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Matters of the Heart aren’t Rational

       When I was studying at a psychoanalytic institute many years ago I heard the saying “we all marry parts of our mother and father”. At the time being a single man I thought this idea was a bit extreme. Now after 30 years of treating couples and from my own personal experience I can say it is not so farfetched. Of course it stands to reason that we are attracted to what is familiar, particularly familiar behavior. People often wonder why they pick people to love who ultimately present them with the same conflictual issues they experienced in their families. It seems paradoxical but in fact it makes good sense. We return to the scene of the crime whenever we have not resolved old issues, whenever we don’t understand how our emotions regarding love developed.

   Babies learn to love their parents without knowing if they are beautiful, handsome, intelligent, rich or poor. It is not an intellectual exercise. The memories of these early experiences, when we are cognitively not able to discern what appropriate behavior is and what it is not, are recorded deep in our psyche without our awareness. We remember experiences based on feel far more than experiences based on fact.

                                             But Love Should Make Sense!

    Intelligent people often become disturbed because they falsely believe that because they are intellectually quite capable they should be able to pick the right love partner. Not so I am afraid. Bill Clinton by all accounts is quite intelligent, has a highly developed capacity for empathy, yet he had an affair with an intern in the white house. We all know quite capable people who seem to make ridiculous choices in love relationships. When we fall in love all reason goes out the window. Why? Because matters of the heart are not governed by reason. Until we understand the story we created in our minds about ourselves and love early in life we are governed by those initial experiences.

                                              Returning to the Scene of the Crime

     Let me give you an example. Recently I began working with a woman in her mid-thirties who was referred to me because her marriage was falling apart. She called shortly after her husband was arrested for a DUI, driving under the influence. She is an attractive, intelligent woman who one would think would have been able to choose a good life partner. Marie’s husband by all accounts is an active alcoholic. The irony that troubles her most is that when she met Paul she was determined to pick someone unlike her father. Her dad, who she loves dearly, is also an alcoholic. She has tried to rescue him throughout her life; he has never accepted treatment, refused to go to AA and to this day remains active and a constant worry for Marie. So why would she return to the scene of the crime if alcoholism caused her so much pain?

                                              Matters of the Heart Bring us Back in Time

   We return to our past behavioral patterns that were emotionally hard wired if we have never worked on understanding our story and resolved past conflicts. Today Marie realizes she denied the extent of Paul’s drinking because unconsciously she was returning to the past in an effort to emerge with a different result. She could never facilitate her father becoming sober but with her rescue mentality she felt, and I accent “felt”, she could finally be effective in saving a man in distress. She had always been the one trying to help her dad, and even today she is the only one of three sisters who remains in contact with her dad.

                                      Everyone has a Unique Love Story

   Marie’s story is fairly straightforward and not complicated to understand. However many of us have more complicated stories that result in confusion in terms of who we choose to love. Make sure you spend time getting to know yourself in relationships with others before you make love choices that could bring you back in time in an unfortunate way. It’s complicated for sure but when you’re in empathic relationships with rational others, when your able to give and receive feedback openly we are all in a position to learn a great deal about the story we carry forward to new people.

        If you are interested in learning more about this subject please read chapter 7 in The Curse of the Capable, Learning to Read Between the Lines-Intimacy.

                                                Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.

Strategies to Cope with Irrational People

We all encounter people who are irrational. We are all are irrational due to life circumstances on occasion. If you lose a night’s sleep due to the flu, having to get up in the middle of the night to soothe a crying child, or work too many hours you can feel depleted and your tolerance is low. This kind of irrationality is common and shouldn’t be taken very seriously.

     A second type of irrationality is embedded in a particular dysfunctional way a person perceives. There are individuals who typically are irrational, not due to the type of circumstances in their lives but rather their personality style consistently perceives inaccurately, it is part of their character.

   How do you cope if this individual is your boss, your boyfriend, your relative and God forbid your spouse?

    Our nervous systems talk to each other, as one voice intensifies it raises the blood pressure of the other person in addition to releasing stress hormones, all of which can cloud our thinking and reduce our ability to respond with reason. Whenever you hear someone begin to escalate try to teach yourself to respond slowly, wait and think a moment before you talk. If you are reactive you become part of the problem. If you consistently personalize the other person’s remarks, rather than understanding their personality, it often means they have evoked sensitive areas in your story you never resolved. The following example may help clarify my point.

                                         One Couple’s Ongoing Impasse

   I met with a very bright man yesterday who was telling me he can’t cope with his wife’s ridiculous criticisms that are based, in his opinion, on her perfectionist personality. “Once she starts I can’t resist and we end up yelling at each other over and over again in front of our children”. He needed to understand his role in this conflict before he could manage the emotional heat successfully. After some exploration it became clear that her perfectionism was insulting his perfectionism. “I try to do everything right all day, I always succeed except with her, I can’t stand being criticized, she brings me down to my knees”. It’s easy to understand in this example that he can’t resist and slow down his reactions because he feels his self esteem is being threatened, his view of himself is being damaged.

                                  Don’t Accept Every Invitation to the Party!

     The example of my client should clue us into the idea that it takes two to tango. If we can’t resist losing our temper it almost always means we are being reminded of our negative story that we never re-wrote. My client is reminded each time his wife criticizes him of the home he grew up in where he always felt driven by his parents to perform better and better. He is an accomplished attorney, professional pianist, avid cyclist and studies the trumpet in his spare time to prove his worth. Problem is he never felt loved for just “being”, he only felt loved for “doing”. His wife is threatening his image as he re-visits his old view of himself and this makes him livid. He can’t stand the old feeling of not being loved for who he is rather than what he provides.

                                              What is the way out?

Follow these steps: 1) Slow down your reaction, and if you can’t take notice of the old story your repeating and seek help to expand your awareness and change the old view of yourself  2) Acknowledge the other person’s emotion without taking responsibility for their actions, for instance you can say, “I am sorry your offended but I didn’t intend to hurt you”, 3) Set limits, despite indicating you regret your friend is hurting be clear as to what you consider reasonable. “I am sorry your hurt but I don’t accept you yelling at me”, 4) Stick to the facts, no matter how unreasonable the other person becomes, “ I am simply asking you to stop yelling, to come to work on time, etc”, don’t get sidetracked into other topics 5) once you know a person is irrational consistently prepare by not expecting a sane dialogue, you are the only who can keep the conversation civil, 6) if all else fails, if the emotional irrationality continues, de-invest, walk away, don’t provoke just indicate that the conversation is not productive and you’re not going to continue further.

       Finally, and most importantly, if you continue to over-react even though you know the other person is being irrational, accept responsibility that it is your past sensitivities that accentuate the dilemma.  My client will never be free until he works out the hurt he experienced in the past and comes to know the truth about himself in the present. Why is this so very important? One compelling reason is that we often, unconsciously, choose love partners to repeat the old story. What I call “returning to the scene of the crime”. A formula for ongoing unhappiness.

                                          Arthur P. Ciaramicoli, Ed.D., Ph.D.