Train Wreck Relationships: Why We Choose Lovers Who Destroy Us and How To Heal

October 7th, 2020

By Jack Adam Weber

Contributing writer for Wake Up World

I regularly see friends get completely destroyed by falling in love with someone who is unavailable to them and who has little depth and ability to show up.

I’ve done the same myself. I call this a train wreck relationship.

A train wreck relationship is one which has no real chance of enduring. The partners are mismatched and/or one, or both, has significant, deal-breaking shadow aspects neither is willing or able to acknowledge. Train wrecks are usually initiated based on lust or desperation and a result of projected longing rather than emotionally integrated, conscious, empowered, discernment.

Why do we choose such people and why do we get wrecked by someone we deem so unworthy?

A clue may lie in a rhetorical question, one many of us have asked in the midst of heartbreak: “Why am I hurting so much from such an cruel or empty person?!” or “They are so worthless, why am I in so much pain?!”

An answer may lie in another question: if we were available for depth, commitment, and true intimacy, would we bother getting into this kind of relationship?

Perhaps relationships that wreck us didn’t cause the bulk of our hurt.

Secret Agenda

I suspect we know when someone is available for the depth we want.

Instead, we go for people we know can’t meet us. We choose the asshole or the bitch—for undisclosed, unconscious reasons. If they were truly loving and available, we wouldn’t know how to handle it. Receiving love in true vulnerability with integrated, skillful communication isn’t as easy as it seems.

Welcoming true love can be tougher than the pain of its absence.

We recognize the available ones and skip over them, often without noticing the moment we decide. Something unconscious in us knows we aren’t ready for true intimacy; in combination with sexual fireworks, these relationships are so much easier and bound to give us the drama we need to satisfy unconscious needs, such as helping us express all the pain from the same kind of unloving in the past—most often from our parents or primary caregivers.

Could it be that no matter how much we assert that we want another to fully show up for us, it’s actually terrifying to be met fully by someone that fully, and that realizing how unprepared we are would destroy our illusions of thinking we are so sovereign and whole?

 Catch 22: we may not be able to realize this until we get into that relationship.

When unconscious wounds play out, when each partner can’t own his or her own contributions to the struggle (even the “innocent one” who wants to point out the unavailability of the other), and when a couple can’t simultaneously work together on the relationship while holding those pieces, the relationship often end tragically and painfully.

We may ache and pain and grieve and feel like we are dying, but somehow this is secretly safer and less scary than realizing that we may be unable to be truly met by another—that we are not as able to receive love and maybe even to give it as we’d like to believe.

Getting to Be Right

Train wreck relationships also allow us to be right. And we get to be the victim. We get to blame the other person for all they haven’t done. It’s tough to argue that your friend’s pain isn’t all about that guy that just can’t commit, show up, share his vulnerability, and has already run away with someone else.

And we like to support our friends in the blame rather than radical responsibility because likely we’ve been hurt in the same way and not gotten to the root of it. This is the confirmation bias that perpetuates collective trauma and prevents radical healing and changing the story of victimhood.

A caveat: Some abuse is different, at least in part. Sometimes we truly are victimized and others are more fully to blame, such as when someone uncharacteristically goes off the rails. Sometimes radical responsibility can be a form of gaslighting to believing it’s always our fault. At the same time, we have to look for our contribution, if any, to the issue.

We often choose abusive others because they were abused in the past. This doesn’t excuse the perpetrator, and it doesn’t excuse you from recognizing a trauma bonding pattern if that’s what is operating in you.

While blame has its place, when that’s all we do, it hides all the reasons our deeper selves (unconscious) chose them to begin with. We choose exactly the wrong partner by not being aware of our wounds. We project our longing from the past onto the present and in the process we get to experience our ideal love . . . but in the form of true love’s absence—in the pain of disillusionment that has always been with us waiting to express itself.

We get to ache and grieve all that we are missing—a wound we never got to now, much less heal, until now. So now we are actually grieving the past, and in a way, using someone unavailable as the protagonist for our healing. Alone, terrified, and brokenhearted, and our wound oozing all over the place, we are finally just where we need to be—aware and hurting: the perfect conditions for actually getting to the inner work that’s been waiting our whole lives.

