Why do we go for the bad boy or girl? Why do we attract ill-suited partners? Why do we repeat negative patterns in our relationships? I recently had a breakthrough regarding questions of this nature in my own life, after years of confusion and bewilderment concerning why I was deeply drawn to a certain type of guy.
For me, it was musician-types with freedom to create and expand, unburdened by mundane responsibilities, and focused on their pursuit of pleasure. I also couldn’t understand why I held on to these relationships, even while being mistreated or treated like I didn’t matter much at all. Even more baffling to me was why I couldn’t be attracted to a nice, supportive partner, who could be consistent, attentive, and reliable.
Breakthroughs are hard to come by. There are fragments of usefulness in numerous concepts within various psychology disciplines that attempt to explain this phenomenon of chasing what we can’t have, desiring what we shouldn’t want, or defying logic by repeating negative patterns. Most of these concepts aptly provide reasons for the draw toward someone alluring, who is emotionally or otherwise unavailable or unsuitable, which then serves to intensify our attraction.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours pouring over literature, researching answers to the questions I opened with, because the negative impact this experience has had on my life has been fairly drastic and plenty painful. I’m certain I’m not alone. And though I’ve learned from past mistakes, I still end up in the same old patterns, each dressed in a fabulous new wardrobe, to deceive me into believing this time is different. I just haven’t been able to figure out how to break out of this cycle!
Then, I learned of a little known psychoanalytic theory, developed by Ronald Fairbairn. It’s an object relations theory using an exciting object/rejecting object model of ego development. Learning about this theory this late in the game shocked me. How had I missed it?
One potential reason might be because Fairbairn rejected Freud’s structure of the psyche and the theory of instincts that dominated the field. He was a rebel psychoanalyst, who fundamentally deviated from the Freudian basis of human drives (see the “pleasure principle”). For Fairbairn, rather than being driven by a desire to gratify instincts, as Freud asserted, our primary drive is connecting and relating to others.
Fairbairn developed a model of the mind based on early psychic development structured by a drive to connect through self expression in relationships with others, which was the first of its type. His theory was radically different from those of his time, approximately half a century ago, and his ideas are finally influencing the field, primarily through the development of attachment theory.
The following is a summary of some predominant theories in psychology which attempt to explain the phenomenon of being magnetized to and stimulated by people who aren’t ideal partners and why that desire amplifies when they withdraw. These theories are based in science and do not include things like, “We like a challenge” or “We are afraid of commitment.” Though scientifically sound, none of these theories stack up to the impact of the little known theory that provided the breakthrough I needed to lull this pernicious cycle in my own life.
The cognitive theory is based on the assumption that we have an inner drive that requires us to keep our thoughts and actions in harmony. When they are not consistent (i.e. dissonant), then we either have to change our thoughts or our behaviors to bring them back in line. A simple example is knowing smoking can cause grave illness, yet continuing to smoke. To reduce the psychological stress this causes us when we choose to smoke despite this knowledge, we start telling ourselves that we will die anyway or not everyone who smokes gets cancer.
In terms of attraction to and pursuit of a less than ideal partner, we tend to place more value on people who appear busy or out of reach, leading us to pursue them harder while undervaluing ourselves. This leads to cognitive dissonance, forcing us to make lame excuses for continuing to pursue a relationship with someone who clearly isn’t making us a priority.
We continue to engage in the behavior of the pursuit, so we must convince ourselves that this is a good thing, in order to bring our thoughts and actions back in line, and reduce the dissonance. This explains the phenomenon of the allure and pursuit, but it doesn’t satisfy the question of why I am susceptible to it, nor does it help me change the pattern.
Neuroscience and Behavior
Our brains are powerful machines with electrochemical signals that affect our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Adrenaline released from your brain into your system could account for the allure toward an unpredictable or forbidden partner. It’s accompanied by the heart pounding euphoria that braces you for excitement! Serotonin can also be blamed for obsessing over the one that just doesn’t seem that into you. When you don’t have enough of it circulating in your brain, you are susceptible to obsessive compulsive tendencies.
Hormones are another culprit in this self-defeating phenomenon. Testosterone in men and estrogen and oxytocin in women, particularly during ovulation, influence our attraction levels and drive to pursue the one who draws us in. This is considered part of our evolutionary drive to partner with a biologically compatible mate. Perhaps the feedback loop between hormone cycles activated in the attraction phase and the rejection phase cause us to stay in dysfunctional relationships, if our pheromones and neuroendocrine signals dictate a biologically ideal mate has been spotted.
Neuroscience also demonstrates that brain areas associated with motivation, reward, addiction, and cravings are stimulated by romantic rejection, leading to more desire for the person rejecting us. Dopamine is responsible for the elation we feel during infatuation or when we get small doses of attention or sporadic texts. Dopamine-dominant personalities are curious and adventurous and tend to be drawn to the like.
