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A couple stands apart and looks out a window
by
Dr. Debbie Magids
,
May 12, 2022

I Come From a Happy Family; Why Can’t I Find Love?

Your blueprint for love comes directly from your relationship with your parents.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a relationship with your parents. A good, boundaried, relationship with our parents is extremely important. 

"I'm (relatively) normal, attractive, think I have a decent personality, and come from a “happy” family, so why can’t I find love?”

I’ve been a practicing psychologist in NYC for over 20 years, and by most measures, my clients are generally among the most motivated, savvy, and successful people in the world, but they’re also the most terrified.  So many of them have inexplicably struggled in their pursuit of long lasting relationships and love, and they want to know why.

My response is always the same: “Tell me about your parents.” Your blueprint for love comes directly from your relationship with your parents, and their relationship with each other.  There’s no exception to this rule, so accepting this fact is the first step toward figuring out what is getting in your way, and this applies no matter how old you are, and whether your parents are still alive or not. You can always do this work.

There are myriad ways our childhood relationships and familial dynamics complicate our adult lives, but one I’d like to address here is over-connection to a parent; if you can’t separate emotionally from being responsible for the happiness of your family, you’ll be destined to spend your life attracting people, situations, and connections that ultimately result in an inability to commit. Some people caught up in this emotional dynamic manage to get married, but when they prioritize loyalty to their family of origin it inevitably creates fissures in the relationship. In my book, All the Good Ones Aren’t Taken, I detail the eight specific behavioral patterns of dating that prevent men and women with this issue from finding love. 

So many clients come to me saying they come from a very loving family, and on the surface they do, but as we dig we inevitably find many feelings below that they’ve ignored, or not allowed themselves to feel (plenty of others don’t, of course, but that’s a topic for another day). Outwardly, they seem independent. Happy with their living situation, career, and financial status, with a great circle of friends. They may even consistently find themselves in relationships, thinking they just haven’t yet found “the one.”  Eventually the inability to find a partner sends these people to me. What they often can’t see is that the core reason they haven’t been able to “close the deal” with another person is that they have a deep over-connection to their own parents. It’s important to understand here that this over-connection is tied with having to fill their parents emotionally, to take care of them in a way that is unhealthy.  Deep within them is a need to put one or both of their parents’ emotional needs before their own.  

This over-connection runs deep, and understanding this problem is needed in order for any change to take place.  Over the last decade, I’ve gained a reputation as the psychologist whose expertise in this field goes unmatched.  Why am I the expert on this subject? Because I actually lived this particular dynamic in my own childhood and upbringing, and that has helped successfully treat hundreds of men and women and change their lives.  I know how painful being stuck in this cycle can be, so I’ve made it my mission to ensure that other men and women will never have to spend their lives struggling with this particular problem. 

I too came from, at the surface, a great family.  I had the same story I hear from so many: I grew up in the suburbs of NY, and my parents were long married. They loved each other, depended upon each other, and did everything together.  I was adored by them both, but as I got older and started to look back, as we all inevitably must do, I saw cracks that had hurt me: my parents were child survivors of the Holocaust, and that left them with a lot of emotional holes, holes that they often looked to me, their daughter, to fill.  I would connect to my dad emotionally where my mom couldn’t; I would take care of my mom emotionally, when my dad wasn’t available. It was subtle for me, because my parents were happy together.  Oftentimes, children fill in gaps that make the whole thing work, but there can then be an emotional price to pay later on for the child.

My Own Subconscious Contract

To be clear, I respect and love my parents very much, but like many people I unwittingly signed a contract with them in which I, the child, was made to feel responsible for their happiness, for fulfilling their emotional needs.  And because I was emotionally “tied” or “married” to this contract, I found myself  unable to fully separate and move into a life with someone else.  

I didn't fully understand all of this until therapy in my late 30's. There was a man I loved deeply, and it was a ten year on and off relationship, but every time we got close to committing, I would find an excuse to pull back and leave. Eventually he left me and married someone else. 

Then, at 41, my father was diagnosed with cancer and died four months later. I spent every day of those four months at his side, but it was during this time that I realized why my relationship could never move forward; I was married in a certain kind of emotional way to my father. When he did die, the pain was excruciating, and I actually went backwards and reconnected to the ex (who was by this point in an unhappy marriage) as a way to hold on to my father; they knew each other, being with him reminded me of the safety of being with my dad.  We didn't have an affair, but we did start to connect. But it was ultimately too late and I realized we were no longer a match. In not wanting to let go of my father, in always needing his approval, I had been  unable to separate from him emotionally and connect to this other man who I really did love.  It took me a few more years to get over the trauma of my father’s swift death, and fully untangle the complicated state I was in. I did finally heal and the man and I moved away from each other for good, but I’ll always feel sadness that I wasn’t ready for that relationship when I was younger. 

Your Subconscious Contract

Think about your relationship with your parents, and your family as a whole.  Here are the most common roles children play within the family that are at the heart of this issue:

The Good One. Being the “the good one” means you’re known as the person who the family always relies on. You are the one to help with whatever’s needed (i.e. taking care of a sick parent or a sibling; lifting everyone up emotionally).  You hold in how you really feel, so your needs, continually, are not met.

For some, this role can look different:  Are you the kind of “good one” who continually attempts to please your parents?  You may not have thought of yourself in this role because you are not viewed by others in this way. Still it seems that you are consistently seeking the love and approval that you did not receive during your childhood.

