The Night Before

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Why Laura Chooses the Wrong Men

Here are some insights from my research into attachment issues

In The Night Before, Laura Lochner goes on a date with a man she’s met on the Internet. She never makes it home. We get to follow her on this date, in real time, knowing something is about to go very wrong.

I was determined not to write a “damsel in distress” story. I wanted to turn this theme upside down so that we start to become more afraid of what Laura might do to this man than what he might do to her.

To accomplish this, I needed to make the man a liar – the kind of man who could incite anger in a woman who was trusting, and genuinely eager to find real love.

I also needed to give Laura a psychological issue that would be triggered by this anger. She had to be at the breaking point with her life and the choices she’s made. She had to be desperate to figure out why she keeps choosing men who break her heart, and hopeful that she’s finally broken the cycle with her choice on this night – the night before.

I began with two questions – what psychological issues would cause Laura to choose the “wrong” partners, and stay with partners while they continue to hurt her? Here is a summary of what I learned researching this topic through articles and conversations with psychologists.

What makes someone a “wrong” partner?

Sometimes “wrong” partners are easy to spot. They’re physically or verbally abusive. Or they cheat or lie or constantly deprive us of the things we want from a relationship. The misery they create is acute and observable.

The “wrongness” can be more subtle than that. There’s a whole category of “wrong” partners I have come to refer to as the “fixer-uppers.” These are the partners who complain about problems but never solve them. The partners who can’t experience happiness or joy. The partners who always feel victimized and put-upon by the world. And we do everything we can to make things better. What the fixer-uppers all have in common is that they become parasites, sucking our time, energy and resources into a bottomless pit of need, never giving anything back. Many of them have psychological dysfunctions that cause them to behave this way. We are always on the brink of solving their problems and finally being happy, but that will never happen.

Then there are the partners who won’t leave us, but won’t love us back. No matter what we do, they are there but not there, coming and going, sending mixed messages, leaving us in a perpetual state of anxiety from the fear of loss.

These are but a few examples – the list is long and varied. The one thing they have in common, though, is that they cause us to be unhappy. If being in a relationship with a “wrong” person causes so much despair –

Why do we stay with them?

Why we choose these “wrong” partners, and why we don’t leave – even when we know intellectually that we should – is not because we are weak or lack self esteem. It’s because we have been “hard wired” to crave them. And just like everything else in our brains, those “wires” were set in place when we were children.

Psychologists now know that the human brain has distinct stages of development from birth through our early twenties. During these years, it seeks out information about the types of “wires” it will need to ensure our survival throughout the rest of our lives. It assesses our environment and attempts to give us the right set of “hard wires,” including those that will help us forge attachments to others. Because the “wiring” is so specific to our environment, emotional trauma surrounding our primary caregivers can result in “faulty wiring.”

Don’t be misled by the term trauma. Just like a physical trauma can mean anything from a splinter to a gunshot wound, emotional trauma is just as varied in the world of psychotherapy. And very few people get through childhood without an emotional splinter. While severe trauma, such as abuse and neglect, can have permanent, devastating consequences (most experts find a strong correlation between the illnesses within the “sociopathy” family and serious childhood trauma), most of us do not fall into this category. Rather, our unhealthy adult attachments result from the unavoidable bumps in the road as our brains were setting our attachment “wiring,” primarily during the first few years of life. The death of a parent or sibling, dysfunction between parents, or an emotionally stunted parent who is unable to show love and affection – many dynamics can result in unhealthy attachments later in life. For the most part, we are emotionally healthy people. But somewhere inside of us, there are a these very specific, “faulty wires,” that dictate the partners we choose.

Here is how I have come to visualize the psychological mechanics. The “faulty wires” attach triggers on the outside to emotions on the inside. When someone hits the trigger, we feel the same emotion that we felt as a child. Take my character, Laura Lochner, as an example. For reasons we discover throughout the novel, she did not feel love from her father, while watching his love given freely to her sister. As a grown woman, that specific, negative feeling is triggered by any man who refuses to love her. Reason would lead to the conclusion that Laura would seek out men who could love her. But that’s not how our brains work. Instead, Laura seeks out men who will make her feel exactly the way her father did – in fact, she could pick one of these men out in a crowded room while trying to do the exact opposite. It operates on a subconscious level.

There are two reasons for this. First, feelings that are familiar are always sought out and favored by our brains. A child who is abused or witnesses abuse, for example, will always be drawn to the terror and release that was provoked during the violent childhood episodes. I was blown away when I learned this!

Second, there is a voice, an inner child, that lives inside of us and constantly begs for us to repair the trauma and fix the “wiring.” These voices echo like instincts, and we follow them the way we would any instinct, because we don’t recognize that they are coming from a “faulty wire.” They are powerful and invisible all at once.

So how do we stop this cycle?

The first step is to follow the “wires.” Trained therapists can usually help us get to the source, find the emotional splinter, the bump in the perilous childhood road, that caused these “wires” to fall into place. But that is not enough. The “wires” connect triggers to feelings, and feelings are powerful. It’s not unlike chemical addiction. The feelings connected to these triggers are bigger and stronger than what most people associate with “love.” If the feeling derived from a healthy relationship is a nice glass of wine, what we feel from our “wrong” partners is MDMA (Ecstasy). The ecstasy sensation is a combination of the powerful, negative feeling left over from the childhood trauma, combined with the euphoria of having a chance to fix it. It is a deadly cocktail of emotion that is tough to quit. What makes it an even more formidable foe is the fact that for our entire lives, we have been associating that cocktail with “love,” and we never learn how to experience “love” in its healthy form.

The good news is that there are effective treatments. This is my favorite one, and how I think of it. That voice that tells you to choose the “wrong” partner, or stay with the “wrong” partner, is like a toddler tugging on your sleeve while you’re trying to make dinner. Mommy, mommy, mommy, mommy! It is needy and demanding and too emotionally immature to listen to reason. If we give in to her demands, she will come back the next time expecting the same result. So what do we do? We acknowledge her briefly, and then send her away to play with her toys (okay – sometimes we have to put on the TV, offer candy, whatever it takes). The point is, we don’t ignore the voice, nor do we give in to it. That is how we curb the behavioral part – walking away from that “wrong” partner in the room.

As for the emotional residue, the hollow in our gut as we leave that room, leave that “wrong” partner, and go home alone – that is more difficult. That’s like day two after quitting any bad habit. The hollow space can be so painful, so filled with anxiety, that it’s hard just to sit still. This takes work. Recognizing the source of the hollowness and attaching it to that original source, and also rejecting the notion that the hollow feeling is relevant to your life today, are central to that process. But I need him! I feel empty without her! No – actually, it’s the child we used to be who felt that way. The feeling just never left. Therapists have many techniques for helping with this.

There is no getting around the fact that this takes work. Hard, painful, work. It’s an emotional root canal. Any change to our habits and behavior is like climbing a mountain. Changing habits, and the emotional responses to triggers which are driven by faulty brain “wiring” is like taking on Everest. We do it because there really is no choice. Staying in dysfunctional relationships not only impacts our own happiness, it seeps into our children. Our unhappiness becomes their emotional splinter, the bump in their road, that causes their “wires” to misalign as they get laid down.

In The Night Before, we get to be inside Laura’s head as she struggles with these issues. We also get glimpses into her therapy sessions where she has begun to uncover the reasons for her bad choices, and also the rage that lives inside her.