Shadows from the Past

Feelings in relationships as we now understand them run on a double track. We react and relate to another person not only on the basis of how we consciously experience that person, but also on the basis of our unconscious experience in reference to our past relationships with significant people in infancy and childhood - particularly parents and other family members. We tend to displace our feelings and attitudes from these past figures onto people in the present, especially if someone has features similar to a person in the past.

An individual may, therefore, evoke intense feelings in us - strong attraction or strong aversion - totally inappropriate to our knowledge of or experience with that person. This process may, to varying degrees, influence our choice of a friend, roommate, spouse, or employer.

We all have the experience of seeing someone we have never met who evokes in us strong feelings. According to the theory of transference, this occurs because something about that person - the gait, the tilt of the head, a laugh or some other feature - recalls a significant figure in our early childhood. Sometimes a spouse or a superior we work under will provoke in us a reaction far more intense than the circumstances warrant. A gesture or tone of voice may reactivate early negative feelings we experienced toward an important childhood figure.

Armand Nicholi, The Question of God