In this post I want to explain a very real phenomenon that plagues many people across all genders and sexual orientations. Male, female, straight, gay, bi, trans…if you’ve got this issue, then you are noticing a disturbing pattern in your choice of romantic partners. You keep falling for major jerks. I’m not talking about being badly conned once only to recover and land a healthy relationship the next time around. I’m talking about a pattern that keeps happening to you over and over. Not only do you always wind up with a lemon, but you also have a pattern of trying to stay with them as long as you can, even though they are treating you like garbage. It’s certainly not your intention to set yourself up for such misery. In fact, each time you crawl out of the last nightmare and try again, you tell yourself that this time you’ll pick wiser. And when you suddenly meet the one, you try your best to scan for signs of trouble, because you really don’t enjoy being insulted, humiliated, ignored, deceived, and physically injured. It just keeps happening to you, and after a while, observing this sort of pattern in yourself can really start freaking you out.
So what is going wrong here? What is causing you to be such a magnet for abusive romantic partners? It turns out there is a strategy at work and this is not just a case of you being “messed up.” In fact, the reason you keep pairing up with creeps is because you’re actually trying to fix yourself and that super smart part of you known as your subconscious has worked out a whole strategy for how getting in the sack with jerks just might be your ticket to greater internal peace. Sound crazy? It’s really not once the logic gets spelled out for you and you have a chance to appreciate what you’re trying to do. In this post, I’m going to explain what your subconscious is trying to accomplish by steering you towards Mr. or Miss Nasty over and over again. But before we dive in, there’s an annoying stereotype that I need to shred…
Male Victims of Physical Abuse: When Size Doesn’t Matter
One of my major pet peeves as a trauma counselor is seeing people scoff at the idea that men can be horribly abused by women. There is a common and very wrong assumption that a large man will instinctively use his superior physical strength and size to keep a female abuser at bay. Well, in real life, this is not how things always play out. There are many cases in which men are cowering in very real terror before women who are half their strength–women who they could easily throw off of them or physically restrain, yet they don’t.
In situations of abuse, psychological factors play a far greater role than physical resources. A man with certain psychological issues will be a very easy target for a female to rape, molest, beat, and coerce into self-harming. In such moments, the man feels truly unable to access resources that are technically within his possession.
Imagine that you are standing in your kitchen, pouring yourself a cup of water. You’re very thirsty, but just when you go to reach for the glass, your worst enemy comes into the room. Suddenly you lose the feeling in both of your arms and they fall to your side like lead noodles. At the same time, your shoes seem to meld with the floor tiles and suddenly you can’t lift up either foot. Your mouth turns as dry as the Sahara and your tongue feels like a stone, making it impossible for you to form any words. You stand there feeling utterly defenseless as your enemy gets in your face and starts screaming all manner of ugly things at you. To an outside observer, you’re being ridiculous to not just walk away. To an outside observer, you have plenty of resources available to you. You appear to be in good health, and there’s nothing stopping you from simply shoving your enemy away and moving on. The observer can’t feel what you feel. They don’t understand that your mind just disconnected all of your normal defenses, temporarily paralyzing you. When your enemy orders you to kneel on the floor and grovel, your body moves on its own to comply. It’s as if you’ve become some kind of android that someone else is controlling remotely. It’s only when your enemy leaves your presence that everything suddenly comes back online and you fall backwards in emotional shock as adrenaline surges through you.
The subconscious is extremely powerful and it is quite capable of performing the kind of system overrides that I just described. In cases where males are being physically assaulted by females who are clearly inferior to them in size and strength, subconscious takeovers are often at work. They don’t all feel as dramatic as the example I gave, but they have the same effect of making a man feel temporarily incapable of accessing his physical defenses. As always, the mind has logical reasons for performing these emergency maneuvers, and I can’t possibly cover all the common reasons in a single post. But I do want to make it very clear to my male readers that you are not at all inferior if you find yourself being dominated and/or assaulted by weaker females. This kind of problem has nothing to do with a lack of masculinity or you being some kind of “sissy.” There’s nothing sissy about terror or pain. When these things become severe enough, there isn’t a single human on the planet who won’t buckle under them.
Psychological healing cannot happen in a context of self-mockery, and men are particularly vulnerable to using their gender as an excuse to treat their very reasonable fear responses as invalid, pathetic, or stupid. Let’s not have any of that rot here. Pain is always valid, and if you want to stop hurting, you need to begin by focusing on self-respect and compassion.
