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‘Why do I keep dating toxic people?’ Schema chemistry might explain it

3rd January 2024
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‘All of my romantic relationships start as a whirlwind and end in disaster. I don’t understand why this keeps happening.’

‘Why do I always end up dating avoidant people? Surely it can’t just be bad luck?’

‘Why do I seem to be a magnet for needy and insecure people? It’s so suffocating.’

Do the same relationship patterns seem to repeat in your life again and again? And not just with romantic partners but maybe with friends, bosses and mentors as well? If so, it’s unlikely that this is just bad luck or a coincidence. In fact, something much deeper might be going on — a specific type of dynamic known as ‘schema chemistry’.

But what is schema chemistry? And how might it explain some of the patterns and pitfalls you keep finding yourself in? For instance, dating emotionally avoidant people, being taken advantage of by friends, or always finding yourself cornered at parties by that person that wants to share their entire life story? What exactly is going on?

In fact, the roots of these patterns might lead all the way back to your earliest childhood, when you were forming your very first ‘schemas’…

 

What is a schema?

In psychology, a ‘schema’ is a cognitive framework that helps us to understand the world. It is sort of like a belief system, except much more powerful and all-encompassing. In essence, you could see a schema as a perceptual filter for all of the information that we are bombarded with every day. Schemas are crucial in helping us to navigate reality, as they help us to make mental shortcuts within this sea of information.

We tend to form our main schemas in childhood, a time when our brains are taking in everything around us — and trying to make sense of it – at an incredible rate. The trouble is that a child’s interpretations of events and experience aren’t usually all that logical. Instead, they tend to be based on impressions that can be distorted or outright untrue.

So problems arise when, due to our childhood experiences, we develop a set of negative or unhelpful schemas that distort our understanding of reality, rather than enhance it. What’s more, these schemas can be so powerful that we might discard any information that contradicts them, instead only paying attention to the experiences that reinforce them.

Added to this, our earliest schemas tend to be formed around whether certain core emotional needs are met in childhood or not. These needs can include:

  • Having secure, safe and nurturing relationships with caregivers
  • Having autonomy and a chance to develop a sense of our own identity
  • Having the chance to be spontaneous and express ourselves in play
  • Having the freedom to express our needs and emotions
  • Having realistic limits being set for us and the chance to learn self-control as a result

When one or more of these needs aren’t met, we can develop unhelpful beliefs to explain why. These are known as ‘early maladaptive schemas’.

 

What is a maladaptive schema?

In essence, a child develops unhealthy and distorted schemas to explain — and also navigate — areas of lack, neglect or even abuse within their family. In other words, if certain key needs aren’t met then they will develop an entire cognitive framework to make sense of that.

But if these schemas remain unchallenged or unexamined, then we can carry them all the way into adulthood. As a result, they can unconsciously drive many of our decisions, causing us to recreate unhealthy dynamics and situations over and over again. This is because our beliefs about reality can heavily shape our experience of it. 

So for instance, if you had an emotionally distant parent then you might have developed a schema of ‘I’m not worthy of love’. This is because you were too little to make sense of their behaviour in any other way (for instance, by understanding that they might have been unhappy in their marriage, or depressed, or emotionally limited due to the parenting they received themselves). 

Maladaptive schemas can be very painful. As a result, children have to develop various strategies and behaviours to manage their effects. These are known as ‘coping styles’.

 

What is a coping style?

Coping behaviours to deal with maladaptive schemas tend to fall into one of three categories: surrendering, over-compensation or avoidance. But how do they work, exactly?

Let’s look at the example of a child who has aloof parents and as a result, has developed the schema that ‘I am unworthy (of love, attention)’. As they grow older, this schema might play out in one of three key coping styles:

  • Surrendering — giving into the schema by always dating people who mistreat them
  • Over-compensation — fighting the schema by dating ‘rescuers’ who will subjugate their own needs and/or people they can dominate
  • Avoidance — sidestepping the schema by avoiding committed relationships altogether

So it is not always the case that a person’s schema affects their life in an obvious way, for instance, choosing emotionally distant partners because they had emotionally distant parents. As we can see from the above examples, either fighting the schema or hiding from it are other possibilities.

In a sense, a maladaptive schema can be seen as an invisible force driving our lives. We might surrender to it, be at war with it or be constantly running from it. But however it plays out it can cause us a lot of harm, in some cases preventing us from ever enjoying healthy or satisfying relationships. This is due to a dynamic known as ‘schema chemistry’.

 

What is schema chemistry?

Do you find yourself being drawn to the ‘wrong’ partner again and again? If so, there is a good chance that your connections with others are being unconsciously determined by schemas formed in childhood. You are being compelled to repeat the same dance time and again with different partners. 

In essence, we tend to attract romantic partners who reinforce our schemas, while we in turn reinforce theirs – there’s comfort in familiarity. Of course, if your schema is that ‘I deserve a mutually loving, safe and respectful relationship’ then that’s not a big problem. It only becomes a problem if your schemas are maladaptive. Examples could include ‘I am not worthy of love’, ‘I have to be perfect to earn love’ or even ‘if someone truly loves me then they will do whatever I say’.