It’s crucial at this time not to distract ourselves too much from the wound (some is ok and healthy). So, try not to get into another relationship, don’t start drinking (or even smoking again), don’t bury yourself in work, or obsessive exercise, so you don’t have to feel. Force yourself to face the pain, try to tolerate more than you think you should or have to, and mourn for as long as it lasts. It will let you know when it’s done with you. Get into therapy if you can, an invaluable help for these times.

Like the invisible bulk of an iceberg underwater, our wounds persist through time, as if we were hurt yesterday and not 30 years ago, as if time didn’t exist! Past trauma haunts us all our days forward until we accept and work with it. It impedes our ability to care generally, our creativity, our connection with the world, and our ability to show up for others and to be kind and loving to ourselves.

We can choose to get off the train wreck of an unfulfilling and abusive relationship.

Time helps heal some emotional pain, but it doesn’t heal the pain of the past. The tough, wise work is to persist in the wound, and feel all the grief and devastation, and to knit together the story of wounding, including noticing similar themes to the past. This is the gift of a broken-open heart. A therapist is especially helpful at this time. So is Series II of this audio series I created for the deep healing I describe. 

When we choose train wrecks, we get to experience all the love that’s inside us in a way that feels safe (even though it hurts like hell)—safer than actual intimacy, which might scare the hell out of us so much we can’t truly imagine what that would be like, except as the fairy tale of a “perfect relationship.” Because truly easy, deeply engaging relationships are rare, the fairy tale of the perfect partner is usually a denied shadow projection of what’s broken inside us, waiting to express itself, which a broken relationship allows.

So, we get to act out our love pain, feel righteous in our pain, and keep alive the illusion that we are capable of deep, committed love . . . and that our lover isn’t. We may indeed be capable of the love we imagine, but not without a lot of work. In train wreck relationships, we use our lover to deny our own gaping holes under the guise of being furious with them for not showing up and not treating us as we need to be.

Being Honest

I am not judging here but pointing out what might be going on, so you can actually begin to become more conscious of your unconscious, to begin to own and self-heal instead of avoid what has been begging your for attention for so long through all the disappointing lovers.

The antidote is to become aware of what’s really going on and to go deeper with someone who can actually meet you—not hoping a currently unavailable somebody will show up one day, or if they just get over so and so, or finally get that job, or finish school, or that project, or blah blah blah. No, someone who is here, who has done enough of their own inner work, and has been responsible enough to prepare themselves to genuinely show up today and tomorrow and the next day. To get to be with and stay with them, you have to do your work.

The key inner work is grief work, the core healing of past love wounds that we try to act out in the present by falling in love with and paining over the “wrong” person.

In our heart of hearts, our gut of guts, we know who is right for us when they show up. And we know who isn’t, usually within the first few minutes of meeting them—if we are paying attention and being honest and not just being drawn by sex, money, or desperation—in other words, when we are in our center and power.

If we were more whole and healthy, we wouldn’t get so destroyed by superficial, escapist, emotionally absent partners. We likely wouldn’t choose them in the first place, unless we wanted some fun for a short time. Sure, we’d feel some sting from breaking up, but not the pummeling and destruction—that’s our wound speaking, and crying.

This isn’t to say that people don’t do shitty things. We may have none of these subconscious agendas going on, and our partner or lover could betray or let us down. Good people suck sometimes. But, these are the exceptions with someone of overall integrity. These are not the train wreck relationships I’m talking about.

More honesty, for fairness at the opposite polarity: not everyone who is broken-hearted is acting out old wounds. This scenario pertains primarily to relationships where there is significant mismatch in ability to meet each other’s needs. Harmonious, well-matched relationships that end or endure struggle for any reason are heartbreaking for losing someone unique and dear and truly special.

The Trick

So, if you are in a train wreck relationship and feel recently destroyed, you likely have no choice but to grieve and go through all those awful, gut-wrenching feelings. The trick is to realize where the bulk of those feelings come from and finally take responsibility for them—realize that you may be acting out your past unrequited love from long ago and that it’s not actually the “worthless” person who recently broke your heart. This doesn’t stop the pain, it just helps you prevent from blaming and distracting yourself with what isn’t true.

