A long time ago, I watched an Oprah episode I never forgot. At the time, I thought the guest and his theories were wacky – so farfetched as not to be believed. I’ve always had trouble remembering the guest’s unusual name (and had to do a search just now to find it), but I never forgot his unusual ideas. As the years have gone by, I’ve come to believe that he makes a lot of sense, and, recently, I’ve been seeing connections with BPD and relationships.
Harville Hendrix wrote the best-seller Getting the Love You Want, and with his wife Helen LaKelly Hunt developed Imago therapy. In seeking out mates, their theory goes, we choose partners who resemble our parents. We’re attracted to people who exhibit our caregivers’ strengths: a sense of humor, warmth, or demonstrativeness, for example. Unconsciously, however, we’re also selecting partners who possess some of our parents’ flaws. The purpose of marriage, in Hendrix and Hunt’s view, is to resolve these psychic wounds from childhood, to give it another go. What our parents didn’t provide the first time around, maybe we’ll be able to get this time. So we select someone like our mom or dad to see if we can get them to salve that wound from childhood.
For instance, suppose your dad had an excellent sense of humor and stalwart integrity but was not so good at showing affection. You loved and respected your dad, but you always suffered (maybe unconsciously) his apparent coldness. Chances are you’ll find a guy like your dad—funny as hell, honest and true, but unlikely to hold your hand or remember your anniversary. Your job in the marriage is to resolve this inner wound, and your spouse’s job is to recognize your need and try to change a little, to become a little more cuddly and affirming. Presumably your husband also carries a psychic wound from childhood, and your job is to adapt to meet his needs in turn.
Perhaps you can see why, on first hearing, I found this theory elaborate and weird.
In the intervening years, my thoughts have often returned to Hendrix, and I finally read his book. I’m pretty much a convert at this point. The theory doesn’t work for all couples, to be sure, but how many people do you know who harp on the one thing that bothers them about their significant other, frustrated and angry that the other won’t listen and change? They seemed to choose the exact wrong person, the one unable to tend to their needs. And if you could step in and fix things, you’d suggest to the spouse that maybe if he or she just picked up the baby now and then, or brought home some flowers, or made a point of being on time, or stopped leaving the wet towels on the bathroom floor, it really would make a difference. The complaining spouse would see that you’re really trying to meet him or her halfway. A positive relationship should make you a better person, one more likely to empathize and willing to evolve into someone more responsive.
Next time, how this theory connects to borderline personality disorder. Your thoughts are welcome.