A Strategic Hunt
Let’s now tackle this issue of you constantly picking zeroes and sticking with them for far too long, despite your friends trying to pry you loose by giving you all kinds of lectures and ultimatums. The first little puzzle we can unravel is why you are so baffled by your own behavior. As far as you’re concerned, the universe seems to have it in for you. If you believe in God, you might be worried that He’s punishing you for something by always pairing you with monsters. If you haven’t yet encountered that fascinating non-human Being who made you, then you might be thinking you have the worst luck in the world. But one thing is clear: you don’t understand what you’re doing…and yet you’re doing it so well and you’re so consistent. Safe, functional romantic partners just don’t slip into the mix for you. In fact, some of you have actually met some of these only to find yourself feeling impossibly bored and frustrated in the relationship. It’s almost like you want to be treated badly…so do you?
The part of you that feels so honestly baffled by your own behavior is your conscious mind. Your conscious is like the receptionist you talk to who is nice enough and seems to genuinely want to help you, but all of the answers you need are locked in files that she isn’t allowed to access. The result is you and her going around in a very frustrating verbal circle where you keep asking the same questions and she keeps saying “I’m so sorry, but I just don’t know the answer to that.” Sound familiar? When you sit at home trying to contemplate why you’re such a disaster at dating only to keep drawing mental blanks, it is your conscious that you are engaging with. Lurking behind your conscious and eavesdropping on the whole conversation is the big boss: your subconscious. Your subconscious knows all about what you’re doing and why, but it is intentionally withholding that information from your conscious. So your conscious isn’t lying when it says that it has no idea why you always gravitate towards jerks. But while one part of you doesn’t understand what’s going on, another part does. It’s complicated being human.
Let’s talk about your track record. That consistent pattern you see isn’t happening by accident. Your subconscious has a list of qualities that it really wants your romantic partners to have, and it is constantly scanning for potential matches. So when you dismally tell your friends that you seem to be a magnet for creeps, you’re getting close to the truth. There really is an intentional effort happening on your side to locate and lure in a certain kind of romantic partner. But those efforts are being controlled on a subconscious level with your conscious being left out of the loop. Let’s see how this works in practice.
You’re sitting in a cafe when a certain woman comes in. Instantly you feel an intense sexual attraction towards her. The feeling strikes you out of nowhere. But why? Your conscious doesn’t know. Neither does your body, which is now tingling with arousal. This sudden rush of attraction is being triggered by your subconscious and is the first step in its complex plan to get you to interact with the woman.
So why her? Well, she has brown hair, and so did your last three partners. So you tell yourself, “I like brunettes.” This is your conscious fumbling to give you an answer, but it’s baloney. Half of the ladies in the cafe are brunettes but none of them are turning you on the way this new stranger is. What’s happening with her is that there are other specific physical traits about her which your subconscious is liking. It could be her ethnicity, height, skin tone, face shape, hair style, make up, clothes…the list of possibilities is quite long. But the distance between you limits the information your subconscious is receiving. So far, it only has visual data to assess. But when you have the kind of problem we’re tackling in this post, your subconscious often feels an urgent need for you to get into an abusive relationship that has a very precise tone of nasty. The urgency of the situation causes your subconscious to be constantly and aggressively scanning for new potential matches. Without you realizing it, your subconscious has already scanned all the other ladies in the room but remained unimpressed. Then she walked in, displaying enough physical matches to cause your subconscious to want to conduct a deeper analysis. Could she be the one it’s been searching for all this time?
There’s nothing like a strong surge of attraction to get you in motion. In the midst of the euphoric feelings that your subconscious is intentionally manufacturing by manipulating various switches in your physical body, your subconscious starts giving your conscious specific commands. The commands are delivered with the abruptness of a military general who expects his soldiers to obey without questioning. Suddenly you find yourself scheming about how you could casually saunter over to coffee straws where she is standing waiting for her order. With your heart racing with adrenaline that your body is dumping into your bloodstream, you get up and nervously head on over. Your subconscious tells you exactly where to stand and how to act. Just a bit to her left–close enough to start a conversation, but not so close it’s creepy. You think you’re being clever, but at this point you are following orders. But what do I say? you fret. This is your conscious asking for instructions from the big boss. Your subconscious instantly supplies the script it wants you to use, so you clear your throat and toss out some harmless comment about the weather. The woman looks over at you and smiles receptively. Bingo. You feel a surge of excitement. This is your subconscious pouring on the resources to keep you in the game. Two minutes later, she’s accepted an invitation to join you at your table and the two of you are chatting away. Here is where your subconscious really goes to work, analyzing every nuance of the woman’s manners, statements, and appearance. You aren’t aware of how intensely your subconscious is scrutinizing this potential candidate. You’re too distracted by how nervous you feel.
