Susan's Blog

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Looking for Ice Cream in All the Wrong Places

Warning: This is going to be one of those blog posts that makes the people in my life really uncomfortable and for which I get no comments. But I need the outlet, so here goes.

I think George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” I think that psychotherapists would agree that this is also true for relationships. If you do not learn from your upbringing the things that make you crazy, then you are probably doomed to repeat these unfortunate patterns and dynamics in future relationships.

Sometimes even when you know that you are involved in a destructive relationship,one that smacks of past unhealthy dynamics, you continue it. Why is that? I think it is in the hope that this time, you will get it right.

I am way past being angry about my flawed childhood, at least I think I am, but I do know that there is a legacy to deal with. My mother and father were at times difficult to read, emotionally. And I have always been very other-focused and introverted, and of course eager to please, as well as one to probe the layers, to make sure I am getting at the truth. So Mom and Dad were a challenge sometimes, which was stimulating to me on some level. I think that at a very early age I learned that love was supposed to feel like an anxious kind of excitement, where sometimes you hit it and sometimes you didn’t. I guess that is why I seem to have a knack for sometimes attracting people who do not easily show their love. The dynamic that gets set up is, I feel I have to earn it. I start to feel like if I can just “get it right,” then this person will be more forthcoming with their affection.

It is so frustrating to realize that this sort of person will always be who he/she is no matter what I do, and that I am going to therefore feel more and more compelled to get it right.

This is the phenomenon called “Going to the hardware store for ice cream.” No matter how many times you visit that place, you are not going to get the ice cream. There may be a sweet snack there that satisfies temporarily, but it won’t be ice cream and it is not always there; it is unpredictable. I am also reminded of that experiment with the rats, some of whom pressed the button and never got a pellet of food; some of whom pressed the button and always got the food; and some of whom pressed the button and sometimes got the food. The first two groups learned amazingly quickly whether to press the button or not. The third group always, always went back to that button in the pathetic hope of getting that delicious pellet. Intermittent reinforcement = anxiety in relationships. My finger clicking the “get mail” button is no different from those rats’ paws. Even as I write this, I have a terrible yearning for things to just be good again with INF.

I guess this is another manifestation of OCD [mine, but maybe also the rats’]. When I first had Max and Nat, I had OCD really bad. The checking, the cleaning, the whole horrendous thing. Basically the only thing that helped me then was to STOP. To stop and to realize that I had survived. Then this built upon itself until I no longer do any of that. But it has morphed into a new form: obsession over a person. A person who is not able to give me what I need except once in a while, but whom I am still foolishly and pathetically drawn to because this person is very familiar, brings me back to my original conception of what love feels like, a kind of heated, uncertain thing, rather than the still, solid, sunny thing Ned brought me.

I remember when I was first with Ned and I realized that he was so unchanging in how he treated me, no matter what I did or said, he was strong and centered and unflinching. I remember feeling like, “maybe I don’t love him,” because it was so encompassing, soft, easy. A bed you could just fall into, always there, always welcoming. Love had not felt that way as a child. It took a very wise therapist to show me that I had actually made the smartest choice of my life.

Why isn’t that enough? Why do I still seek the other kind of love?

How do I stop looking for ice cream at the hardware store?


Hi, I can understand the obsession with people.

I’ve also looked for icecream at the hardware store too.

It was good that you were able to stop the OCD behaviours.

And I liked your thing about love being an anxious kind of excitement. I experience that, but contentment too, and constancy like your love of Ned.

— added by Bronwyn G on Wednesday, April 12, 2006 at 6:59 pm

Isn’t Ned a software store, not a hardware store? You certainly can’t get ice-cream there.

Sorry for poking fun at a serious subject, I just couldn’t resist.

I think dissatisfaction is a core element of being human. It’s what drives us. I’m always dissatisfied with the programs I code, the words I write, the pictures I paint, etc… Because of this, I’m either head down in a book, or a laptop trying to learn more, or trying to build something that may be beautiful or worse I’m self medicating to forget the gnawing fact that I’m not the smartest, most creative person in the world.

For other people it is relationships drive them crazy. I know my obsession with building things drives Jayne nuts at time. My dissatisfaction then feeds her dissatisfaction that sounds a lot like your, that I’m not able to provide the emotional responsiveness that she craves. Of course this then becomes a vicious cycle as I turn back to my computers and other distractions trying to avoid the emotional things I find so difficult to grasp.

Damien posted a great snippet on this phenomenon recently:
In a similar vein, I’ve found that insight meditation is a great tool for gaining some calm in the wake of such mental turmoil. I don’t practice it frequently but it’s been very helpful at times when I really need to figure out what I want from life.

— added by Pete Lyons on Wednesday, April 12, 2006 at 7:21 pm

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams.

Oh, what an uncomfortable place to be.

What I know (sort of) now, that I didn’t know then, is that marriages go through predictible stages of growth. Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson’s two books, In Quest of the Mythical Mate (written for marriage therapists) and Tell Me No Lies (written for a lay audience) were very helpful for me in understanding growth in the context of a relationship.

It gave me a new place to stand.

And Pete has a good point–insight meditation is very helpful. So is a gratitude practice, like Naikan. It’s not pollyanna-ish, it is redressing the balance.

— added by Anonymous on Thursday, April 13, 2006 at 2:44 pm

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