schema therapy

Caught in a Lovetrap? Clearing Up Blind Spots in Your Marriage or Love Relationship

What Are "Lovetraps," and How Can They Get You Stuck in Your Marriage or Love Relationship?


Have you ever interpreted something your partner or spouse did in a negative way, only later to find out you were either blowing things out of proportion, or simply wrong? If you're like most humans, that is easy to answer. Our past experiences define how we see what is happening in the moment, even when our perceptions doesn't actually fit the reality. These perceptions, or mental filters, are referred to as “schemas,” beliefs that filter how you see the world. Schemas that influence you to feel like your partner will leave you, cheat on you, or lie to you most likely stem from key experiences in your past when you were hurt or betrayed. We call schemas "Lovetraps," because they can create huge blind spots that get in the way of safety and closeness in our marriage or love relationships.

Closely linked to these mental filters of schemas are emotions, such as anger, sadness, fear, and shame, followed by behavioral urges that may include anger (fight), withdrawal (flight), or paralysis (freeze).  The most common primary schemas that lead to "love traps" relate to how you see yourself (self-esteem) and relationships (with caregivers, romantic partners, and peers). 

The Most Common Schemas in Marriages or Love Relaitonships

  • Abandonment: you expect instability, unreliability, or loss of anyone you are close to
  • Mistrust and Abuse: you expect significant others will hurt, abuse, humiliate, cheat, lie, manipulate, betray, or take advantage of you
  • Emotional Deprivation: you believe that significant others, including your partner or spouse and caregivers, will never meet your primary needs for nurturance, empathy, affection, and protection 
  • Defectiveness or Shame: you feel you are bad, unwanted, undesired, inferior, or invalid
  • Social Exclusion: you feel different or not part of any group or community; you minimize similarities with other people and maximize differences, usually with peers and groups

Your parents gave you a basic template for loving relationships. Sensitivities may also originate from wounding relationships with your siblings, members of your family, mentors or caregiving authorities, and your past and present romantic relationships.

How Do You Know When You're Stuck in a "Lovetrap"?


When your schema is perceiving something with your partner or spouse in a negative way, you’ll either detach from him or her and go numb to "protect" yourself, or experience an intense emotional reaction that you’re aware of, such as anger, fear, sadness or shame. Emotion moves fast, as a protective response to help you survive the potential of danger or threat. If you want to recognize what is occurring in a situation with your partner or spouse, you’ll have to regulate your central nervous system by breathing while doing muscle relaxation or focused attention exercises to help you connect your emotional brain (usually your right hemisphere unless you’re left-handed) with your logical, linguistic and linear brain in your left-hemisphere (unless you are left-handed). If you are able to successfully slow your central nervous system down from a hyper-aroused state through regulation, you will then be able to use your left-hemisphere brain to assess the situation in a more logical, rational way. 

When your schema is triggered, you’ll most likely notice that you’re feeling off-balance, disoriented, disorganized, angry, or numb. The urges that come up for you in the situation may puzzle or startle your partner or spouse in the situation, as they often don’t seem to relate to the degree of severity the experience or situation warrants. For instance, if you have an abandonment schema, where you are afraid that relationships don’t last and expect instability, your coping strategy of anger that protests against a disconnection with your partner or spouse ends up causing more distance and disconnection in your marriage or love relationship.

Your Brain is an Anticipation Machine: Your Past Shapes How You See the Now

Your brain responds to cues in your current marriage or love relationship with associations from past caregivers, unless your past hurts have been resolved. For instance, if you have a “Mistrust” schema, your partner or spouse arriving home an hour late may easily be interpreted as a “cue” that he or she is having an affair, and will most likely hurt or betray you like a significant past caregiver or partner did. As you’re waiting for him or her to arrive home, your body responds from your brain with alarm, as the danger of getting hurt is linked with your past hurts. You may get angry when your partner or spouse arrives home, accusing him or her of misleading or lying to you. Your anger pushes your partner or spouse away from you, and you most likely feel distance instead of closeness and reassurance. It’s hard for any partner or spouse to respond effectively to the emotion of anger. In reality, your partner or spouse may simply have been running late from work, instead of having an affair.

Many of us are afraid to express our sensitivities or vulnerabilities to other people, especially our partner or spouse. More than anyone else, your partner or spouse may hurt you, and you may fear that he or she may see you as weak, try to control you, or ignore your sensitivities so that you feel even worse. However, your partner or spouse can’t respond to your schemas if you don’t regulate yourself when you’re activated, and reflect on what theme is interfering with your ability to see what is happening in your current situation. Courage and a leap of faith are needed to help you express your sensitivities to your partner or spouse so that he or she can respond in a way that helps you feel better.

esources to Help: Reinventing Your Life & Mindsight

chema therapy, developed by Dr. Jeffrey E. Young, is an empirically validated approach that combines the best methods from cognitive behavioral therapy, emotion-focused therapy, and behavioral therapy. You can read more about schemas and how they may impact you and your relationships in the self-help book, Reinventing Your Life, by Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko. The Loving at Your Best Plan uses schema therapy as a foundation for our approach to improving marriages and love relationships.

Mindsight, developed by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, is at the forefront of brain science, using interpersonal neurobiology to help change your brain. At the Loving at Your Best Plan, we use advanced techniques from the Mindsight approach to help you in your marriage or love relationship. 

Share Your Experiences from Your Marriage or Love Relationship

Do you recognize times when you become very upset, or go numb, when your partner or spouse does or says something? Do you recognize what upsets your partner or spouse? Share your experiences of getting caught in your "lovetraps," and help others in our community to learn from your wisdom. Have a question about how to help your marriage or love relationship? Complete the space below, and join the conversation about how to help your marriage or love relationship thrive.

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How Your Brain Protects You and Can Hurt You in Your Marriage or Love Relationship


In your marriage or love relationship, your mind wants to protect you from the possibility of abandonment, hurt, or betrayal that you may have experienced from a prior significant relationship. However, your brain is much more likely to keep you alive if it overestimates the links or associations between what is going on in your present life and your past, even as a child. If your brain underestimates the connections with past injuries, you could die. One problem with this advanced survival machine called the brain is that overestimations can often backfire in your current marriage or love relationship, and your partner or spouse may be the unfortunate recipient of past sensitivities that either are not relevant or only minimally connected to the present with your partner or spouse.

All of us have memories that we are not literally aware of, but that our brain does not forget. A part of our brain always remembers events: the hippocampus, a memory center in your right, emotional hemisphere where early memories are formed and associations are stored that you are not aware of. The other part of your brain where memory is stored connected with danger or threats is called the amygdala, located in your right hemisphere, and the emotional source of fear that ties in with your upper-intenstinal area (what many call “butterflies in your stomach”). Memory that is stored in your amygdala includes experiences you are aware of: when I was 4, I touched the stove and burnt myself, so I don’t want to touch a hot stove again.

How Your Brain Affects Your Marriage or Love Relationship

Your brain is an anticipation machine, constantly anticipating what is happening in your current marriage or love relationship based on your past relationships. However, these past associations may not apply to your current relationship, and this could get you into trouble without you even necessarily knowing why. 

Neurons that fire together wire together: new experiences can replace the old beliefs


The closer your emotional connection with your partner or spouse, the more likely you are to express openly your sensitivities and vulnerabilities that you are aware of from your past, which dramatically helps your partner or spouse manage your sensitivities and respond with antidotes to your past hurts or betrayals. Every time your partner or spouse gives you the response that you need, your brain learns a new pattern, and neuronal firing occurs in your mind that eventually creates a new neuronal cluster or schema that shapes how you perceive yourself, relationships, and the world. Schemas are highlighted by the creator of schema therapy, Jeffrey Young, in Reinventing Your Life. Every time you reach out and invite your partner or spouse to understand, soothe, comfort, reassure, and validate you, your mind connects these experiences and creates associations that lead to expectations for safety and security in your marriage or love relationship. 

How to Truly Live in the Present

Research clearly demonstrates that your early experiences are not nearly as important in shaping your life as how you’ve reflected and “made sense of” those experiences, how you understand your story, so that you’re choosing to put yourself in situations that reinforce healthy beliefs or schemas in your current life. For instance, instead of staying with a partner who is likely to abandon you because he or she is still married and living with his or her spouse, you commit to a partner who is available, able to commit, and lives in proximity to you, even though he or she isn’t perfect (an antidote to the abandonment schema).

If you and your partner or spouse do not have safety and security in your marriage or relationship, you’re much more likely to get stuck in a negative pattern that includes frustration and anger or detachment and withdrawal. The patterns involve negative coping strategies that were once adaptive when you were hurt long ago. However, the same strategies that were so effective can backfire, and reinforce the likelihood that you’ll receive the responses you’re most afraid of from your partner or spouse. These coping strategies are referred to as the “Demon Dialogues” in Hold Me Tight, by Sue Johnson, the creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy, in “Conversation 1.” The negative patterns usually create stronger neuron clusters in the mind that reinforce your worst schemas about yourself, relationships, and the world.

Share Your Experiences

Have you noticed a time when you became emotionally upset in your marriage or love relationship, but didn't know why your reaction was so strong? re there times when you feel your partner or spouse is having an intense reaction that doesn't seem to fit the situation he or she is in? Share your experiences and help our community learn from each other. If you find this marriage & couples counseling and therapy in NYC blog helpful, please share it with your partner or spouse, and your friends and family.

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