At this point, two things can happen. If your subconscious likes what it sees, it will intensify your attraction to this woman and you’ll find yourself toying with ideas about how you might connect with her again. If your subconscious decides she is too far from what it wants, you’ll find your attraction to her rapidly dwindling. Typically she will say or do something that you find off-putting and suddenly you’ll be thinking of an excuse to escape. This kind of rapid shutdown is very common in first meetings and is commonly triggered by your subconscious feeling threatened by whoever you’re talking to. But in cases where the subconscious is aggressively looking for an abusive partner to hook you up with, it will be quick to grow impatient with anyone who doesn’t fit the very specific prototype it’s looking for and pressure you to cut ties so that it can continue its hunt.
Now let’s say your subconscious decides Miss Coffee Shop is looking like a very good candidate. In such a case, it will pressure you to act fast and be bold. So you do, and six months later, you’re sleeping with her, living with her, and feeling downright afraid of her. It didn’t take long for Miss Coffee Shop’s mean streak to surface, and the first time she laid into you, a part of you started crying out that you’d made another terrible mistake. That part of you was likely your soul. It could also be your body, depending on what form the abuse is coming in. Your body does not like being assaulted. Your soul doesn’t like you being devalued. But in the midst of the internal alarm bells ringing in the background, you find a stronger force compelling you to stay in the relationship. That stronger voice is your subconscious. It needs you to stay in the relationship because it’s only from that position that it can go to work on Phase 2 of its strategy. Phase 1 was finding the right partner. Phase 2 is about cultivating a specific kind of relationship dynamic with that partner. Typically the goal of Phase 2 is to get your abuser to drastically change their treatment of you by starting to affirm you, approve of you, and treat you well.
Now hold on. If the goal is to get your abuser to stop abusing you, why not just get with someone functional to start with? Nope, that won’t work. In these cases, it is vital to start with a negative partner, and then see yourself causing that partner to drastically change towards you in positive ways. It’s the flip that your subconscious is after. A dramatic reversal. If you don’t start in the gutter, you can’t rise up, and if you don’t pull off some dramatic rise, then the whole project will be rated as a big fat failure.
As you look back at your past partners, failing is what it feels like, doesn’t it? It’s your subconscious handing you that grade, and it’s not because you acted like some doormat. Your soul will take issue with you soaking up abuse like a sponge for moral reasons, but your subconscious has a different kind of beef. At the end of the day, you could not get your past abusive partners to stop abusing you, and that is what your subconscious finds frustrating. Sure, some abusers rotate between smacking you around and showering you with gifts. But temporary breaks aren’t the goal. Your subconscious wants you to somehow cause a massive change in your partner’s inner character. And in demanding this of you, it is asking for something that is impossible for you to do. So you keep failing, in the same way that a man will always fail to hold his breath under water for 10 minutes. Some things are simply beyond human ability. Reaching into the core of someone else and causing them to dramatically change how they behave and think overnight is one of those things.
Understanding Symbolic Partners
Let’s recap what we have so far. It turns out that you’re not randomly falling for jerks. Instead, your subconscious is intentionally steering you towards them, and using all kinds of internal manipulation tactics with your body and conscious to get you to pursue a serious relationship asap. Once you’ve locked in your next abuser, the focus shifts onto getting them to like you. To approve of you, cherish you, and care about you. But that turns out to be incredibly hard to do. No matter how much you grovel, serve, and cave in, things just get worse. As the relationship deteriorates, you find yourself growing increasingly depressed. This is your subconscious expressing its bitter frustration that once again its hopes are being dashed. Oh well, time to suck it up and return to the hunting grounds. Here’s where you start looking around for your next abuser, often before you’ve even broken up with your current partner. As soon as a good candidate comes along, you’re chasing them down and making them the new focus of your obsession to please.
So what on earth is your subconscious’ problem? It’s not a question of what, but rather of who. In these cases, the partners you are chasing down symbolize someone from your past whose affirmation felt critical to your well-being. But instead of giving you the positive things that your mind craved, that person heaped the opposite of those things onto you. Instead of validating you, they invalidated you. Instead of affirming you, they tore you down. Instead of approving, they found endless faults.
