NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, April 6, 2015

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families: Confusing Love and Pity

In my prior article, I introduced the topic of the dynamics of adult children of alcoholic or dysfunctional families and discussed that, even when there's no substance abuse involved, adult children from dysfunctional families often have similar problems to adult children of alcoholics families.

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families:  Confusing Pity and Love

One the common characteristics for people from dysfunctional families is that they often confuse pity for love and get into codependent relationships where they feel the need to rescue the other person.

Since people who grow up in dysfunctional families often have a fear of being abandoned, they unconsciously choose people who are in turmoil because they feel that these people will depend on them and not leave them.

The fact that this is unconscious is important to recognize.  It's only after these people become aware of their unconscious codependent dynamics that they can begin to understand how and why they're perpetuating these dynamics in each relationship.

Once they've developed an awareness, there is a possibility to change.  As with any change, it's not always easy, especially if codependent dynamics have been longstanding.

Change usually involves processing the childhood emotional trauma so that these dynamics don't keep getting repeated in each relationship.

The following vignette, which is a composite of many different cases to protect confidentiality, illustrates how an adult child of a dysfunctional family repeatedly recreates codependent dynamics, including confusing pity for love, and how this problem can be overcome in therapy:

Ella began therapy because she felt confused and upset that none of her romantic relationships worked out.

At the time, her ex-boyfriend, Dan, who had lived with her for a year, had just moved out of her apartment following a turbulent breakup.

Ella, who was in her early 30s, felt like a "failure" when it came to relationships.  Prior to the last breakup, she had been in three long term relationships, and every one of them ended badly.

When she first met him, she was sure that Dan was her "soul mate," but she was bewildered as to why it didn't work out.

When she first met Dan in a cafe, he was unemployed and "couch surfing" among his friends.  As they struck up a conversation and Dan talked about his problems, Ella felt a instant intense attraction to him.

By the end of their conversation, Ella invited him over to her apartment.  They had passionate sex, and within a couple of weeks, she invited him to move in.

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families:  Confusing Pity and Love

Ella ignored her friends' advice to wait because she really didn't know him and she would be supporting him while he looked for a job.

Her best friend, Nina, tried to tell her that there were "red flags" with Dan after she heard from Ella that he had a history of rocky romantic relationships and an unstable work history.  Nina also pointed out that Dan's problems seemed similar to Ella's last two boyfriends and she reminded Ella of how badly those relationships ended (see my article:  Falling In Love With "Mr. Wrong" Over and Over Again).

But Ella felt that Dan wasn't the same at all as her last two boyfriends.  She told Nina that, while Dan had similar circumstances to her last two boyfriends, Dan was completely different.  She felt sure that, with her help, Dan would be back on his feet in no time and they would be in love forever.

Initially, their relationship was very passionate and intense.  Ella saw this as confirmation that they were each other's "soul mates."

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families:  Confusing Pity and Love

During that time, Ella spent a lot of time networking for Dan.  She contacted everyone that she knew in Dan's field to try to help him find a job.

As a favor to Ella, these people met Dan to see if they could help him.  But after each meeting Ella was surprised to hear negative feedback from her colleagues about Dan.  Most of them said, after hearing him complain about his prior bosses, that he created problems for himself at work, and they were hesitant to recommend him to contacts in their professional network.

After six months, Dan and Ella began to argue because Ella felt that Dan wasn't following her suggestions to find a new job, and Dan felt that Ella was being too pushy.

Whereas their relationship was passionate in the beginning, they weren't even having sex any more.  Dan told her that he didn't feel sexually attracted to her any more because he felt that she was nagging him like his mother, and he didn't feel like having sex with someone who reminded him of his mother.

Adult Children of Alcoholic and Dysfunctional Families

Ella felt that Dan wasn't appreciating how hard she had worked to try to help him.

When Ella called Nina in tears because she was worried that her relationship with Dan was in trouble, Nina wasn't surprised.  Nina knew that Ella had gone through similar dynamics in her prior relationships and, once again, Ella was unable to see that this was a recurring pattern.

Once again, Nina recommended that Ella go to therapy.  But Ella didn't feel she needed to see a therapist--until several months later when Dan moved out while Ella was at work.  He left her a terse note that it was over between them, he was tired of her trying to "fix" him, and he would rather stay with friends.

Feeling abandoned and confused, Ella contacted me to begin therapy (see my article:  Overcoming Fear of Abandonment That Keeps You Stuck in an Unhealthy Relationship).

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families:  Confusing Pity and Love

After Ella talked about her background in a highly chaotic and dysfunctional family, I showed her the ACOA Laundry List, which lists many of the character traits of people who come from alcoholic and/or dysfunctional families.

This was an eye-opening experience for Ella.  To her surprise, she identified with almost all of the characteristics.

Over time as we continued to work in therapy, Ella was able to see that what she really felt for Dan and her prior boyfriends was pity--not love--and she was attempting to rescue and "fix" each of them.

As Ella developed a better perspective about her relationship dynamics and how they related to her childhood history, she began to understand why these relationships were doomed from the start.  She also began to understand the emotional, physical and financial toll that these relationships had taken on her.

Initially, Ella feared that she could never be attracted to anyone who didn't need rescuing.

Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families:  Getting Help in Therapy

But as we processed her early childhood emotional trauma, Ella no longer confused pity for love, she was no longer afraid of being abandoned, and she was no longer attracted to men who were having a lot of problems.

See my other articles about this topic:
Dynamics of Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families
Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families: Having Difficulty Completing Things
Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families and People Pleasing

Getting Help in Therapy
Confusing pity for love is a common problem among people who grew up in dysfunctional families.

If you sense that this is your problem, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional who can help you to process the emotional trauma that is related to this problem so that you can develop a stronger sense of self and choose healthier relationships.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

One of my specialties is helping clients to overcome codependent dynamics and work through emotional trauma.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.