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Individual Therapy with the Couple in Mind 2/6: Selecting our Mate

When we fall in love, we may be reuniting with undeveloped, feared or even hated parts of the self. In the second instalment of her series about how insights from couple therapy can enrich work with individual clients, couples therapist, psychoanalytic psychotherapist and author Anne Power looks at developmental and defensive relationship spirals, and shares her concept of ‘the fascinating and the familiar’ as a way to understand what we unconsciously look for in a partner.

Last week I wrote about the escalating cycles that can take off when partners are using competing attachment strategies. Whilst the more avoidant partner is trying to keep the relationship steady with their customary distancing techniques, the more preoccupied one is raising the volume in their longing to know that their partner is on their side. It can be a relief for individual clients to see this pattern: to recognise how they are being triggered and how their coping strategies are the very thing that triggers their partner.

But how come so many of us choose a mate who does push our buttons with such precision?

How we are drawn to ‘the fascinating’

In essence this is about projection. If we fall in love we almost always choose someone who carries an undeveloped part of ourself. This is why the experience of being in love feels so fulfilling and ‘right’. We have reunited with a part of the self which had not had a chance to develop, or which had even been despised and denied.

In the early months of romance, with its beguiling sense of unity between the two individuals, we are fascinated by that alien part. For one partner this might be their vulnerability, which was never welcomed by their caregivers – they find it enchanting that their beloved can be so open with her (or his) hurts and anxieties. On the other side, the partner perhaps grew up learning that anger and even strength were unwelcome. This partner is thrilled by the firm views and confidence of their beloved.  

In time the traits that drew them together can become triggers. The qualities which seemed so fascinating may become as resented and feared in the other as they have been in the self.

Working with a client who is falling in love has certain limitations – in some ways they are not available for the therapy relationship, they are under the influence of a drug. On the other hand, as they begin to move through the idealisation there may be a particular opportunity for them to observe themselves and to recognise the plasticity of their psyche and the possibility of change.

How we are drawn to ‘the familiar’

The projection of the fascinating is one half of what draws us to a mate. The other half is the familiar, which often prompts us to choose someone who carries aspects of a family member – either a parent or a sibling. This is why we often find people observing: she married her father/ he’s married his mother.

Just as we are ambivalent about the ‘fascinating’ lost parts of the self, we both love and hate these early figures. We could think of a heterosexual couple where the man’s mother was demanding and critical and he learnt to be quite docile. Unless that relationship has been processed, he may well be drawn to a woman with some of those qualities. The woman who falls for this man may be one whose own father was somewhat browbeaten.

We are always seeking a better ending, and if the relationship develops in a healthy way this is exactly what the couple we are thinking about here will achieve. The relatively submissive male partner will learn to stand up for himself, while the woman will experience more containment and will feel safe enough to show the softer, kinder parts of herself. In this benign spiral, the relationship provides a kind of daily work-out where each grows a little stronger in the parts that had been neglected or even squashed.

Individual therapy can make the difference as to whether a client can nudge their relationship towards a developmental rather than a defensive spiral.

Anne Power will be writing a regular blog on her website, where you can find attachment resources tailored to couples

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Anne Power

Anne Power has qualifications from The Bowlby Centre, Westminster Pastoral Foundation, Tavistock Relationships and Relate. She has taught on supervision and therapy trainings at The Bowlby Centre, WPF and at Regents University London. Her clinical work has been in voluntary settings, in the NHS and in private practice in London. She is currently working online with couples and supervisees. Her book Contented Couples: Magic, Logic or Luck? was published by Confer Books in June 2022. The book describes research interviews with long-term couples and uses the couples’ own words to discuss what makes a long-term relationship work as well as how much difference it makes if we choose our partner via random romance, arranged marriage, or dating sites.

Her first book, Forced Endings in Psychotherapy, explores the process of closing a practice for retirement or other reasons. Her published papers explore attachment meaning in the consulting room and in the supervision relationship.

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