People prefer the 'certainty of misery' to the 'misery of uncertainty'
— Virginia Satir
In love and in life, we have a tendency to seek the familiar. Without quite being aware of it, the familiar equals safety. The unknown, even if healthier, can feel uncomfortable or downright scary at first. Let’s understand this more through a story.
A young adult came into my therapy office, lamenting over a string of failed relationships. Her heartbreak was palpable. With an exasperated sigh she said, “He turned out to be just like the others before him. He didn't care for my feelings or want to talk about them. My feelings became an inconvenience to him, and his walls were so quick to come up that I kept wondering what I did wrong to be shut out like that.”
Through subsequent sessions, we worked to explore the similarities between past boyfriends. “Mysterious at first, always”, she said with a hint of nostalgia. After going over her list of preference for curly hair, nice forearms, specific taste in music and humour, she stumbled across similarities in their emotional unavailability. “Strangely, they all were uncomfortable with deep feelings, mine or their own.’’
With the lens of systemic family therapy, we also explored her family dynamics.
One sunny winter afternoon she mused, “You know, we don’t really communicate mushy stuff as a family, we just know. We’re not that family who says I love you. Maybe we don’t have the need to spell things out. It’s understood.”
As the weeks went on, we began to explore similarities and differences between her lovers and family. Something clicked, and the wheels in her mind began to turn.
The discomfort in being vulnerable or sharing feelings emerged as a common thread.
Her family wasn’t particularly expressive and conflict was usually managed through the silent treatment to express displeasure. Resolution looked like things returning to baseline with time, and feelings of any kind were quick to be swept under the rug. She waded through the grief and painful memories of her childhood around wanting more hugs from a parent who was not very affectionate. She saw similar parallels in her romantic partners as well, like them being annoyed by requests of reassurance and feeling burdened by conversations about big feelings.
(Bear in mind, this process took months of her working hard and being committed to the process. It was not as simple or linear as this. Life often got in the way as well.)
Eventually, she sat with the insight that romantically she was seeking the familiar in terms of communication and emotional availability, or lack-thereof. At an unconscious level, it felt safe and known to her.
Family patterns become a template for what’s normal and safe, after all, it is what one has ever known.
The client spent the next few sessions exploring what a healthy relationship might look like and how she would like to be loved. She diligently made lists of what emotionally available would look like. She wanted someone who had the skill to recognise and validate feelings, the willingness to have an open conversation about emotions, and the ability to soothe and comfort when difficult feelings were present.
With this new awareness she moved with curiosity towards what she was attracted to, exploring the kind of relationship she wanted to be in, and what kind of a person this would require to find and to be.
After going on many coffee dates, she would come back to cross reference information about the person with insight of her previous patterns. She diligently collected data on how she felt emotionally, physically and mentally in their company. She assessed their communication style and comfort around feelings. It took intention, discernment, setting boundaries, being specific, and asking - is this simply familiar or is this actually safe?
“I’m a love detective”, she joked. “And a bloody good one”, I thought warmly.
(This process wasn't all linear either. She fell back into old patterns some weeks, as most of us do on our path to growth. “You know what they say about the known devil” she would smirk.)
She eventually started seeking out men who fit her markers, and began dating a guy who was very expressive with his words and communicated openly about how he felt. What attracted her had begun to change. With him, her nervous system felt calm and she knew where she stood. He had great forearms so that helped too (just kidding!).
A few months into their relationship, she felt loved, but she also felt terrified. One rainy evening she exclaimed, “I feel like he’s fooling me with all this sweet talk about how much he loves me! Who even talks like this? Life isn't a movie.” She was waiting for the other shoe to drop and wading through her own relationship anxiety. A part of her felt lost with this newness, and struggled to trust in the goodness. It felt too good to be true. It felt unfamiliar, hence scary.
With the passage of time, his behaviour remained consistent. She often spoke about how deeply she had come to love him, how secure she felt, and yet how hard it was for her to take the risk of being vulnerable enough to let him know fully.
This illuminated her own fear around receiving and expressing love in a way that was new to her. Vulnerability was one of the skills that she worked on next, and practiced in a safe environment.
Through it all, she stuck with the process of therapy and her desire to explore a different type of love. One that is expressive, open and available. One that met her deeply. Slowly, piece by piece, her template of what is a safe and healthy love began to shift.
Life had happened to her by way of her family system and its dynamics, but she also happened to her life. She put in the hard work of gaining awareness of her patterns, and eventually challenged them. She chose differently this time, and experienced relational healing. She consciously learned to look for the green flags, even if red was the colour that initially drew her in. She then worked on her own growth edges that the relationship revealed. The relationship became a catalyst for her growth.
Note: This is a semi-fictional account drawn from various encounters in the therapy room. It is published with consent of the parties involved.