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  • Writer's pictureDavid Sutcliffe


Back in my twenties, I was in the middle of a fight with my girlfriend when I suddenly realized I was having the same argument with her that I'd had with every woman I’d ever dated. I was upset about the same thing, I had the same complaints and judgments (I was even using the same language), and I had the same feelings of frustration, anger, and despair.  

It was an epiphany moment right out of a movie. It wasn’t them, it was me! I was the one consistent in all these fights. I was replaying the same scene over and over, caught in a loop, like Groundhog Day.

On one level it was terrifying to realize I was completely irrationally, blind to myself, a slave to some unconscious force inside me. But it was also a relief, because now that I was aware of it, maybe there was something I could to break the cycle of suffering.

It took a couple of years of therapy, but I finally came to understand I was caught in the most common of all relationship distortions: expecting our partners to give us the love we wanted and didn’t get as children.

Childhood vs Adult Needs

Children need love, care, acceptance, safety, attunement, and attention. When one or more of these needs is repeatedly not met, we experience frustration and despair. These painful feelings are overwhelming to a child, and so we instinctively disassociate, relegating them to the shadow of the unconscious. But that pain, and the longing for the unmet need, does not go away. It remains in the psyche, unintegrated, where it will seek to resolve itself through the relationships the child develops as an adult.

The problem, of course, is we're inevitably attracted to people who have the same qualities as our caregivers. The love from our parents may have been imperfect, but it’s all we know. So we unconsciously recreate the relationship dynamics from our childhood, attracting people who are unable or unwilling to meet our needs while simultaneously demanding they meet them. It’s a perfect recipe for frustration and despair.

How do we break this cycle?

This first step is to become aware of our unconscious demands. What are demands? They are the unspoken expectations we place on others about how they should behave in relationship to us. For instance, I would expect my girlfriends to know exactly when I wanted attention and when I wanted to be left alone. If they didn’t get it right I would make myself a victim and find a way to punish them for it, (usually by withdrawing), leaving them hurt, angry, and confused. The truth is was ashamed to ask for what I needed. I’d internalized the belief that my desire for both comfort and space was wrong; so I disowned these feelings, buried them inside me. But the need was still there, along with the pain and frustration of it not being met. All of that was projected onto my girlfriends, who may have been perfectly willing to meet my needs had I been vulnerable enough to ask.

We Become Attached To A Story.

Playing the victim is a seductive role. It imbues us with the power of self-righteousness. Nothing is ever our fault. But this lack of self-responsibility comes at a cost. We're at the mercy of an unpredictable world and flawed human beings who will inevitably let us down. We stay attached to our victim-story because letting it go requires that we confront our pain and accept our disappointments. Few of us are willing to do this — it’s easier to blame the other — but it's the only way out of this bind. We must be willing to feel the feelings our child couldn’t feel and take responsibility for our resentment and judgment. We cannot go back in time and fix the past. Our partners can never give us the love and acceptance we desperately wanted from our parents. We must reconcile to what happened to us or stay emotionally stuck in our history, doomed to repeat it.

Skills to Develop

When you feel triggered, resist the temptation to blame your partner. Take some space to cool down. Your nervous system has been activated. You’re experiencing the situation through the lens of your trauma. You're not in the reality of the moment. Compassionately remind yourself of this.

Let go of the story. Try and feel what's underneath. It's almost certainly pain and fear. Don’t move away from it. Notice where you experience the feeling in your body. Put your hands there, comfort yourself. Simply "be with” your experience. The child could not tolerate these intense feelings, but you as an adult can.

See if you can become aware of the unmet need connected to this pain and fear. It’s usually something simple and fundamental: “To feel safe.” “To be seen and heard.” “To be loved.” Understand and accept it's not your partner's responsibility to meet these needs. Your partner, in fact, cannot meet these needs. That time has passed, and all we can do it grieve the loss.

You can, however, ask your partner to meet your adult needs. What are adult needs? Needs that assume self-responsibility without expectation or demand. For instance, if you’re not feeling safe in the relationship, instead of blaming your partner, insisting they need to change, simply ask what for what you need to feel safe. Then let your partner know, from this place of vulnerability, when and why you get scared and what you need now, as an adult to help you feel safe.

I once had a girlfriend who would become avoidant anytime I wanted to talk about the relationship. I took this as a rejection and reacted defensively, hurt. When we were finally able to sort through it, she admitted that anytime "I wanted to talk” she thought I was going to break up with her. It triggered her fear of abandonment, so she avoided the conversation. Once we were aware of each other’s triggers, we agreed to mechanisms to avoid them. When I wanted to talk, I would make tender physical contact and let her know I was not leaving. This would relax her nervous system and allow her to receive what I had to say.

Relationships, if we let them, can be a pathway for our growth and healing. Once we’re willing to take ownership of our needs, we free our partners from an expectation they can never meet, and we free ourselves from the helplessness we experienced as a child. Whatever happened in our past — abuse, cruelty, neglect — is now ours to heal. Our feelings are our responsibility, as is our fulfillment and happiness. Once we embrace this concept, we stop seeing our partners through the lens of our history and come into real relationship, liberating the potential to consciously co-create a future unburdened by our experiences from the past.

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