The People’s Therapist was working out at the gym on the elliptical trainer the other day when he realized he’d come to the end of an issue of The New York Review of Books – his customary cardiovascular/literary fare. In desperation, I reached for whatever other reading material happened to be lying around, and discovered a deliciously tacky gossip mag.
Flipping open at random, I found myself confronted with a headline about Prince William, the future king of England. Apparently, he’s got a new girlfriend – Kate Middleton – and the rumors are that she’s “just like his mother, Princess Diana.”
What caught my psychotherapeutically-inclined interest was how commonly this trope – marrying someone like your parent – emerges in popular culture. It’s so unremarkable that we take it for granted.
But it raises an interesting question: Why does it seem like people really do choose partners who are just like their parents?
The answer relates to how you adapt, as a child, to your early environment.
One of the patients I saw this week, for example, grew up with a father who was extremely narcissistic.
When I use this term, I don’t mean it in the sense of merely being egotistical, but in the Freudian sense of being unable – like Narcissus in the Greek myth – to see past his own reflection and realize that others have separate needs and concerns.
The whole world, for this woman’s father, was about him. He sucked up all the attention and ignored everyone else’s needs. His wife – my patient’s mother – fell into a caretaker role, appeasing and placating him. When dad had one of his rages, mother and daughter ran around doing whatever it took to calm him down. Their own needs were ignored.
My patient evolved behaviors to handle living in an environment with a narcissist – mostly running around doing everything for him and always letting him have his way. When she grew up into an adult, she went out into the world expecting to find another narcissist for a partner. That would feel familiar, and almost comfortable, since it was what she was used to – it matched the skills she’d adapted as a child. She knew everything there was to know about handling a narcissist – dating anyone else would bring fresh challenges she wasn’t sure she could handle.
Sure enough, later in life, my patient found herself dating guys just like her dad – high-maintenance guys who demanded all her attention but never seemed to notice her needs.
It’s as though my client – and perhaps Prince William and everyone else – adapted to an environment the way an animal evolves. If you live in a pond, you evolve web feet. Once you have web feet, you expect to live in water, because you aren’t much good anywhere else.
But humans aren’t ducks, and the strategies you adopt to survive in your childhood environment don’t have to become permanent physical characteristics.
Children have little choice but to adapt to their environment. They don’t control much of anything – they need to adapt to survive.
But adults can choose the environment in which they wish to live, and they can shed an old adaptation if it becomes self-sabotaging.
My client didn’t have web feet, and she didn’t have to live in a pond. She could change, and choose a new environment that better suited her adult needs.
That meant she could stop dating men like her father, and ask herself who she really wanted in her life. It also meant she could learn new adaptations to address this new sort of person.
For someone used to placating and pleasing a narcissistic tyrant, it was an adjustment to meet someone calm and relaxed and caring – someone who expected a balanced give and take in a relationship. My patient had to remember not to do everything for her new boyfriend, and to enforce her own boundaries as well as respecting his.
It was all rather new, and a bit scary – like a duck acquiring new feet and learning to live on land. But she caught on fast.
Prince William, for his part, might choose to marry someone like Princess Diana, or he might not. His mother may well have been a lovely, giving person and the perfect model for a mate.
The key is that the prince be aware of his unconscious adaptations and ask himself what he, as an adult, truly desires in a partner. He’ll never find what he needs marching blindly into an old pattern simply because it feels familiar.