And if you believe you don’t have unconscious, ulterior motives, try your luck at choosing someone whom you think is available. Find out how available and whole you are. Actually do it this time, and be dead honest with yourself next time you see that hot guy or gal. The stakes are too high not to be this honest, as the pain of confusion and projection show us.

The catch 22, however, is that our choices are often made by deeper motivations than our conscious minds. When we are molded by past trauma we skip right over healthy partners and red flags; it’s like they are invisible to us.

So, there may be no way to escape the acting out of hidden love wounds. Becoming conscious of what’s truly at play, however, allows us to align with what’s painfully true and be less confused, rather than secretly act out an unconscious agenda. If we just can’t help ourselves, the least we can do is to tend honestly to our broken heart when it happens, sometimes over and over.

Doing the Work

One strategy to break the cycle is to become as aware as possible of our core love wounds, and to grieve them as soon as we can, without rushing any of that painful purging. This is an honesty-forging process through which we release that love-pain that otherwise secretly seeks out broken lovers with which we hurt ourselves. When we release this emotional pain, we can enter a new relationship without so much of that emotional back-pressure needing to express itself. This back-pressure of our wounds lives inside us our whole lives, seeking expression consciously and unconsciously.

Healing through core love wounds also makes us more aware of our triggers, so that we can own them when they surface, release them appropriately, and better navigate them in a truly intimate relationship, rather than just project anger and blame unwittingly onto others. And if you insist that your current lover did you wrong because the evidence is obvious, ask yourself this: Did I truly think and trust that this person was honest and healed enough not to do something like this?

While we may not be able to choose truly loving others until we become the loving person we want others to be, the best and most compassionate way forward may is to acknowledge and experience the pain of our wounds, so that when the particular dynamics of our personal story become apparent to us, we are already humble enough to own our wound’s projections and manifestations. We forgive ourselves for being humanly imperfect and take responsibility for becoming more loving and to stop putting others and ourselves through the ringer of unconscious drama. What has worked for me is a combination of grief work and behavioral change.

Of course, shit always comes up in relationship. But when we know our inner wound territory, these become opportunities to deepen, mend, and bond rather than a terrifying “here we go again.” We are able to be with and regulate ourselves. To grow together with another through these places, our partners have to be willing to do the work. It truly takes two to tango. If someone doesn’t want to dance, and we’ve given them ample chance to take our hand, and we are truly sincere and ready for more (don’t fool yourself!), it’s time to move on.

If you are sincere in your tears and outrage and brokenness, choose someone who can show up for you the way you need them to. First though, I’d recommend a good, long, honest look at yourself to see how ready and able you are—the compassion of radical self-responsibility. Have you done your inner work?

In Sum

In sum, these are the primary reasons we get into train wreck relationships that don’t fulfill us:

  • We ourselves are not as aware or emotionally available as we’d like to believe we are (the only way to tell is by being in a relationship with someone who is available enough)
  • We want to enact old stories of our wounding in an attempt to express the pain we never were able to, to bring it to awareness and to heal through it.
  • We want to be heard, to be right, to be acknowledged, and to play the victim, when underneath all this is a heart broken many years ago and crying out for real love and healing.
  • We choose the path of abandonment and unrequited love because it feeds two birds with one seed: 1) we get to hide from realizing and admitting that we are unavailable and currently incapable of truer love ourselves and 2) it allows us to express all the love and desire we have inside us (but are too unprepared and unready to experience it enduringly with another in positive connection)

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Recommended articles by Jack Adam Weber:

About the author:

Jack Adam Weber, L.Ac., is a licensed Chinese medicine clinician with over 20 years of experience working with patients. He is also a life coach, climate activist, organic farmer, artist, and celebrated poet. Jack has authored hundreds of articles, thousands of poems, and several books. His most recent creation is Climate Cure: Heal Yourself to Heal the Planeta comprehensive guide to help navigate all manner of crisis.

Jack is an advocate for embodied spirituality and writes extensively on the subjects of holistic medicine, emotional depth work, mind-body integration, and climate crisis, while encouraging his readers to think critically, feel deeply, and act boldly. He also developed the Nourish Practice, a deeply restorative, somatic meditation practice that doubles as an educational guide for healing through the wounds of childhood. His work and contacts can be found at jackadamweber.com.


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