"One thing to remember when dating: You’re not choosing your partner, your nervous system is. If your nervous system is dysregulated, it’s going to show up in the way you choose your relationships."
- Samantha Johnson
On the surface this seems obvious. Our nervous system is where our brains - the thing that makes choices - lives. It's the Central in Central Nervous System. In this context however, "nervous system" is largely referring to neuroception - one of our many senses, acting as a barometer of safety and danger. Encountering a bear in the woods? Danger! Puppies and kittens? Safe (and cute!) But neuroception isn't just concerned with overt threats to physical safety. It is also concerned with psychological safety, emotional safety, cognitive safety, relational safety, and all of the other dimensions of safety, and often in ways that are significantly less obvious than a bear.
When we embark on the journey of dating and seeking life partners, we're often under the impression that our choices are the result of rational decision-making, driven by personal preferences, interests, and desires. But beneath the surface, our nervous system is quietly at work, influencing our choices based on an intricate web of experiences, traumas, and learned relational patterns.
Samantha Johnson's insightful Facebook quote hits the nail on the head. The idea of a dysregulated nervous system affecting our relationship choices is profound. It suggests that the way our brain perceives safety signals, often unconsciously, can lead us toward or away from potential partners, all in the name of perceived self-protection.
There are many ways in which childhood experiences and early relationships can shape our concept of safety and danger in the realm of love.
Attachment Styles: The attachment style we developed in infancy and early childhood can set the stage for our adult romantic relationships. If we experienced secure, nurturing bonds, our nervous system may be inclined to seek out partners who offer similar safety and support. On the other hand, if we were raised in an environment marked by inconsistent care or emotional neglect, our neuroception may unconsciously lead us to partners who replicate these dynamics.
Communication Patterns: Neuroception encompasses patterns of communication, conflict resolution, emotional regulation, and even how we view ourselves. Individuals who grew up in households where open and direct communication was encouraged might find themselves naturally drawn to partners who value and prioritize dialogue. In contrast, those whose formative years involved suppressed emotions may struggle to engage emotionally in relationships or may choose partners who also avoid emotional intimacy.
Codependency: For those who grew up in families with codependent dynamics, they may seek out partners who also exhibit codependent tendencies. They may feel more comfortable in relationships where they can fulfill the role of either caregiver or dependent, even if it's unhealthy.
Schemas of Love and Intimacy: Early experiences can shape one's schema or cognitive blueprint of what love and intimacy should look like. If someone's experiences included conditional love or inconsistent affection, they might seek out partners who validate these unhealthy beliefs about love and intimacy.
Parentification: In families where a child was forced to take on a parental role for their own parents or siblings, they may grow up to seek partners who expect them to fulfill a similar role. This can create imbalanced relationships where one partner takes on excessive responsibility.
Avoidance of Vulnerability: If a child learned to avoid vulnerability as a coping mechanism in a challenging family dynamic, they may struggle with opening up emotionally in adult relationships. They might choose partners who also avoid emotional intimacy.
Overcoming Childhood Neglect: Some individuals might seek partners who, consciously or unconsciously, represent the opposite of their neglectful or absent caregivers. They may be drawn to overly attentive or clingy partners in an attempt to compensate for the lack of attention in childhood. In some cases, they may be drawn into toxic and even abusive relationships that initially seem to meet the need for attention and approval.
Emotional Regulation: Childhood experiences can shape one's ability to regulate emotions. People who grew up in chaotic or emotionally turbulent households may have difficulty handling emotions in their adult relationships. They may be attracted to partners who can stabilize their emotional experiences, even if it means sacrificing personal agency, vulnerability, or healthy communication.
Fear of Abandonment: Individuals who experienced abandonment or inconsistency in childhood may fear it in their adult relationships. They might become overly anxious or clingy in an attempt to prevent abandonment, or they may choose partners who are more likely to abandon them, reinforcing their fears.
Modeling of Gender Roles: Cultural and familial gender role expectations can shape relationship choices. Some individuals may seek partners who conform to traditional gender roles, even if these roles are not personally fulfilling or healthy.
Validation and Approval: Children naturally seek validation and approval from their caregivers. They want to know they are valued and worthy of love, just as they are. As adults, children who did not receive healthy validation and approval may look for partners who can provide the validation and approval they didn't receive in childhood.
These learned relational patterns are often deeply ingrained and can influence partner selection without conscious awareness. Learned relational patterns need not define your future, however. Recognizing and understanding these patterns is a crucial step toward making healthier relationship choices, allowing you to take proactive steps to foster healthier connections. Seek therapy to explore the roots of your choices and gather insights for change. Cultivate self-awareness through reflection, journaling, and inner child work to heal past wounds. Incorporate mindfulness practices to regulate emotions and body responses, empowering you to make conscious relationship choices. Establish and maintain healthy boundaries and be intentional about selecting partners who align with your present desires and wellbeing. Enlist the support of trusted friends or a support group to reinforce your journey toward healthier relationships. Your past may have shaped your patterns, but it doesn't have to dictate your future.
The next time you find yourself swept off your feet or, conversely, keeping a safe distance from a potential partner, ask yourself why. Consider the role of your nervous system in this intricate dance of attraction and repulsion. Our choices in love, it seems, are not solely products of our conscious desires but also a reflection of what our nervous system, and especially our neuroception, feels is safe.
What is familiar feels comfortable, and what is comfortable feels safe, but what feels comfortable and safe may not be healthy.