In each case you will tend to attract partners who unconsciously ‘agree’ with your schemas — and you with theirs. This is why codependent people and those with addictions are often drawn to each other. Or narcissists to self-sacrificing types. Or controlling individuals to partners with weak boundaries. 

For instance, someone who is codependent might have developed the maladaptive schema that ‘I’m responsible for others wellbeing’. For this reason, a person consumed with an addiction who needs ‘saving’ is the ‘perfect’ partner to reinforce this belief every single day.

In the same way, a grandiose, entitled person who believes that ‘I deserve to always get my own way as I’m special’ might have powerful schema chemistry with a self-sacrificing type who believes that ‘I always have to put other people’s needs before mine’. These patterns are a strong — albeit unhealthy — match. Finally, a controlling individual whose schema is ‘If I don’t dominate people, I will lose love’ might have strong chemistry with a person whose schema is ‘If I don’t submit, I will lose love’.

In all the examples we’ve looked at, both partners are trapped in a toxic dance that started in their childhood when their beliefs about the world were being formed. Often, these relationships can develop into full-blown trauma bonds. Yet if any of this sounds familiar, thankfully there are ways that you can escape the trap and move towards healthier connections with others.

How do you know if you’re in a schema-driven relationship?

When there’s a strong, magnetic attraction – a 9 or 10 out of 10 level of attraction – this can often be a sign of two people’s schemas interacting, like pieces of a puzzle fitting together. It’s as if the unhealthy parts of us fit together with the unhealthy parts of them and sparks fly. However, the higher the schema chemistry, the greater the likelihood of not getting emotional needs met in the relationship – making the partner unsuitable in the long-term. Here are some of the signs of high schema chemistry in relationships:

  • You’re drawn to similar partners and experience the same outcome in relationships
  • Your partner feels familiar but you don’t know why
  • You’re preoccupied with your partner, worrying about what’s going on and if the relationship will continue
  • The relationship is characterised by conflict and intense extremes of emotions
  • You’re not getting your needs met but you don’t leave
  • You might see red flags but you minimise or ignore them
  • The relationship is stalling and not progressing / deepening
  • You feel scared if you think about leaving, even if you’re unhappy in the relationship
  • You have difficulty moving on from the relationship when it ends

 

How do you break free of toxic patterns in your life?

Most psychological therapies aim to help break unhelpful patterns. In Schema Therapy, you can release yourself from unhealthy schema chemistry by creating new and healthier cognitive frameworks. These are also known as ‘adaptive schemas’ and can be achieved in four key ways:

 

1. Understanding how your maladaptive schemas were formed in your past.

2. Understanding how your maladaptive schemas might be shaping the present.

3. Developing a better relationship with yourself through practices such as self-care.

4. Developing better relationships with others, often starting with your therapist.

 

It is the role of a schema therapist to lead you through all of this in a compassionate and structured way.

What is Schema Therapy?

We explore Schema Therapy in more depth in this guide. But in essence, it is an approach that helps you to explore limiting patterns and beliefs in your life so that you can break free of them. As explained by founder Jeffrey E. Young in his book Reinventing Your Life: ‘…what was once a help to you is now hurting you, and it is time to give it up. It is time for you to begin the slow journey out of self-denial and self-defeat, and to reclaim your life for yourself.’

So together, you and your therapist will explore what needs went unmet in childhood, the schemas that you developed as a result and the coping styles that you are using to manage all of this. Part of this might involve unearthing beliefs that are so hidden below the surface, you might not even be aware of the role they’re playing in your life. This includes patterns of unhealthy schema chemistry with others.

Your therapist will then work to challenge these unhelpful beliefs, for instance, ‘the people who I love always leave me’. They will also work with you to find new and more effective ways to get your emotional needs met. Additionally, they will help you to develop more helpful coping strategies to use when you are feeling sad, angry, anxious, alone or triggered.

For instance, if you didn’t get much praise or validation as a child, then you will look at ways that you can give this to yourself as an adult. In this way, you can start to dismantle any schemas around being unworthy of praise, alongside any coping styles that you might have developed as a result (which could include desperately seeking praise or alternatively, defensively rejecting it).

In a practical sense, this therapeutic approach can include talk therapy, written exercises, roleplay and guided visualisation. Your relationship with your therapist will also be explored as a way of observing your patterns with other people in real time. And as you start to build trust with them over each session, you can start to learn what a healthy relationship looks like.

Schemas are powerful hidden forces driving our lives. That is why it is crucial to become aware of their roles, replacing the maladaptive ones with belief systems that are kinder and more self-accepting. In this way you can start to enjoy much more fulfilling relationships based around a newer, healthier view of yourself.

Want to break free of unhealthy patterns in your life? Book an appointment with a Lumo therapist today. Or take our Right Match Assessment to find the best therapist — and style of therapy — for you.

‘Why do I keep dating toxic people?’ Schema chemistry might explain it
Clinical Director
Lumo Health team
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