Now the toxic combination that your Original Person (OP) dished out to you can vary quite a bit from what someone else received from their OP. But in every case, the OP demonstrated specific behavior patterns, and it is those specific behaviors that your subconscious has been hunting for all this time. Your subconscious is essentially trying to match you with a romantic partner who resembles your OP as much as possible in the way that they treat you. Why? So that you can symbolically “fix” your relationship with your OP by getting their representative to finally crack loose with the critical resources they keep withholding from you: all of that affirmation, kindness, acceptance, and physical affection.
Searching for symbolic partners is extremely common among humans, with the OPs commonly being parent figures. When the OP was a positive influence and the symbolic partner is as well, there are usually a few jokes made about how “Jan went right out and married a guy like her dad,” and that’s the end of it. No one feels motivated to dig into the deeper psychological mechanics because no harm is being done. But in cases of abusive symbolic partners, it becomes very important for you to understand your mind’s deeper agenda. This is because your subconscious is locked into an obsession with your abusive OP, and it isn’t going to let you enjoy a functional relationship until you get it some help.
So how do you help your subconscious with this kind of issue? First, you need to identify who your OP is. Don’t focus on traits like appearance and gender. The real damage your OP did was internal, and your subconscious can easily steer you towards a symbolic partner who looks very different than your OP yet causes you the same kind of internal pain. It’s very common for the OP and symbolic partner to be of different genders. Mason’s OP was his physically abusive father, and his symbolic partner is a woman named Reyna. Mason’s mind locked onto Reyna as a good match because her style of anger is such a close match to his father’s. So is her style of physical assault.
Now in case you’re wondering, there is a whole other scenario in which the mind does this same kind of symbolic partner search based on an abusive OP, yet it then tries to dominate the partner instead of pleasing them. That scenario plays out differently than what I’m talking about here, and it’s fueled by a different kind of problem solving agenda.
In the kind of symbolic partner strategy I’m discussing in this post, your subconscious wants to win your partner over through good behavior and groveling, so it will block you from taking an aggressive stance towards them. This strategy will mirror the strategy you used with your OP all of those years that you tried to figure out what their problem with you was and morph into someone who they would finally accept. As I said earlier, parent figures are usually the OPs in these scenarios. Other family members, especially ones that played guardian roles, are also likely candidates. Any family member who sexually assaulted you can easily become an OP to your mind, as it struggles to resolve why that person attacked you so horribly.
The more psychological distress your OP caused you, the more intense your obsession with them will be. Because sexual assault always causes immense stress to the mind, a one-time sexual assaulter who is unrelated to the family and who you had no regular associations with can become an OP. It is extremely distressing to your logical mind when some random person seems to attack you from out of the blue. Such distress can be as intense as having a trusted family turn on you. When your mind locks onto a sexual abuser as an OP, you will often find yourself seeking out symbolic partners who will sexually abuse you in similar ways. As you can see, this sort of thing can get very dark very fast.
Your subconscious is extremely logical, and it must be able to rationally explain the things that happen to you. It also needs those explanations to be things that it can comfortably live with. When Grandpa flies at you at totally random moments and beats the tar out of you for no obvious reason, your subconscious can’t abide the sheer irrationality of that situation. It must find a way to make logical sense out of Grandpa’s behavior. It must be able to pinpoint cause and effect so it can understand when Grandpa is likely to attack and protect you accordingly. Are you doing something to trigger his rages? Is something happening in his world that triggers him? Is it day of the week? Time of day? Is it the food or drink he’s consuming? Is there some glaring flaw in you that you’re blind to but that everyone else can see? As long as things remain shrouded in mystery, your subconscious is not going to be able relax.
In the kind of symbolic partner pattern I’m discussing in this post, your OP might be dead or alive, out of your life or still very much in your business. But whoever that person is, you need to identify them. How do you do this? Well, as you battle your way through your stormy romantic relationships, your subconscious will often drop hints. You will likely find the face of your OP popping into your mind when you’re reeling from your symbolic partner’s latest blow.
Remember that the goal of this kind of symbolic partner relationship is to try to symbolically resolve the negative stress you’ve had with your OP. Usually your relationship with your OP has always felt rather rotten. In some cases, your OP and you might have gotten along alright until there was a drastic shift in the relationship, often following a traumatic event, such as the death of a family member who you were both attached to. Troy and his father got along fine until his mother died from cancer when Troy was 9 years old. After that, his father became a bitter alcoholic with a violent temper, but it was Troy that he focused his rage on, not either of Troy’s siblings. Why was Troy singled out for abuse and what will it take for him to get his father to like him again? These are just two of the questions Troy’s subconscious is trying to resolve by steering Troy towards male partners who will treat him as lousy as his father did.
Your subconscious controls your sex drive and which kinds of targets turn you on. Homosexuality, bisexuality and pedophilia are all caused by the subconscious intentionally diverting your sex drive onto targets that it hopes will help it resolve its own distress. I know a lot of you have been told that you were just born the way you are. Well, you weren’t. The subconscious’ control over the sex drive is a very poorly understood topic, which has led to a whole host of horrific “cures” for sexual deviation that only serve to amplify the mind’s distress.
Now because Troy’s subconscious is rerouting his sex drive to male targets and using the symbolic partner strategy, Troy’s symbolic partner’s gender matches that of his OP–they are both males. But in the case of Mason and Reyna, we had a straight man whose OP was also his father, yet his symbolic stand in for Dad was a woman. Don’t get hung up on the gender. Minds attach very different importance to the issue of gender, with some obsessing over it while others ignore it as an insignificant factor. To narrow in on who your OP is, focus on the emotional impact your current and past partners have had on you. Look for the pain, because in these cases, your subconscious is matching negative qualities, not positive ones. Usually you don’t have enough positive experiences with your OP to try and match their positive traits. So think about the particular kind of rotten your abusive partners have made you feel and ask yourself “Who else have I known who makes me feel this bad?” That question should at least help you form a shortlist of potential candidates from your past.
Dealing with Root Causes
Why is it so important to identify who your OP is? Because to break out of this harmful pattern of rolling from one toxic relationship to another, you need to face and deal with your feelings about your OP head on. Notice I said deal with your feelings–not with your OP directly. It’s usually a very bad idea to try and get your OP to play a helpful role in your healing process, so don’t even go down that road. Instead, focus on the goal of reducing the power your OP holds over you.
The reason your mind is obsessed with recreating so many versions of this relationship in your life is because it is currently labeling your OP as a critical person. Well, they’re not, and if you can get your mind to change its label, you will find your choice of partners improving.
It’s very possible to get your mind to change the way it views your OP. Minds do this sort of thing automatically all the time, usually in response to you collecting more life experiences. After Robbie the Rat poured glue into your hair in kindergarten, your mind labeled all redheaded males as annoying twits. But then you met Sean years later and he was a really nice guy. After Sean, your mind relabeled redheads as a mixed bag who could potentially be quite nice. Growing up, you hated your aunt’s casserole, so your mind labeled all casseroles as “yuck.” But then you married a woman who makes a delicious casserole, so you’ve relabeled that category of dishes as positive. Your mind is constantly revising its beliefs and conclusions–sometimes it just needs some extra help when it gets temporarily stumped by something.
Often in reframing OPs, a key element is to decide that your relationship with your OP is not salvageable and grieve it as you would a death. Healthy grieving is largely focused on releasing the hope of what might have been more than what actually was. There are many grief processing techniques that can be helpful, such as writing out a description of the relationship you wish you could have had with your OP, then ripping it up in a symbolic act of accepting that that dream is not going to happen. Releasing one dream makes room for another to form and be fulfilled, so when we give up on the thought of reconciling with abusers from our past, we aren’t giving in to defeat, we are weeding out our garden to make room for new flowers to be planted.
It is the hope of reconciling with your past abusive OP that is driving your current pursuit of partners who will abuse you today. While the subconscious always has logical reasons for what it does, and while it is extremely impressive in coming up with creative ways to solve its problems, not all of its strategies are effective. Symbolic partners is one of those ineffective strategies that sound good to your mind, yet in practice, they don’t work. Even if you did manage to flip one of your symbolic partners into treating you positively (which is usually quite impossible to do), as long as your OP remains hostile towards you and you have not released that relationship, you will find the changes in your symbolic partner unsatisfying. Instead of settling into a positive relationship, you’ll end up sabotaging the relationship and going on the hunt for someone who will treat you rotten again.
Symbols are very powerful, and when used correctly, they can trigger deep healing. But the symbolic partner strategy I’ve been discussing in this post is a case of symbols being used negatively, with the result being you getting stuck in an endless cycle of negative behavior patterns. While healing can be gained, a different strategy will need to be used: one which faces who you are really distressed by, validates your distress, and gives you permission to release the dream of that relationship ever working.
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