to clarify what factors pull you toward relationships that you later find to be neither viable, healthy, nor capable of sustaining the challenges of time.
What attracted you to your husband? One divorced woman had a successful dating revelation. She said with unbridled enthusiasm, “The key to identifying the ‘right’ man is this: If you are at a party where there are ten men, eliminate the three that you are most attracted to, then eliminate the three that you are least attracted to. Get to know the remaining four.” This woman has wisdom! What she learned, through many disappointing relationships, is that the emotions that propel her to be attracted to or repelled by a given person are misleading. She is right. These feelings are generated by a psychological phenomenon called “projection.” Imagine an old-fashioned movie projector, the kind where there are reels of plastic pictures and a light that throws the images of the pictures onto the screen. Your psyche works the same way: it takes images of your positive and negative past experiences (especially ones about which you are unaware) and projects or attaches them onto new people you meet. You respond to particular people (in either a negative or positive way) because they are familiar, because they carry projections of experiences from your past.
Therefore you may be drawn to a man who is like your father, or a man who behaves in a way that you were told as a child is “bad,” but you never really understood what was so “bad” about those actions. Projection is a very complicated concept. What is important to understand is that projection causes unexplained attraction as well as repulsion. To learn from your past so that you can move into the future with strength and hopes of making better decisions, you need to create clarity on what draws you to certain people-what are you projecting? You want your choices to become ones that are consciously thought through and not based on unexplained passion. You know a woman is caught in the web of her projections when she says, “I don’t know exactly what 1 like about the man, but I do know that I feel wonderful when I am with him.”
Moving ahead with strength requires that you do know why you like the people with whom you choose to connect-that you relate first with your minds and then with your feelings. If this sounds “unromantic,” you are right. Choosing a healthy marital partner involves considerable thought, not passion. Sol Gordon, author of Why Love Is Not Enough (1990), discusses the idea that you’ll find many people whom you can “love,” but you will find fewer people with whom you can create a strong, viable partnership.
Now is a great time to become clearer about what attracted you to your husband. As you review the first minutes, hours, days, and weeks of knowing your former spouse, become clear about what drew you to him. Allow yourself to consider any of the features that he might have shared with either of your parents. He might have been like them, or he might have had characteristics that, as a child, you wished your parents had. When choices are based on childhood experiences as opposed to conscious adult wisdom, they typically are unsound.
A Transformative Exercise.
In your journal make a list of the positive and negative attributes of each of your parents. You may want to add lists for any other adults with whom you were close as a child. After you have made very thorough lists, circle the three most positive characteristics and three most negative characteristics of each parent. Remember, a characteristic may be an attribute that a parent did not have. An example of this might be a father who did not have time to give you the attention you wanted. Next make a list of all of the characteristics that attracted you to your husband. Are there similarities in the lists? There are for most women.
The existence of similarities between your mate and your parents is not a bad thing unto itself. The key is learning to think through your choices and become aware of what characteristics are indicative of a healthy mate, instead of allowing yourself to be magically attracted to someone. That magical attraction is an example of “falling” in love. The future goal is to choose with more deliberation and to “step” into love.
What warning signs did you miss when you chose your mate?
The phenomenon of projection is also responsible for blinding you to characteristics in a man that might mean difficulties down the line. For example, Judy, a very bright, seemingly aware woman, was involved with a very abusive man for eight years. None of her friends could understand why she chose to be with such a man. When they continuously confronted her about her choice she responded that they did not know him as she did and that he was truly a wonderful, loving man. She discounted the actions of his belittling her in public and yelling at her often by saying that these actions were really “no big deal.” She was blind to the red flags of abuse.
Judy’s clarity came when she realized that, while she had a very loving father, she always felt that there was something not quite right with her. Her dad didn’t pay as much attention to her as he did her other siblings. Choosing a man as a mate who frequently reprimanded her for making mistakes and for whom she had to continually work hard to earn his love, attention, and compassion set up the circumstances that she had felt as a child, although to an extreme-that she just wasn’t good enough to merit a man’s attention. This realization brought her choice-making criteria to her awareness-attraction was being driven by her childhood needs to try harder. What she knew as an adult, however, was that all people, including her, deserve to be loved and treated kindly.
When Judy reflected on her thought processes over the eight years of her relationship, she marveled at how she rejected the feedback of her most trusted friends and she wondered if she could ever rely on herself to make well-conceived choices when it came to men in the future. She decided that while she was learning to think through her choices more rigorously she would ask her friends for their input about the men she dated and use their feedback to illuminate characteristics that she had a tendency to leave in the dark.
To help you gain more clarity about your projections and the impact that they might have on your choices, ask your friends and your family their opinions. Listen carefully to what they might say and watch any tendencies you might have to be defensive. Use their thoughts to stimulate your own thought processes about how you select people to connect with and whom you are attracted to, and see what lessons you want to consider using in the future.
This article has been edited and excerpted from the book Transformational Divorce with permission by New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Transformational Divorce, copyright © 2003, Karen Kahn Wilson, Ed.D is an executive/personal coach and licensed clinical psychologist who is committed to helping women maintain a positive and constructive focus in their lives. She has worked with hundreds of divorced women, helping them to see the challenges of relationships as “cycles” of potential growth. Dr. Wilson maintains a successful executive, personal and divorce coaching practice with clients throughout the US and internationally. Click Transformational Divorce for more info.
Other articles by Karen Kahn Wilson, Ed, D.
- Creating Clarity
- Embracing Independence
- The Commitment to Move Forward
- Why Divorce Is So Difficult for Woman