From a behavioral standpoint, the unpredictable, hot/cold nature of the exciting/rejecting dynamic provides partial reinforcement, which is the same type of behavioral conditioning that keeps gamblers pulling the slot machine lever. They get rewarded intermittently, thus increasing the frequency of the behavior (pulling the slot), stimulating the dopamine rush accompanied by attaining the reward. This provides a neurobehavioral basis for our infatuation with a person despite rejection, but it suggests that we are at the mercy of behavioral reinforcement schedules and concomitant neurotransmitter release. Not so helpful, when trying to stop the madness.
The closest I’ve come to finding a satisfying and elegant elucidation of why we persist in negative relationship patterns, fraught by a desire for that which is not serving our best interests, is the psychobiological approach of attachment theory. The theory states that as infants, we develop a secure or insecure attachment style, based on how much trust we have in our caregivers, as well as the level of acceptance and unconditional love we receive from them.
Insecure attachment styles develop in two ways, with varying levels of extremes. The two forms of insecure attachment are called anxious and avoidant. If you only get love when you’ve been good, you feel like you need to earn love, you develop an anxious insecure attachment style, characterized by worry, distrust, and a need for constant reassurance.
Anxious insecure types are drawn to avoidant insecure types, who learned as children that they need to take care of their own needs due to the emotional unresponsiveness of the caregiver. Avoidant insecure people tend to be emotionally unavailable, dismissive, silent types, while the anxious types are eager to please and try exceedingly hard, appearing clingy or dramatic.
Though attachment theory offers the most comprehensive picture of why we engage in repetitive dysfunctional or toxic relationship patterns, it is also exceptionally dense. It feels hard to do. It’s intimidating to attempt to outwit and restructure our psychobiology.
Attachment theory lays out the mechanics behind the impulse to chase an alluring person who withdraws when the closeness gets uncomfortable. But, it doesn’t sufficiently answer why the anxious is drawn to the avoidant, beyond the elusive idea that we are trying to reinforce our beliefs and unconscious worldview, either that we are unlovable or that we need to be independent.
Another issue attachment theory doesn’t adequately address is how every individual can be anxious, avoidant, or secure, depending on the relationship. I’ve been both the anxious and avoidant insecure type in different relationships, and have even pulled off being secure in certain situations with secure people. If we develop a certain attachment style based on infant interactions with caregivers, then how can all the attachment styles manifest in the same adult? Further, how can we break negative patterns when we oscillate between attachment types depending on the relationship? It becomes highly complicated, pretty quickly.
Exciting Object — Rejecting Object Theory
Which brings me to the breakthrough theory that exposed the secret operations of my mind causing me to engage in negative relationship patterns. It reveals why we chase the alluring, dismissive partner and simultaneously explains why we likewise become the alluring, dismissive partner. This theory additionally outlines the formation of healthy secure bonds. It was the theory that helped me see the light!
The sun had seeped into the cracks of the cave in which I’d been living, illuminating the shadows I’ve been casting through the projections of my own mind. I came to experience Plato’s allegory of the cave as I got clarity on what’s real, rather than imposing my internal reality on the external world. It was a revelation and breakthrough like none other, and my confusion instantly dissipated. I was finally clear.
Without further ado, I present Fairbairn’s object relations theory of the exciting object/rejecting object.
What are objects?
Objects in this theory refer to other people with whom we form relationships. We relate to our objects internally and externally. The internal object-seeking self can create or transform the external object relationship, and then those relationships with the object influence the internal self. Healthy psychic growth depends on satisfactory relationships with others (objects).
The first object we each encounter is the mother. The basis of our structural psychic development relies on the extent of maternal deprivation we experience as infants. We all start off in a state of wholeness, with unlimited capacity for unrestrained self expression with the outside world. This is called our Central Self, and it can be considered our ego in innocence. Then through unavoidable human experiences our psyche differentiates into two other psychic structures.
The splitting of the ego
Structural differentiation of our psyche (i.e. splitting of the ego) as an infant is a defensive response to an intolerable experience. The most intolerable feeling arises in an infant when the mother is unpredictably experienced as both loving and accepting of the infant’s love, and unloving and rejecting of his love. The realistic limits of a mother’s capacity to love the infant are traumatizing to him, because this threatens his very existence, due to the complete dependence that the child has on the mother.
The infant, unable to cope with the frustration experienced at the hands of the mother, internalizes this experience, leading to the establishment of two other psychic structures, which are created by a splitting of the self. The Central (whole) Self is split through repression of the intolerable experience. When something is so devastating and intolerable to our consciousness because it threatens our physical and emotional existence, we repress and turn it into something acceptable or bearable.
