wedding cake
Photo: Chris Bartlett
When we fall in love, we see life in Technicolor. We nibble each other's ears and tell each other everything; our limitations and rigidities melt away. We're sexier, smarter, funnier, more giving. We feel whole; we're connected.

But inevitably, things start to go wrong. The veil of illusion falls away, and it turns out your partner has qualities you can't bear. Even traits you once admired grate on you. Old hurts resurface as you realize your partner cannot or will not love and care for you as promised.

Since he no longer willingly gives you what you need, you try to coerce him into caring through criticism, intimidation, shame, withdrawal, crying, anger—whatever works. The power struggle has begun and may continue for many years, until you split, settle into an uneasy truce, or look for help, desperate to have your dream back.

What's going on here? After reflecting deeply on this question, we've come to this conclusion: You've found what we call an Imago partner, someone who, we regret to say, is uniquely unqualified (at the moment) to give you the love you want. And this is what's supposed to happen.

The thesis is relatively simple: Although we think we have free choice in selecting our partners, our primitive brain has a nonnegotiable agenda to find someone who resembles one of our childhood caretakers in order to complete unfinished business. No matter what our parents were like or how hard they tried, they weren't perfect. Invariably, they failed to meet some of our essential needs, which left us with an emotional wound.

Growing up, we instinctively developed a pattern of behavior to protect us from being wounded again. But at the same time, we continue to carry around an internal image, a sort of imprint of our caretakers' traits. As babies this imprint helped us distinguish our parents from other adults, much like a young zebra—whose mother circled it repeatedly right after birth—recognizes its mother's distinctive pattern of stripes. When, as adults, we meet someone who fits our emotional imprint, we fall in love. Our imperfect caretakers, freeze-dried in the memories of childhood, are reconstituted in our partner.

The romantic yearning we feel is the anticipation that our new love interest will meet the needs our caretakers failed to satisfy. But a problem arises immediately, because our partner, who also bears childhood hurts, enters the relationship with similar expectations and opposite patterns of self-protection. In the attraction stage, we're drawn to someone whose defense mechanism seems complementary to ours because it's so different. But before long, our differences create a core conflict. To complicate matters, though you'd think we'd choose a partner with only our caretakers' positive traits, the negative traits are more indelibly imprinted on us. Unconsciously, we need to be healed by someone with the very deficits that hurt us in the first place. Since we don't understand what's going on, we're shocked when the awful truth about our beloved surfaces.

"You are already with your dream partner, but at the moment, he or she may be in disguise"

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