What exactly is Schema Chemistry?
- Gemma Gladstone
- May 25, 2023
The feeling of magnetic attraction a person has when they experience a (romantic) connection with another person whose traits and behaviours trigger their schemas.
Schema chemistry (a termed coined by Jeff Young (Young & Klosko, 1993; Young et al., 2007) refers to the intense feeling we have when we’re attracted to a person who has the potential to ‘wound’ us (emotionally) in the same way we were ‘wounded’ in childhood.
In other words, it’s the tendency to be more attracted to those people who will trigger and reinforce our schemas (or core beliefs about ourselves).
The role of the unconscious can’t be underestimated when it comes to romantic partner selection and the idea that romantic attraction can be influenced by unconscious processes has a long history. These ideas date back to Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) – in his discussion of the “Repetition Compulsion”. Here he states these ideas: Humans are destined to repeat old patterns in an attempt to gain mastery/resolve old emotional wounds. We are doomed to repeat what we cannot remember. These repetitive processes are called “enactments”. Freud was really onto something. Although Freud’s word are a little gloomy, his ideas ring true when it comes to romantic relationships and the long-term patterns that our clients commonly present with.
In our work with clients, we call these high schema-driven relationships Love-traps.
In a love-trap:
- You both trigger each other’s schemas and this creates ruptures (e.g., hurt feelings, arguments)
- The relationship can be tumultuous, have high conflict, anger (both overt and passive), with lots of emotional unmet needs
- You stay in it though and engage in unhelpful coping styles in response to triggers
- After a rupture there is not a proper resolution, the unmet needs continue, and the next cycle of misunderstandings begin
- The relationship feels “comfortably uncomfortable” because it resonate with a previous core relational dynamic (eg, early attachment to care-givers; earlier unmet needs; what was missing from parents).
What it feels like
High schema chemistry in the early days of dating can feel like heightened anxiety – there is often relief when you’re with the person and yet you might feel anxious and insecure when you’re not with them. So there is a payoff in terms of the ‘relief’ and therefore the relationship is reinforcing (it can be a rollercoaster of ups and downs – particularly for those with abandonment & emotional deprivation schemas dating each other). It’s also hard to end the relationship in the face of high schema chemistry because the ‘dynamic’ albeit uncomfortable is also very ‘familiar’ to you on a deeper level (mainly unconsciously).
As things progress (if they progress!), it is important to tune into whether this new partner (the person you have high schema chemistry with) is actually emotionally available or whether your attraction to them is driven by the familiarity of the (previously set) insecurity feeling.
But it’s complicated. There can be so much schema triggering going on – any number of combinations of triggering each other’s schemas is possible.
“But I like strong chemistry and I only want to be with a person I have 10/10 chemistry with!! What am I suppose to do?!?!” This is a common concern expressed by the clients that come to see us who want to break the pattern of attracting (and staying with) emotionally unavailable partners. It is very normal to want to hold on to the excitement that high schema chemistry can bring. This excitement though, is often a marker of a relationship which is very intense at the beginning but will crash and burn in the end.
Starting to challenge schema chemistry
When there is an absence of high chemistry with a new potential partner, it’s typical for people to walk away and assume that the new person cannot possibly be right for them. However, this feeling deserves exploration and it pays to reserve judgements until you get to know someone more fully.
If there is some attraction and the ‘chemistry’ is say, somewhere between 5-7 out of 10, then don’t give up on a potential date just because there’s no immediate strong sexual desire. If, as you get to know them more over the course of several dates, they seem to be – reliable, consistent, available, interested and curious about you, then there is a foundation there for something more to grow. But, notice if little things they say or do turn you off at all and notice if you start to get bored with them. If this happens, then it’s likely going to be one of two things. (1) Either this person is just simply not compatible with you and/or you don’t find them attractive enough OR (2) this person is potentially a suitable partner for you and you are turning away from what is an unfamiliar (but potentially good) dynamic.
The latter implies that the lack of schema chemistry is preventing you from seeing the potential in this person and because the relational dynamic is not familiar to you on an unconscious level, you incorrectly interpret this unfamiliarity as incompatibility (for example; if you were use to criticism in childhood but your new partner is non-judgemental and not critical at all, or if your new partner is reliable and available but your childhood was more defined by inconsistent and insecure connections with care-givers).
When examining new relationships you are uncertain about, you need to look at each interaction in detail to see what is turning you off about this person and what is turning you on about them? You need to start tuning into what it feels like to be seen, heard and treated well by your partner (and what it feels like to not be) in order to assess whether your new partner is emotionally available or unavailable and whether you can tell the difference.
With this knowledge you can differentiate between knowing when your schemas are sabotaging something potentially good OR whether this person simply isn’t right for you based on valid, sound reasons. It’s a tricky process and requires trial and error and lots of patience.
Your ‘vulnerable child’ has a lot to do with schema chemistry!
Also, in terms of schemas and schema chemistry, we have to be aware of our inner child or ‘vulnerable child’ parts of ourselves. If we are in a relationship with high schema chemistry (with a person who will hurt us in similar ways that our attachment figures did), then we need to understand that it is the wounded child part of us who is actually driving the attraction. It is really the vulnerable child part (eg, the abandoned child), who is driving the high schema chemistry. In such a case, the abandoned child feels the familiarity with the new partner if this partner is unreliable, inconsistent or keeps you at a distance.
The abandoned-child part of you doesn’t want to leave the relationship because leaving would trigger all the old abandonment feelings (all at once). Instead, the abandoned-child part of you wants you you stay in the (insecure) relationship because they have been conditioned to exist in this dynamic and they have become almost fixated upon the unmet emotional needs (ie, we are drawn to what is familiar). They (ie, this child part of you) believe that by staying in the relationship (and hoping, wanting and waiting for secure love), they will eventually be seen and loved by their partner and that their partner will eventually ‘come good’ so to speak and give them the love they deserve. Especially if they just manage to be “good enough” to win that love and recognition! But this doesn’t happen, because chances are their unavailable partner doesn’t have that capacity or desire to accommodate due to their own unhealed schemas.
This process is all too common. We see many clients who continue to ‘hang in there’ with partners who are not good for them, because their vulnerable child dominates the feeling space – hoping, wishing and wanting the other person to finally meet their needs. Because, as the narrative goes, “if this person can love me, then I’ll know that I am loveable”. The ‘love’ of a high chemistry unavailable partner, is worth more to the unhealed abandoned child than the love of a steady, available and predictable partner.
Carl Jung said – “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate”
Schema healing is so important if you are embarking on a journey to change negative or unhelpful relationship patterns. Bringing these unconscious processes into the light by taking stock of your past and present relationship dynamics is one vital step towards change. Healing the vulnerable child parts of yourself is key if you want to start breaking the tendency to get into relationships which trigger your schemas (especially your abandonment schema) and reinforce old beliefs associated with that schema.
- Schema chemistry happens when each person in a relationship has schemas triggered in negatively complementary ways. They wound each other in the same or similar ways to their original attachment wounds.
- A love trap refers to a high schema chemistry relationship (with chronic unmet needs) – AND your schemas keep you from leaving/problem-solve effectively.
- Relationships that have high schema chemistry are stressful, tumultuous and pre-occupying.
- Learning about your schemas is essential and the first step towards breaking the pattern.
- It is possible to change old patterns, choose different partners and have healthier relationships. It does take some work and effort and it will feel uncomfortable at times, but you can do it!
Dr Gemma Gladstone.