The “bad” object and the “good” object in our mind
The mother is both adored and abhorred, making her an exciting object, as far as she unconditionally loves us, and a rejecting object inasmuch as she is emotionally unresponsive. The complete helplessness of the child won’t let him think of his mother as bad. This causes the child to internalize the experience, because in his inner reality he can establish control, reducing the frustration of the relationship. The splitting of the self occurs to preserve the image of the mother as good, thus safe.
The first ego subtype to split from the central ego is formed around the exciting relationship. Given that the child is absolutely dependent on the mother, it is intolerable to conceive of her as bad, so the infant protects the illusion of a good mother by making himself bad. He has internalized the “bad” object. It is because he is unlovable that he is experiencing this frustration, and if he behaves differently or changes himself, maybe his mother could love him.
The second ego subtype to split is formed around the rejecting object. The child has to banish the memory of the mother’s rejecting or dismissive behavior, because it is overwhelming and unbearable. The fear of losing her causes the child to idealize the mother, repressing the frustrating elements while overly attaching to the admired, positive qualities and values of the parent. The child now has a “good” object for himself, even if it is only in his mind.
The exciting and rejecting object at work in relationships
The exciting object stems from the “bad” object, while the rejecting object gives rise to the “good” object. The two ego subtypes strive to transform the external exciting object and the rejecting object into a loving object. This motivation then underlies all future dysfunctional relationship patterns.
The relationship with the exciting object is based on a desperate need to feel loved, a desire that will never be satisfied by the exciting object. We imagine there must be something wrong with us, which is why the object of our affection doesn’t love us, so we try harder. The rejecting object allows us to wallow in self-pity, feeling wronged, humiliated, betrayed, and mistreated. We are self-righteous victims and must make our rejecting object acknowledge the pain they’ve caused.
Both of these ego subtypes continuously search for the opportunity to recreate the same experience with others in order to continue living out these “bad” relationships. We are compelled to project our internal objects onto the external ones, and when these don’t match up, we try to change ourselves or the other or give up in disappointment. It is motivated by the survival of the ego subtypes. This is why our negative relationship patterns persist in an endless battle with the rejecting object and a persistent impulse to entice the exciting object.
Breaking through our own mind games
According to Fairbairn, the ultimate source of suffering in human experience is maternal deprivation. The more severe the deprivation experienced by the infant, the more profound the splitting of the ego. The split ego subtypes are formed through repression of the Central Ego, the whole (true) self. The splitting diminishes our ability to express our true selves within our relationships, because less of our true selves is available to interact with the world. It also explains why we are at times the alluring and rejecting and at other times chasing the alluring and rejecting. This internalization happens to various degrees in everyone. The two ego subtypes take turns playing a dominant role in our relationships.
Fairburn makes a distinction between mature dependence and infantile dependence, the former being a healthy closeness and inter-relatedness with loved ones, whereby each person is responsible for themselves, but available to others. Infantile dependence occurs when a person does not experience an other as separate from himself. Between infantile and mature dependence, we struggle in a state of quasi-independence, attempting to change a dysfunctional state without acknowledging the source of that state.
Growth of the self means being ok with the good and the bad
As we reduce how strongly we identify with our split egos, we are able to access more of our true selves. We become psychologically mature through an uncompromising acceptance of ourselves and others. This requires us to come to terms with the entire range of aspects that make us human. Giving the subegos less importance relinquishes their power over us. As the agenda of the ego subtypes is exposed and understood, the central ego is strengthened and the powerful rejecting object and alluring exciting object become one — a common, flawed parent.
Until we can free ourselves from the need to endlessly try to receive love and acceptance from internal and external objects who are not capable of loving us, we will not be ready for a mature healthy relationship, a.k.a. A nice guy or girl. Self-acceptance and secure relationships are the only way to let go of the self-defeating effort to transform ungratifying internal object relationships into gratifying (i.e. loving) ones. Once we realize we’ve been confined to a life lived primarily in our head, we can shake the unconscious bonds that were innocently built on resentment, desperation, contempt, and disenchantment.
It’s not all mom’s fault
I am a mother, so I know how this theory can feel like mother-blaming. The theory can be applied without assigning blame to caretakers, because we all inevitably fail our children in our own special way. Every infant and child misinterprets the deprivation of a parent as a lack of love. Fairbairn blamed society for interfering with the process of bonding between mother and child. Modern mothers have high domestic, financial, and social demands preventing extended periods of unbroken contact with the infant. Both the parent and the child can take the approach of accountability without blame.
What makes someone exciting or alluring to me will differ from what you find exciting. But, braced with this exciting object/rejecting object theory, you will be aware of why you are being drawn to the person and the dynamic of your relationship will reveal itself. The difference is now you can change the storyline simply by suppressing those wounded ego subtypes and letting your true, uninhibited, loving self shine.