From crazy love to just plain crazy….What often goes wrong in relationships.


By Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

Why do so many people fall into blazing-hot love, only to find themselves so dissatisfied years later?

Well, “Imago relational theory” (just a theory, but I haven’t seen one situation where it doesn’t fit) gives us some answers.  Imago suggests that we fall deeply and often quickly in love for three reasons:

1)  We unconsciously seek out partners who match some of the negative and positive characteristics of our childhood caretakers.  It’s what we know, our comfort zone.  Also, someone who possesses the same negative characteristics (i.e. is withholding, critical, etc.) is the only type of person who can heal our wound/redeem us/make us feel worthy and “good enough.”  (I.e. The only way to redeem myself and feel “worthy” and “good enough” is to find a withholding, critical person who changes their ways for me.  An open, uncritical person being accepting of me does not heal my wound and make me feel “worthy” and “good enough”.  They would be uncritical and accepting of anyone.)

2)  We unconsciously fall in love with a partner who has the same “wound”/”sensitivity”/”unmet need” as us, but who manages this wound in an opposite way.  For example, both partners may have a sensitivity to feeling inadequate since their caregivers frequently withheld approval, but one partner may be extremely vocal and defensive, and one partner may become withdrawn and depressed.  By falling in love with a partner who has the same wound but uses an opposite defense strategy, we become more well-rounded by learning opposite, and ultimately more balanced, strategies for dealing with our pain.

3)  We unconsciously fall in love with a partner that demonstrates aspects of our “lost selves,” the parts of our personalities that we keep stifled and covered up.  In this way, we become more well-rounded and adaptive by association with our partner.  For example, an overly-controlled, very particular man may find a free-spirited, spontaneous woman refreshing and attractive as she reminds him of a part of him that he has stifled.  Another example is a woman who stifles her selfish-side, and experiences shame when she considers asserting her needs may find a man with narcissistic, outspoken qualities to be quite alluring.

I understand that was complicated enough to be its own post (it was very hard to condense it), so if you have any specific further questions, check out Getting the Love you Want by Harville Hendrix.    But moving on….

As I mentioned in #2 above, we ALL (even those of us with seemingly idyllic childhoods and relationship experiences) experience emotional “wounds,” or denials of our emotional needs at some point or another.  Imago theorists often talk a lot about the “wounds” that our childhood carers inflict on us, but I often see in therapy that earlier romantic relationships also weigh heavily on these sensitivities and wounds that we end up carrying around.

The most common “wounds”/”sensitivities”/”unmet needs” that I see in couples therapy are the following:

– Sense of inadequacy (early caregiver(s) or earlier relationship partner(s) denied approval/appreciation)

– Lack of mastery/control over environment (early caregiver(s) or earlier relationship partner(s) was/were controlling/rigid)

–  Sense of worthlessness (early caregiver(s) or earlier relationship partner(s) denied love/consideration/acceptance.)

–  Sense of inconsistency and instability (early caregiver(s) or earlier relationship partner(s) inconsistently offered love/approval/safety/acceptance)

–  Damaged sense of independence and autonomy (early caregiver(s) or earlier relationship partner(s) was smothering/rescuing.)

(Side-note: From observations and things that I have read, I happen to think that biology and culture make “inadequacy” the most common sensitivity for men and “lack of consideration/worthlessness” the most common sensitivity for women…)

Now here’s the sticky part.  What do human beings do when our needs are not met (besides choosing a partner who continues to not meet our needs and attempting to change them in an effort to heal ourselves? Yes, besides that.)  We ADAPT.  We DEFEND.  We FIGHT or we FLIGHT. We do some pretty messed-up schtuff.  Here are some of the most common adaptations/defenses/ways we behave when we are reminded of our wounds:

The fighters ( or the” maximizers” as an Imago therapist would say) tend to:

-Become demanding/controlling

-Become aggressive/volatile

-Become consuming/clingy

-Become obsessive (with the other person, the problem, etc.)

-Pursue more, talk more, go “toward” more.

