The Neurotic Complement in Relationships
Fitting together like a lock and a key
Posted Jan 12, 2019
Most of us are familiar with the old saw about partnering with your parent—Mommy, Daddy, or some confounding combination of both. If you think about it, this makes a great deal of sense because our primary caretakers model relationships for us. What we experience becomes our normal—a normal we are often regrettably doomed to repeat and that we, predictably, project into our worldview—but that’s not the whole story.
The modeling dynamic doesn’t wholly explain how we end up repeating patterns in relationships, or, more properly, choosing variations of the same partner over and over again. That’s something a bit more subtle—something we might term a ‘neurotic complement’; where the personality aspects and character traits in another person—good, bad or indifferent—activate us in a way we find ‘attractive’. For example, someone who grew up with a great deal of social and emotional uncertainty, like the child of an alcoholic, is likely going to be drawn to someone who appears consistent. By the same token, if that person’s consistency is borne of their insecurity and need to control, the natural submissiveness of someone who seeks certainty becomes a reciprocal draw.
This dynamic doesn’t just apply to love relationships. It can apply, directly or indirectly, to all manner of social interaction. For instance, if you had two similar job offers, it’s likely you would choose the opportunity where you felt more socially and emotionally ‘comfortable’. We don’t often think about where that sense of ‘comfort’ comes from, but it’s a fair bet, at least in part, it’s about the way we are being activated in the situation. We tend to pick the person or place that pushes our buttons and feeds us in whatever way we need to be fed—good, bad, or indifferent. Basically, we unconsciously—and sometimes quite consciously, although not necessarily in the spiritual sense—seek out the people and places where we fit together like a lock and a key, and, very often, that’s a two-way street.
It’s also important to keep in mind the neurotic complement is not necessarily always a bad thing. In fact, if we consciously enter into a relationship—social or emotional—and are aware of how we are being activated, the experience can lead to a great deal of personal growth. Conversely, if we enter into a relationship without conscious intention, it can be a disastrous repetition of deprivation, longing and unmet needs. Our challenge is not simply to avoid falling into old patterns, but, rather, recognizing and using those patterns as leverage to foster self-development.
To that point, love is often partly defined as putting the needs of another person before our own. That’s one of the hallmarks of healthy codependence. On the other hand, if we put the needs of another person first at our own expense, we are starting down the path toward unhealthy codependence and enmeshment. In this situation, the conscious awareness that we are sacrificing ourselves, or our own needs, can becomes a potential platform for transformation and program for change. Again, the challenge lies in both recognizing what we’re doing and fostering an awareness of the choices we’re making.
For instance, if you think about where the silverware drawer is in your kitchen, chances are—making some allowance for design differences—it’s in pretty much the same place it was in the house you grew up in. That’s not an accident—that’s a neural rut we like to call an ‘expectation’. The silverware is where it is because that’s where it’s ‘supposed’ to be. It’s our ‘normal’.
With respect to our relationship, the same can be said for our rapprochement, or the way we are in the world. We have expectations. We have a ‘normal’. The thing is, that normal isn’t always so normal—it’s a dance. Whether it’s a minuet, a waltz or a tango, it’s still a pattern. For instance, when you call your financial adviser to move some money to make a purchase, do you ask them, or tell them? Asking is parentalization—you’re making them your psycho-surrogate parent, based on your expectations. Similarly, when you call your partner to say you’ll be home an hour later than you (and they) expected, because you want to stay on at the social event you are attending, are you asking permission ,or stating your needs? Asking permission is self-infantilization—you’re making yourself the child—again, based on your expectations. Standing in your power and speaking your truth—in these cases transparently stating your needs—helps you break free of this kind of debilitating dynamic.
With respect to relationships, the neurotic complement—that psychic lock and key—is, at its most basic, an expression of our expectations that have developed based on a combination of modelling, experience and the attachment style that is precursor to those influences. Attachment style is a somewhat different conversation, but, suffice it to say, there are two meta-categories of attachment—secure attachment and insecure attachment. The neurotic complement is typically informed by an intersection of two insecure attachment styles, and the dynamic it creates.
One of the other significant aspects of understanding the neurotic compliment related to attachment, and the way it influences our current relationships, is unraveling how it bridges back to our parent-informed relational rut. That’s not to say we must engage in an endless exploration of our Mommy-Daddy issues or fall down some psychoanalytic rabbit hole. What it means is examining parallels between the past and present, as well as evolving an understanding of our underlying motivations for the choices we’re making today.
For example, if we had a caregiver whose relational style was an unpredictable mix of supportive and unsupportive—meaning they would inconsistently give or withdraw love and affection based on their own momentary ego agenda—two things happen for us. First, we develop an expectation of presence-and-absence—or, more prosaically, push-and-pull—in our relationships, and, secondly—based on modeling, experience and the attachment style that experience informs—we will also tend to show up the same way in our own relationships. To wit, we develop our own ‘normal’, and, one that—boots on the ground, at least in this example—is likely not to our benefit.
Developing some perspective on our emotional legacy can help us release our past, sort out our present and provide us with a clearer vision of our current relationships, as well as how we are both present (or not) and presenting within them. Within the context of that perspective, understanding the genesis of what we consider our relational ‘normal’ brings us back to attachment style. Attachment is tied to the process of separation and individuation outlined in developmental psychology, and occurs on a continuum of 0-36 months, or thereabouts. Some also contend there is a potential prenatal component—the argument being that if exposing a fetus to positive stimuli in the womb produces positive results, the converse should also be true.
Either way, the manner in which our expectations of receiving love as a developing infant—secure or insecure—carries over into our adulthood and roundly informs our rapprochement with respect to relationships. Getting at this in a concrete way can help us sort out our emotional legacy and support us in learning how to start spending that currency in a way that becomes a progressive and generative escape from the tyranny of the neurotic compliment, rather than continuing a course that is repetitive as well as, ultimately, fruitless and unsatisfying.
© 2019 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved