Dear Dr. Yael:
Reading your columns over the years has had a profound effect on my life. That is one of the reasons I have been reading the articles on toxic relationships.
It is clear to me that I come from a home that was steeped in toxic parenting. I have always felt criticized by my parents, who most definitely have a toxic marriage.
I also had a chance to read the poignant letter from the woman who came to you for therapy and was able to marry against her imago (an unconscious, idealized mental image of someone, especially a parent, that influences a person’s behavior). She wrote, “In therapy I learned that I came from a negative marriage and that my parents were critical of me and of each other. I seemed to seek out negative men who were in sync with my imago. I learned all about the imago theory and I realized that I kept doing this to myself. It was you who encouraged me to continue to date my husband who initially I was not attracted to. He was just too nice.”
Well, guess what, Dr. Respler? Her description fits me to a tee – even though I am male. Ever Friday night my parents read your column and then we all guess what your answer will be. It always amazes me that they never seem to see themselves in all your insightful columns. However, as I said, I recognize my life. I saw my negative imago and that I was dating toxic women and that every relationship ended painfully.
Thanks to your columns I began the therapy that has made a difference in my life. It is my pleasure to share with you and your readers that, Baruch Hashem, I am now engaged to a loving, wonderful woman who is really not my imago. My kallah comes from a loving non-toxic home and she is so different from my parents. My siblings all struggle in their marriages and I am so happy that I can see myself building a future with a different type of person than the one I would have picked if I had not gone for therapy. I hope that you continue to write this column and help people make positive changes in their lives.
Thank you for sharing your beautiful story with our readers. Because people with negative imagos are attracted to people who treat them badly, they do not usually realize that they are marrying abusive spouses until after they experience the abuse with more severity – which most often takes place after the wedding. This is why it is so important to seek out therapy if you feel you were raised in a negative home.
While most people raised in toxic homes tell themselves that they will never marry anyone like their parents, they generally do. This is because, subconsciously, they’re attracted to someone who treats them the way they’re used to being treated. That is why even if one is aware of his or her negative background and wants to marry differently, it does not automatically happen. However, if that person begins therapy and learns to love who he or she is and is taught how to overcome that subconscious need for negativity, then the negative cycle can be changed and a happy and successful marriage may be possible.
If you have been dating for a while and nothing is working out, it may be a good idea to have a consultation with a therapist. It’s possible that there is something small getting in your way (e.g., perhaps you put yourself down on dates in a self-deprecating manner, not realizing that this causes men/women to shy away from you). It’s also possible that something in your childhood is preventing you from moving on. Whatever the cause is, you can learn ways to get past the issue and hopefully find the right person soon!
As a therapist who has the opportunity to treat patients from homes ranging from chassidish to Modern Orthodox, I see one commonality. One’s home of origin plays such a significant role in one’s life that often one cannot understand how it can sabotage the dating process and marriage.
Most of my readers date and marry either through the shidduch process or some other means by which they ultimately make their “own” choice. In the chassidish world, marriages are generally arranged with the couple meeting once or twice before an engagement. Interestingly enough, chassidim can marry against their imago since parents generally try to pick someone who will be a healthy partner for their child.
Even if someone comes from a dysfunctional home and marries someone from a healthy functional home, the imago can be recreated.
For example: A chassidish couple attends a Melave Malka. The husband is sitting with his father-in-law and other men in the dining room and singing while the wife is sitting in the kitchen with her mother, sisters and sisters-in-law having a grand time talking. At the end of the party, the husband goes to fetch his wife from the kitchen and jokingly makes fun of her talking so much, which embarrasses her in front of her mother, sisters and sisters-in-law. Later on, the couple discuss the situation and realize that the husband was overreacting to his wife’s lively personality since it reminded him of his own mother, whom his father would often publicly humiliate.
In this example, the husband is recreating his imago in a marriage that is generally healthy and loving. He sees his wife behaving as his mother does and falls into a pattern he had seen at home.
Thank you for helping others see that they too can move past their negative imago and marry against it! Hatzlocha in your marriage and may you have much happiness and nachas in your lifetime!