The flighters (or the “minimizers” as an imago therapist would say) tend to:

-Become withdrawn/closed-off

-Become avoidant/ignoring

-Become sneaky/manipulative

-Become passive-aggressive (or sometimes just passive)

-Become overly self-focused, and at the extreme, narcissistic

Remember how I said we find partners who share our same “wound,” but cope in a completely opposite way? Generally one person in a couple tends to be a “minimizer” and one person tends to be a “maximizer.” It is more common for men to be the “minimizers” and women to be the “maximizers,” but there are no rules here.  Anyone can be anyone, and while most of us fall into a category most of the time, it is possible to flip roles on rare occasions.

The problem is, having opposite defensive strategies for managing our wounds happens to make our partner’s initially frustrating behavior even worse.  What happens when the only way we know how to protect ourselves from pain and discomfort actually causes our partner pain and discomfort?

In other words, what happens when an acceptance-seeking woman pursues her husband to the point of smothering him, and his response is to avoid her?  She feels even less accepted, and even more likely to act on her unconstructive defensive strategy.

What happens when a husband manages his feelings of inadequacy by focusing more on what behaviors would make him “look good” instead of on what his wife would actually want, and thus gains disapproval from his wife?  He feels even more inadequate, and even more likely to act on his unconstructive defensive strategy.

What happens when a consideration-seeking wife becomes aggressively critical in an effort to get her husband to accommodate her, and he protects his sense of worthlessness by ignoring the whole thing?  The wife feels even less worthy of consideration and becomes even more likely to act on her unconstructive defensive strategy.

What happens when a control-seeking husband demands that his wife spend less money, so she goes on a passive-aggressive shopping spree to protect HER sense of control? He feels even less in-control and becomes even more likely to act on his unconstructive defense strategy.

All of these are scenarios are symbolic of common patterns of cycles found within relationships.  And it is within these cycles that the initial feelings of “love” begin to unravel. Our partner’s adaptations no longer feel unconsciously alluring; They feel PAINFUL. The very things that initially were so attractive are now painfully associated with increased sensitivity and wounding.  What was at first considered “responsible” is now considered “controlling.”  What was at first considered “loving” is now considered “smothering” or “self-serving.”  What was at first considered “free-spirited” is now considered “foolish.”  What was once considered “independent” now feels “rejecting.”  What was once considered “competent” now feels “diminishing.”

This “cycle” of defensive reactions is why Imago therapists never blame just one person for a relationship-gone-south. Most relationship dysfunction is a result of a cycle; problems (unmet needs/sensitivities) may have existed before you came on the scene, but your partner’s wounds are being exacerbated by your adaptations to your wounds.   (I should say this is for the most part save for extreme situations such as personality disorders and addiction- however someone could argue that the adaptations of the partners of these people do enable/increase the dysfunction…. But this is a rabbit hole I’m not going down on this particular post.)

Often times, the minimizer appears to be the blameless victim of the maximizer’s wrath, but if the minimizer was meeting the maximizer’s needs, there would be less wrath.  Or the maximizer goes on and on about how unhelpful/self-absorbed the minimizer is, but what would be minimizer be doing if the maximizer’s adaptations did not exacerbate the minimizer’s avoidance?   See:  The Couples you Meet in Counseling

Is there a way out of these cycles?  Yup!  Otherwise, what’s the point of writing this?!  Here is a follow-up post with some general solutions (aka the type of thing you might do in therapy.  I’ll give you a hint- A HUGE part of it is communicating effectively!!)

And also stay tuned for a post about how our unmet needs rear their ugly heads when it comes to parenting as well…And let’ face it, we as parents also  tend to use these defense strategies with our children…. So it might be good to discuss that a little bit too!


3 thoughts on “From crazy love to just plain crazy….What often goes wrong in relationships.

  1. Pingback: The cure for the common relationship. | Maryland Family Psychology

  2. Pingback: Mothers, smothers, and lovers. (Navigating separateness and togetherness in relationships.) | ON THE BIG YELLOW COUCH.

  3. Pingback: The cure for the common relationship. | ON THE YELLOW COUCH

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