Last week, I was listening to Ani DiFranco’s song “Little Plastic Castle.” And while I’ve heard this song many times before, this time, I was struck by the title and lyrics. One particular line of the song made me re-frame how I look at relationships and the mistakes some us repeatedly make when we become attracted to or enter into a relationship with the type of people who have already proven to be toxic for us.
In the song, DiFranco sings, “And they say, “goldfish have no memory”/I guess their lives are much like mine/And the little plastic castle/Is a surprise every time…”
While the idea of goldfish having no memory is a myth, I am particularly interested in the imagery of the little plastic castle and the goldfish that forgets about its presence, every time it encounters the castle. For those of us who acknowledge or understand our chronic relationship or attraction patterns (many of us still haven’t recognized that we keep going after the same type of person), we are essentially the goldfish of Ani DiFranco’s song. And the people we are attracted to or enter into relationships with, are the multitudes of little plastic castles. Despite the fact that we have seen that castle, that kind of man, and that kind of relationship, many times before, each new relationship or new attraction seems so fresh.
Why do we keep making the same mistakes when it comes to relationships and love? Why is that little plastic castle–the person we are dating or seeking out–a surprise to us, especially when we have been hurt by the same type of person before? Why don’t we actively apply the lessons gained from our previous mistakes when we are faced with a person who fits the mold of those previous partners or attractions?
Meet Amy, aged 35. Amy has never dated a man who she didn’t think she could fix. She’s seen them all: mommy issues, daddy issues, emotionally remote, emotionally volatile. And repeatedly, over the past 10 years of actively dating, she thinks she is going to be the one–the woman who finally “gets them,” and helps them heal their old wounds. But she hasn’t been, instead she’s been left hanging, left exhausted after giving everything, and left empty because she has nothing left of herself.
“My friends say that I can spot them a mile away, they’re never difficult or erratic when I first date them, but as soon as I hear something like ‘it’s hard for me to…’ or ‘My dad wasn’t around…’ I glom on to them.
Amy wants to provide these men with the love and comfort she thinks they need to be better and she is convinced that by sticking around she is just proving her loyalty.
There’s no doubt that in any healthy relationship, your partner should bring out the best version of yourself by helping you heal previous wounds. However, the difference between Amy’s relationships and a healthy one, is a lack of investment made by her partners in improving their own lives and more importantly, a lack of reciprocation in helping Amy improve hers. In Amy’s case, it was always a one-way investment.
So why does Amy keep going back to the same type of man? There are many reasons, not just one simple explanation. However, in this column, I explore something that Amy is definitely not doing to prevent herself from going back to the same type of man: she’s not working to remember how those previous men and those previous relationships truly made her feel. She’s just focused on how her present man makes her feel, which in the initial stages of dating, is always great.
Of course the difference between Amy and the goldfish in DiFranco’s song is the reality of familiarity. Amy (and all of us in this position) know we have been there before, and sometimes, we can even say “here I go again…” But we don’t stop ourselves, because it just feels so comforting, doesn’t it?
A few months ago, I wrote a piece about why we can’t learn from other people’s mistakes–that we often have to make our own mistakes. And in it, I explored how we truly can’t learn from other people’s mistakes when it comes to matters of passion, of the heart.
While people can discuss how a mistake (think dating unavailable people or staying in toxic relationships for too long) makes them feel, there’s no way to truly understand such an experience until you actually feel the pain, anger, sadness, disappointment yourself.
But that’s about other people’s mistakes. When it comes to romance, we usually acknowledge or notice when we keep making the same mistakes, over and over again. But acknowledging the mistake simply isn’t enough, especially if we push aside all of the feelings that come with those mistakes. When we are faced with someone possessing the same toxic elements that have gotten us in trouble in the past, we only hold onto the good stuff that we enjoyed about our previous attractions.
Working to remember what it felt like to engage with the same kind of men who have destroyed us in the past, is critical to avoiding the same mistakes again. Our memories come with physical sensations. When we work to remember the stress of our previous, unhealthy relationship, we are also reminded of the physical feelings of stress, unhappiness, disappointment.
Heather, who is 39, intimately knows and has experienced those physical feelings. She has a strong affinity for unavailable men: ones who are willing to date and enter relationships while remaining emotionally unavailable and ones who are quite literally unavailable because they are in other relationships, not interested in being with her, or sometimes…gay.
Heather didn’t want someone to get too close, so she consciously or unconsciously goes after men who wouldn’t be interested in providing elements of a healthy relationship. When it comes to romantic relationships, Heather’s pattern of behavior was built around pursuing men who could never commit, and thus, could never serve as a real partner in a real relationship.
But she would repeatedly end up in these situations and when the attraction finally ended or when she walked away from the guy, she was left feeling stressed out, lonely, angry, and sick. But when a new guy with the same traits comes around, she refuses to to conjure up those terrible physical feelings.
So why is it so bad to be that seemingly carefree goldfish? Isn’t life about learning and living? It is, but when we get stuck in a consistent relationship pattern, it becomes harder and harder to get unstuck. It becomes an addiction of sorts, in which we know no other way of being, and we fail, sometimes literally, to see the array of healthy romantic options around us because our minds are so stuck in one pattern.
I’ve learned over the past year, the only way to stop repeating the mistake is to not give in and say, “Oh, here we go again.” Instead, I started working hard to remember how my past experiences have left me feeling. In order to get myself out of an unhealthy behavioral pattern, I conjure up the crappy emotions that have come, in the past, with making that mistake. And after I remember all the bad moments, the physical feelings of loneliness, stress, disappointment, I know and realize that I don’t want to put myself back in the same situation.
Just remembering my past experiences, I can feel my shoulders getting tense, I can feel the emptiness, I can remember all the time it took me to move on, and I see that repeating the same mistake isn’t going to be worth it.
The importance of conjuring up the emotions around a pattern of behavior isn’t just limited to romantic partners. It can be about anything we truly don’t want to do or know is bad for us. Think about committing to a friend staying with you for an extended period of time or putting a family vacation on the books. How did you feel the last time you made similar commitments? Initially, it may have been enticing, but as you got closer to the time of the actual commitment, you may have asked yourself, “Oh god, why did I say yes to them?” If your previous experiences caused you stress, made your shoulders tense up, created unhappiness and havoc in your life, make the decision to avoid recreating those memories in real time, again.
In hopes that the little plastic castle isn’t a surprise anymore, just remember, it’s exactly what you know, you’ve been there before, you’ve felt it before, and it’s a shit show every time.
But it’s so much more fun to forget, isn’t it?
Until it’s not.