Avoid the Traps of Unconscious Loving

Are you creating misunderstanding, hurt and conflict in your most cherished relationships — without even knowing it? Build yourself some detours around the most common “unconscious loving” pitfalls.

Often we’re not aware of the destruction our words and actions may cause — we just go along, doing and saying the only things we know how to do and say. These tips, exercises and insights from Conscious Loving by renowned relationship expert Gay Hendricks can help you and your partner overcome relationship troubles or just strengthen your bond with your partner so you can avoid falling into these traps.

Top 3 Traps of Unconscious Loving

When you first wake up, you may find that your current relationship is based primarily on your unconscious needs, structured around old patterns usually learned in childhood. We call these common relationship patterns Co-Dependent Traps, and we would like you to look closely at the them. Only by seeing the trap clearly can you find your way out of it.

As you read about these common patterns, do your best not to become discouraged. Sometimes people feel that they are hopelessly mired in these traps. When you finally realize that you have been acting out a pattern, you always have the option of feeling hopeless. But there is little payoff for feeling that way. Hopelessness comes out of having no set of steps along which to proceed. But you also feel hopeful because there are a very specific set of steps that will take you out of co-dependence and into co-commitment. Rather than feeling hopeless and discouraged, simply acknowledge that you are acting out an old pattern, and begin to take steps to remedy it. We’ve found that it’s possible to view the whole process as fun and interesting instead of as a chore.

Trap 1: In my relationships I let people get away with destructive behavior.

This pattern is perhaps the most pervasive trap. People in relationships with you carry out self-destructive patterns. They drink too much, smoke or overeat. Out of your unconscious need to be loved, you support your loved ones while they hurt themselves. You pick up the pieces for them, cleaning up their messes behind them. You fail to take a stand for their health and well-being, usually by failing to make them accountable and responsible for their behavior. Instead, you participate unconsciously in their self-destruction. Consider the following real-life example.

Linda married Frank on the reboundfrom a destructive relationship in which she was emotionally and physically abused. Frank was grossly overweight—he weighed 300 pounds. Frank tried to lose weight repeatedly during the first few years of the relationship. Each time he lost a few pounds and began to feel good about himself, Linda would suddenly decide that she wanted to dine out at a fancy restaurant. She would badger Frank into taking her, and of course he wasn’t able to resist the temptation. His diet would go out the window and he would gain his weight back. Another pattern: Frank would start to lose weight; Linda would bring home a big box of chocolates or ice cream, two of his can’t-resist favorites. Linda was clearly sabotaging Frank’s attempts to master his eating problems. They made a commitment to find out why they kept replaying this pattern. They began by reading self-help and eating-disorder books. The following is what they discovered.

Linda had a backlog of submerged anger from two past situations. She was still furious with her ex-husband for his abusiveness to her. Plus when she was at puberty, her very overweight father had died. Both she and her mother had a great deal of anger at him for eating himself to death and for leaving them. Unconsciously Linda was sabotaging Frank’s weight-loss attempts in order to replay that old childhood script. She was participating in Frank’s killing himself as a way of expressing anger at her father and her ex-husband.

On Frank’s side of the pattern, his mother had allowed him to overeat from the time he was an infant. Frank was a latch-key child, and there were always gourmet goodies around the house in the afternoons. He would assuage his loneliness with a box of butter cookies or a heaping bowl of ice cream. As an adult, he had simply traded in his mother for Linda, who was happy to replay the pattern with him. She was outwardly concerned about his weight but secretly conspired in his self-destruction.

This sort of thing is quite common, although it may not be as glaringly obvious as in the example of Frank and Linda. Millions of people unconsciously participate in and support the destructive behavior of those whom they love. A more subtle version of this pattern is the relationship in which two people do not support each other’s expression of their full potential. They let each other get away with being less than their best. There is no agreement between them that the relationship is going to be the catalyst for growth. There may be no overt self-destructiveness such as drinking, drugging, or overeating, but the pattern is basically the same. It is a conspiracy of mediocrity.

Trap 2: I form relationships with people who let me get away with destructive patterns.

