The Continuum of Self Theory: Opposite Attraction Explained
The most potent of love potions, “romantic chemistry,” draws lovers into a trance-like experience that results in a steamy dance of infatuation, intrigue and sexual desire. Romantic chemistry, or the “urge to merge,” controls our rational mind, so much so that lessons learned and pledges made are neutralized in an instant. Although conscious desires, choices and preferences are crucial to the pairing of a romantic partnership, they play a secondary role to the forces of our unconscious mind. No matter how we try to fight our relational destiny, we still fall prey to our instinctual urges.
The irresistible and hypnotic allure of romantic chemistry creates what I call a “soul mate conviction.” What seems so “perfect” in the beginning often unfolds into a disappointing dysfunctional relationship. My book, The Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us, explains why the soul mate of our dreams often ends up as the cellmate of our nightmares.
Although the Human Magnet Syndrome (HMS) provides an intuitive explanation for the ubiquitous forces that bring and keep partners in their dysfunctional romantic relationships, it lacked a theoretical foundation. To account for these irresistible and predictable attraction forces, I was compelled to create The Continuum of Self (COS) Theory. It explain why all people, not just codependents and narcissists, are predictably drawn to a certain type of oppositely attractive partner.
In a nutshell, the COS Theory offers an explanation for why so many of us remain in relationships despite long-term feelings of anxiety, anger or resentment. It similarly explains why some people tend to repeat dysfunctional relationship choices, despite wanting something different. Additionally, it describes why relationships become fragile and often terminate when one of the partners independently achieves greater emotional/mental health.
The Self-Orientation (SO) Concept
The Continuum of Self Theory rests on the Self-Orientation (SO) Concept, which represents a distinctly human and universal personality characteristic; we all have one! A SO is defined as the manner in which a person expresses or does not express their emotional, psychological and relational needs when in a romantic relationship. There are only two SO types: “other” and “self.”
The “other” self-orientation, or OSO, manifests itself as the natural and reflexive predisposition to be more oriented towards the emotional, personal and relational needs of others than for oneself. The second is the “self” self-orientation, or SSO, which has the natural and reflexive predisposition to be more oriented towards one’s own emotional, personal and relational needs and desires over those of others.
Both the OSO and SSO are represented as dichotomous and inverse personality characteristics on The Continuum of Self. As opposite self-orientations, they land on opposite sides of the COS. The most severe manifestation for both SOs are placed at the furthest ends of the continuum. The most severe form of an OSO is codependency, and the most severe form of an SSO is pathological narcissism, which is exhibited in Narcissistic, Borderline and Antisocial Personality Disorders and/or an addiction. Codependents or severe OSOs are typically focused on the relational and personal needs of others, while the pathological narcissists or severe SSOs are almost completely focused on the relational and personal needs of self.
The middle of the COS constitutes a hypothetical equal balance in pursuit of “other” and “self” needs when in a relationship. The Continuum of Self, therefore, represents the full range of the self-orientation possibilities – from healthy to dysfunctional.
The COS is a qualitative construct as it can predict a relationship’s degree of healthiness or dysfunctionality. It is also a quantitative construct as it demonstrates relational compatibility and stability though the use of interacting numerical values. Through “relationship math,” or simple addition and subtraction of single digit numbers (the continuum of self-values), it is possible to identify relational compatibility and stability. The term “stable” is used to describe relationships that are enduring and resistant to break-up. Conversely, an “unstable” relationship is likely to either not progress beyond the initial courtship stage or end when frequent conflict or discord is present.
As a whole, the COS measures the full range of self-orientation pairing possibilities. It was designed to only measures interacting SOs; it does not purport to measure any other personality construct.
