Attractions of Deprivation: The Technical Term for our Daddy/Mommy Issues

The last few months have been what you might call a romance-lite rollercoaster. So many different, seemingly special people have popped in and out of my life like mere blips on my radar. I keep feeling that I am connecting with people on an authentic, or what you could describe as deeper, level, only to find soon afterwards that my interpretations are foolish. I already struggle with trusting people, and a tendency to assume the worst. Unsurprisingly, these recent experiences aren’t helping with those issues.

I have heightened expectations for my relationships with others, and while it’s nice to aspire to such depth and assume that others have similar yearnings, it often lets me down. It’s just not entirely realistic, especially when dealing with people in their twenties who are (myself included) self-involved, confused, and struggling with stability in all of its forms. None of us are entirely sure of who we are and where we’re going—what we want from life and what we’d like to contribute to the world at large.

One setback of being a writer is having a wild imagination that can create the worst possible scenarios in a matter of moments—based, usually, off of little factual grounds. My mother always tells me to stop believing I can read minds, because, much to my surprise, I actually can’t. But ingrained habits are hard to kick to the curb, and when something goes wrong, I still find myself fashioning the thoughts of others as if they’re entirely legitimate and not merely birthed by my own brainwaves. In these moments, I am (like every song ever will tell you) my own worst enemy.

I too quickly assume that other people’s behaviors are a direct reflection of me—or more specifically, something wrong with me—rather than a commentary on their own issues. While I am by no means perfect, neither is anyone else in my orbit. It’s important for all of us to remember that when our connections falter. People are busy, damaged, consumed with a million different things—many of which I do not, and will never, know. When my friends solely beat themselves up for their relationships-gone-awry, I can see clearly that it’s not just about them—if it’s even about them at all. But while logic is easily bestowed on others, it is usually uneager to dabble in our personal reflections.

I was recently introduced to the psychological concept of “attractions of deprivation”, and I think it represents much of why I, and many others my age, have been struggling lately in matters of love. It’s essentially the more technical term for daddy issues, although it really refers to your history with both parents and how that affects the people you seek out later in life. To be clear, it is not meant as an attack on how your parents raised you, but instead is an acknowledgment that most of our parents have failed us in some way, just as we will probably fail our future children in other ways. As we all know, nobody is perfect. I love my parents, but they are flawed, and on the simplest level, they got divorced when I was three. That fact inevitably leaves behind residual damage.

Ken Page, a writer for Psychology Today, notes that the idea of “attractions of deprivation” can help answer the questions of: “Why do our most intense romantic passions so often end in disaster? Why do these “attractions of deprivation” feel just like true love, even as they lead us off the edge of a cliff?” He continues:

All of us are attracted to a particular type that stops us dead in our tracks: a physical type, an emotional type, and a personality type. These “iconic” attractions make us weak in the knees, and they trigger our insecurities as well as seismic longings. How does that happen?

The Harville Hendrix’ model of the Imago explains that they draw us in part because they embody the worst emotional characteristics of our primary caregivers! Even though we may be adults, we often have unresolved childhood hurts due to betrayal, manipulation, abuse and neglect from our caregivers.

The result of this is not pretty, and it doesn’t lead us to people who are necessarily right for us, but those whose allure is more complex. Page explains this further:

Unconsciously, we seek healing of these wounds in our intimate relationships. But that means we’re most attracted to people who can wound us in just the way we were wounded in our childhood! Our psyche seeks to recreate the scene of the original crime, and then save us by changing its ending. The child in us believes that if the original perpetrators — or their current replacements — finally change their minds, apologize, or make up for that terrible rupture of trust, we can escape from our prison of unworthiness. Our conscious self is drawn to the positive qualities we yearn for, but our unconscious draws us to the qualities which hurt us the most as children.

It may seem farfetched, or too Freudian for you, but I think it’s worth mulling over. If you sit down and really reflect on your most tumultuous relationships, I don’t doubt that you will see how this concept can occasionally play out. I know from my own experience and from discussions on the topic with friends and other family members, it is a real problem that many of us face. A wise adult I know always talks about how we all have “that one thing” that really sets us off, but that probably wouldn’t trigger another person on nearly the same level. It is usually wrapped up in our childhood experience. For me it’s when people drop contact with no explanation—i.e. when people leave. Even if they don’t actually do that, I tend to be consumed by the fear that they will. It’s directly linked to the fact that my parents separated when I was three, and as a result of his job, my Dad had to spend a lot of time away from me in foreign countries. He did the best he could, he is a great father, and I don’t blame him. But the way a 3-10 year old experiences things is vastly different from the way I can reflect on it now.

As a result, when people fall off the face of the earth for whatever reason, I assume it’s because I am unworthy. I rack my brain for explanations: what did I do wrong? What is wrong with me that would lead someone to drop me, to disappear? I don’t think at all about their own potential setbacks, their problematic lives. And when I finally do, a lot of their issues suddenly pop up to remind me that it’s, well, not all about me. They’re often insecure themselves, constantly angry, immature, scared of commitment, narcissistic, or too busy with work to settle down. I often fall for the fickle ones who like to pop in and out, confessing their love one moment and ignoring me the next. For years I imagined that with a little time these behaviors would end. Slowly, I’m learning that trying to make such troubled relationships work is really just an attempt to make up for past hurts, and is totally futile. When I am honest with myself—these guys usually have NONE of the qualities I actually want in a man. [Sidenote: As women in particular, I think we rarely think about what these qualities really are, and are more prone to settle for another person’s characteristics as what we must or should want–a topic I plan to explore at a later date.]

But rather than explore those things that we truly want in another person, we tend to operate based upon a self-created “myth of lost love.” Page describes this concept in the following terms:

As we grow beyond the relative paradise of infancy, each of us crashes into the painful wall of our parents’ dysfunctions, and the cruelty of the outside world. This experience feels like a deep loss; a betrayal of what we know life should be like. So we create a “myth of lost love” to explain why this loss occurred.

The myth of lost love has two aspects. First, it articulates how the world is unsafe, and what we should do about that. It creates rules for us to follow to protect ourselves from new assaults upon our heart. The second part of our myth is equally destructive. It explains our parents’ limitations in the way that makes the most sense to a kid –“It’s my fault, and in some essential way, I’m unlovable.” And then it continues its path of damage by articulating the flaws which make us unworthy of love. It homes in on our most vulnerable, needy, and nonconforming qualities and tells that us that they are to blame for our loss of love.

It’s completely unproductive, and usually inaccurate. After all, the qualities that make us quirky and vulnerable are usually the aspects that people truly fall in love with.

I don’t mean to imply that you should never reflect on your own behavior, as we certainly can (and often do) contribute to a relationship’s end ourselves. I just think it’s important to look at the whole picture, rather than to focus solely on all that’s wrong with y-o-u. Your attractions deprivation isn’t usually the sole reason for things not working out, and it’s not meant to be a fallback reasoning whenever things go wrong. But I think acknowledging it, if it’s there, is important in order for you to pursue healthier relationships and adopt healthier responses to things that fall apart.

Slowly, you’ll start to recognize the attributes you’re attracted to for the wrong reasons, you’ll begin to avoid the types that only let you down. You’ll settle less and seek, instead, what you really, truly want in a relationship. It is incredibly difficult, especially if lust makes you borderline delusional (as it does me), but from what my older, wiser peers tell me, it is possible.

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