This trap is the flip side of Trap 1. Do you pick close relationships in which people support you for your bad habits? Or do you go out of your way to surround yourself with people who demand the best of you? Many people have awakened to find themselves surrounded by “friends” or family who support their worst aspects. An example: Danny, at age twenty-three, was having a hard time leaving adolescence behind. Teenagers are notorious for avoiding responsibility. They perceive themselves as victims of a universe that does not understand them. They are loath to take responsibility for their lives, preferring instead to heap blame on parents, teachers, or anyone else who permits it. Danny was still of this frame of mind. His basic statement to the world was: “I didn’t ask to be here, I don’t want to be here, and it’s all your fault.” This did not make him attractive to employers, several of whom fired him, only to become more evidence of an unfair universe. How did he get away with this attitude? Who picked up the slack for him? Daddy.

His father was a wheeler-dealer in his early forties whose deals were always just this side of illegal. In fact, most of Danny’s attitudes were also held by his father. But one day a crisis occurred that forced both of them to look at their behavior. Danny borrowed Dad’s Porsche without his knowledge. In fact, Danny had been forbidden to go near the car after he had bent one of its fenders a few months before. Danny, after a few beers with his friends, was speeding in the Porsche when he hit a mother and child crossing the street. The woman and her son both had broken limbs, and, perhaps more to the point, the husband and father was a lawyer. Danny spent time in jail for driving under the influence, and his father had several properties attached, causing him to go bankrupt. They were both forced to go into therapy as part of their rehabilitation. Even with abundant evidence that their behaviors and attitudes were not bringing them prosperity and happiness, they were both still very attached to their victim position. According to them, they had gotten the wrong judge, their lawyer was no good, and the laws were stacked against them. With a great deal of patient work, their therapist was gradually able to help them see what there was no payoff to the victim position. They saw that their whole relationship, and indeed their whole lives, had been organized around taking little or no responsibility. They supported each other’s victim point of view and maintained the relationship because it let them get away with their destructive behavior. Fortunately, they eventually saw the light, and both Danny and his father turned their lives around. Danny joined the navy and has now worked his way up to non-commissioned officer; his father made a real midlife about-face and became a seminary student.

The difference between a comedy and a tragedy is very clear. In theater, movies, and TV, the hero or heroine must solve a problem or deal with a character flaw. If the hero wakes up in time and gets the message, a happy ending results. But if the hero stays attached to the old pattern and sleeps through the universe’s wake-up call, tragedy is the result.

Trap 3: I form relationships with people whose personalities and behavior resemble that of one or both of my parents.

As children, we felt our first closeness, nurturance, and love with people who often had deep flaws in their character and behavior. We may despise those flaws, but many times we re-create them by having adult relationships with people who have the very same flaws. For example, Mark’s father was a real charmer who could sell anything to anybody when he was sober. Mark adored his father, who was witty and a good storyteller. He thought of his mother as being nervous and uptight (she was always busy keeping the family together and cleaning up Father’s messes). She was very bitter, often saying to Mark, “You’re going to end up just like him.”

As an adult, several times Mark found himself in work situations in which his boss had created grandiose plans but could not be relied on to see them through. Mark had lost contracts and had even been in a legal battle while trying to rescue one of these “fathers” from self-destruction. Mark was replaying an old pattern, in which his father was the hero against an unfair system. He overlooked the character flaw in his bosses because it was the same one he overlooked, out of love, in his father. It cost, and it hurt, and many of Mark’s friends told him how stupid he was to back these losers. In spite of these cues from the universe, Mark did not get the message until he nearly went to prison because of one of his bosses’ shady dealings.


These traps are the major ones we have seen repeatedly in our practice. No doubt there are other traps, and dozens of variations of the ones we have described. But these are the major ways people sleepwalk through life, and if you see yourself reflected in any of these patterns: Wake up! It’s time to get conscious about how you want your relationships to be. Don’t let your old patterns run the show. You’ll never be happy in the dim dreamworld of unconscious entanglements.

The waking-up process involves seven specific steps to transform any relationship from unconscious to conscious loving.

Conscious Loving by Gay and Katie Hendricks

From Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment by Gay Hendricks, Ph. D. and Kathlyn Hendricks, Ph. D. Copyright © 1990 Bantam Books. Republished with permission.

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jenboda's picture
User offline. Last seen 7 years 13 weeks ago. Offline
Joined: 12/03/2008

It's nice to see this simplified in writing. These patterns are the hardest things for us to see and to double those patterns with another person and try to deal with it all with another person seems sometimes impossible. This is why we have to deal with our own patterns and be in constant communication with our partner.


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