Part of the Parental Unit. Maybe you’ve taken over this role due to a divorce or death, and you’ve started to help with “parent” decisions, such as what to do with a sibling who’s never thrived, financial issues, or other family decisions.   

Perhaps you’ve become the” special someone” to one of your parents, and even more preferred than their own spouse.  They’re now relying on you to participate in activities that they’d normally be engaging in with the other parent, such as playing tennis together or going on golf outings.  Maybe you’ve become someone who understands them more, and is there to listen when they vent.

Another way you can become part of the parental unit is by somehow becoming the third person in your parents’ marriage; fulfilling needs for them they haven’t been able to fill for each other.   This can show itself in different ways, i.e. each parent confides in you about their marital troubles, you’re forced to referee an argument, or you’ve assumed the role of the person who calms down a tense situation. 

In these situations, your emotional needs remained unfulfilled.  Why?  Because you were too busy fulfilling the needs of your other family members.  

How To Separate

If you’re having difficulty forming a love relationship of your own because you’re subconsciously putting your parent’s emotional needs first, I’m going to ask you to perform an “Emotional Parental Amputation.”  Harsh language, I realize, but this process is very likely to make you feel like you’re losing a part of yourself (an “emotional limb”), which is very traumatic.  However, If you don’t perform this complete re-framing, or pulling back, you’ll never be free.  

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a relationship with your parents.  A good, boundaried, relationship with our parents is extremely important.  However, those of us who are over-identified with our parents need to shift the way we connect with them so that the  connection can become adult-to-adult, and no longer child-to-parent.  

At first, you may worry that you’re creating a situation that will be difficult for your parents, but you need to have empathy for yourself as well; this will be just as hard for you.  As you take the following five steps, be prepared to grieve and feel loss.  It’s all part of the process. 

Five Steps to Breaking the Subconscious Contract: 

  1. Acknowledge that you’re a full participant in this contract. Your parents may have started it, but you’re the one carrying it through.  You need it as much as they did when it began.  You’re used to being the “golden child,” the one who makes your parents feel fulfilled.  This major part of your identity is essential to how you function, gain approval, and feel loved.  
    How to Make the Change:
    The first step in one of the most well-respected programs today — Alcoholics Anonymous — is admitting that you have a problem.  The same thing applies here.  You must accept your participation in this contract in order for this to work.  Recognize the emptiness you feel when you start to relinquish this role you’ve perfected.  Sit in the discomfort of your pain.  This will be tough because you’re breaking down your old identity and forming a new one.  Acknowledge that this will be the most difficult part of your journey.
  2. Commit to breaking the contract: This isn’t an overnight gig.  Although it’s helpful to find someone to confide in — a friend, a therapist, or family member — what’s most important is that you hold yourself accountable for this change.  
    How to Make the Change:
    Sign a “conscious contract.”  Be conscious of this previously subconscious problem.  I cannot emphasize enough how important awareness is in order to shift this.  It’ll be a lot of work at first, but the day will come when you can take action, which leads to change.  
  3. Know that your feelings matter just as much as everyone else’s. As someone who’s always in the service of your family members, you’re able to hide your vulnerabilities.  It’s time to be seen for who you are, imperfections and all.  Acknowledge you also have needs that have to be met.  Until now, no one has been looking out for you, including you!  I’m asking you to start to count, at least as much as everyone else has counted around you. 
    How to Make the Change:
    Feel.  Ask for emotional support.  Cry to your loved ones.  Be vulnerable.  Stop being the rock, and allow someone to take care of you.  Let go of that “golden child” image.
  4. Set boundaries. Do this with everyone; parents, lovers, friends, and co-workers. We play this contract out everywhere. This may involve saying no to a favor, giving your opinion on where you’d like to eat, not having a holiday with your family, or declining an invitation.  You’ll be pleasantly surprised that most of the time, people will respect the boundaries you set.
    How to Make the Change:
    The barometer to use when setting boundaries is whether or not what’s being asked of you takes something away from you emotionally.  There’s a huge difference between being there for someone you love, and compromising yourself in order to be there. Ask yourself, “Am I doing this because I want to, or because I fear the consequences if I don’t?”  If your motivation for saying yes isn’t coming from a genuine place, but from a place of worrying about the consequences (you won’t be loved or get approval, you’ll be seen as imperfect), it’s okay to say no.  
  5. Take responsibility for the breaking of this contract.  Be patient with the fact that your parents or other family members  might not be so open to this change.  Be prepared for them (and others) to think you’re selfish.
    How to Make the Change:
    Know this is all up to you.  Don’t expect your parents to be the ones to change.  Risk feeling like you’re betraying them or not getting their approval.  Sit with those feelings of loneliness and powerlessness.  And understand your parents aren’t the ones who need to change; you are!  They got married; you aren’t there yet.  They haven’t been unhappy with the contract; you have!  The good news is they’ll most likely start to catch on and change with you, and in the service of you, because they love you and want you to be happy.  After all, they had no idea this contract existed, either!

By breaking the subconscious contract with your parents, you’ll be able to separate from your family in a healthy way, open yourself to a freedom you never knew existed, and in turn, find the love you’re looking for.  Six months after one of my clients broke the subconscious contract, she found her husband.  These things can be subtle, and a small shift can bring on big change; we each need to be able to feel our anger and pain attached to a parent, and the degrees to which we need to shift our behaviors and feelings varies with each situation. This is not an overnight process, and how long it takes depends on you.  But you can turn this around, and you’ll come to realize how much happier you are when you put yourself first.

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