We may all relate to this feeling at some point in our lives – that we get attracted to people who are not good for us. Perhaps it was a personal experience, or we witnessed it through family or friends. Relationship patterns that are intoxicatingly appealing often draw people to partners who are emotionally unavailable, yet they stay. Why? There may be several factors at play.
Schemas are information processing systems we develop in childhood. These were first outlined by psychologists Frederic Bartlett (1886 – 1969) and Jean Piaget (1896 -1980). They influence our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors throughout life . Young et al. (2006) outlined 18 ‘early maladaptive schemas’ which they have developed a therapy in relation to. These maladaptive schemas are:
|Abandonment||The belief that significant others will leave|
|Mistrust/Abuse||The belief that others will lie or take advantage|
|Emotional Deprivation||The feeling that adequate emotional support is not available|
|Defectiveness/Shame||The belief that one is flawed or worthless|
|Social Isolation||The feeling of separation from others|
|Dependence/Incompetence||The feeling that one is unable to take care of oneself|
|Vulnerability to Harm or Illness||The belief that catastrophe is impending|
|Enmeshment/Undeveloped Self||The fusion of identity with a significant other|
|Failure||The belief that one is inadequate compared with others|
|Entitlement/Grandiosity||The belief that one is superior to/more deserving than others|
|Insufficient Self-Control/Discipline||The belief that one cannot restrain emotions or impulses|
|Subjugation||The feeling that one’s own needs are less important than others’|
|Self-Sacrifice||The focus on meeting others’ needs at the expense of one’s own|
|Approval-Seeking||The heightened need for approval/recognition from others|
|Negativity/Pessimism||The pervasive focus on negative aspects of life|
|Emotional Inhibition||The constriction of emotional expression|
|Unrelenting Standards||The perfectionist drive to achieve|
|Punitiveness||The belief that mistakes warrant punishment|
These schemas reflect emotional needs that weren’t met during childhood, and become self-defeating ‘traps’ during adulthood (Young & Klosko, 1993). They influence the way we approach romantic relationships. For example, a person with an abandonment schema might constantly predict that their ‘partner will leave’. Sadly this may activate a lot of emotional pain that they then cope with by e.g., seeking care in unhelpful or harmful ways.
Paradoxically, these strategies aren’t effective in the long term; they feed into existing schema traps by increasing the person’s chances of feeling more abandoned, e.g., when the partner withdraws or ends the relationship.
Schema chemistry refers to the intense attraction and romantic connection between two people when their schemas are activated in the relationship. This feeling is enticing because it initially feels so familiar, so close to heart; it reflects a level of re‐experiencing the familiar childhood emotions (Stevens & Roediger, 2016).
For example, a person with:
- Abandonment schema might be drawn to partners who are emotionally unavailable
- Dependence schema might be drawn to partners who are overly controlling
- Self-sacrifice schema might prioritise a partner who might be entitled and thankless
- Defectiveness schema might be stuck in self-blaming patterns, feeling unworthy when drawn to a partner who is highly critical
As the relationship progresses, because these triggered schemas are reinforced rather than challenged, old patterns resurface, and serious problems can end up hurting the couple as they re-experience childhood unmet emotional needs and distress.
Paradoxically, again, the “more caught up people are with the emotional rollercoaster, the more unlikely they are to have their true emotional needs met” (Gladstone & Corry, 2022).
Breaking schema-driven relationship patterns
Maladaptive schemas can be replaced by adaptive ones (Hayes & Parsonnet, 2016). However it can be hard work. This is because not all fulfilling partnerships ‘feel’ fulfilling, as we strip away the schema chemistry and say no to relationships that reinforce our schema traps.
Breaking out of old cycles requires a lot of understanding and awareness – for how schema chemistry plays out, spotting old relational tendencies, and resisting schema traps by confronting painful emotional experiences and developing new behaviors and patterns.
Schema therapy can be a useful framework for guiding us through these challenges, especially in helping us reconnect with our core emotional needs, break schema-driven patterns, and to trial new ways of relating.
Gladstone, G., & Corry, J. (2022, June 2). Schema Chemistry 101: Uncovering the Hidden Reason Why Your Relationships Don’t Work Out. The Good Mood Clinic. https://www.goodmood.com.au/50-schema-chemistry-101-uncovering-the-hidden-reason-why-your-relationships-dont-work-out/
Hayes, C. & Parsonnet, L. (2016). Issue: couples and relationships. The Schema Therapy Bulletin, 3. 1
Stevens, B. A., & Roediger, E. (2016). Breaking negative relationship patterns: A schema therapy self-help and support book. John Wiley & Sons.
Young, J. E., & Klosko, J. S. (1993). Reinventing your life: How to break free from negative life patterns and feel good again. Penguin Books.
Young, J. E., Klosko, J. S., & Weishaar, M. E. (2006). Schema therapy: A practitioner’s guide. guilford press.