The Love, Respect and Care (LRC) Ratio
The COS Theory suggests that all people are consciously and unconsciously attracted to romantic partners who have an opposite, but proportionally balanced, self-orientation (SOs). Typically, an OSO is compelled to provide more love, respect and care (LRC) to others than to themselves. They naturally gravitate or are reflexively attracted to an SSO, who is selfishly compelled to pursue their own LRC needs, while dismissing and ignoring the same needs of others. Consequently, OSOs and SSOs are the perfect fit in a relationship– like a perfect dancing couple – the care needer leads and the care giver follows; neither gets their toes stepped on. Not only are they attracted to each other, but also feel emotionally balanced. The resulting bond of opposite, but balanced, SOs will likely endure hardships and be resistant to change.
Codependents (severe OSOs), by definition, are prone to focus on the LRC of others, while dismissing, devaluing and/or being afraid of seeking the same from others. Conversely, pathological narcissists (severe SSOs) are prone to satiate their own LRC needs, while devaluing, ignoring and/or neglecting the same needs of their romantic partners. As opposite but balanced (LRC) personality types, as depicted on the COS, these two almost always experience immediate and intense feelings of romantic chemistry.
Continuum of Self Values (CSVs)
In total, there are 11 CSVs on the Continuum of Self, representing the full-range of SO possibilities. CSVs increase or decrease in a series of single digits.
Since codependents/OSOs and pathological narcissists/SSOs have diametrically opposite SOs, they are represented on the farthest ends of the COS (-5 CSV and +5 CSV, respectively). As one’s relational health improves, so does their SO, which is represented by a lower positive or negative CSV. The middle CSV is 0, which represents an equal balance of LRC given and taken in a relationship. The positive or negative designation does not imply that one SO is better than the other, merely on opposite sides.
The further the CSV pairing moves away from 0, the less mutuality and reciprocity is evident in the relationship. In other words, higher negative and positive CSV pairings, i.e. -4/+4, represent a relationship that lacks the fair distribution of LRC. Conversely, lower CSV pairings represent an increased mutual exchange of LRC. The former represents a dysfunctional relationship, the latter healthy.
According to the COS Theory, romantic relationships remain viable or endure because the matching opposite SOs create a sense of relational equilibrium. If one partner becomes healthier, as evidenced by a shift in their lowered CSV, then tacit and direct pressure is placed on the other partner to respond with similar positive movement/growth. If the partner of the healthier individual does not want to or is unable to change/grow, then stress is placed on the relationship. The stress will either lead to a breakdown of the relationship or create pressure for the healthier partner to regress to former levels of dysfunction. Failure to maintain a balanced inverse bond may result in the failure of the relationship. Obviously, the COS Theory has been influenced by the Family Systems Theory.
Corresponding zero CSVs do not signify an absence of self-orientation. Instead, it represents an exact balance of love, respect and care (LRC) given and received. Although having a zero would be ideal, in reality, the vast majority of people fall somewhere on one side or the other of the continuum.
The lower inversely matched CSV couples are able to ebb and flow because of the reciprocal and mutual nature of their well-matched SOs/CSVs. These partners are able to ask for what they need without causing resentment or conflict in their relationship. Higher inversely matched CSV couples create a dysfunctional relationship. With polar opposite CSVs, the two are not likely to reconcile their vast SO differences. The pathological narcissist, in particular, is an unlikely candidate for any substantive personality change.
The Zero Sum Relationship
Relationship stability is achieved when the negative and positive CSVs of each partner equals a zero sum. In other words, zero sum relationships occur when each partner has an exactly opposite SO.
The zero sum relationship describes the quantitative state of a relationship, not the qualitative state. To illustrate, a -5 CSV, or codependent, will likely form a stable and lasting dysfunctional relationship with a -5 CSV, or pathological narcissist. On the contrary, a mildly giving person with a CSV of -2 would make an ideal partner with a mildly self-centered person with a CSV of +2. Therefore, a zero sum balanced relationship isn’t necessarily healthy or stable. It is just balanced.
Vignette of a Healthy -2/+2 Sum Zero Relationship:
Sandy is a mother and wife who enjoys her role as a busy stay-at-home mom. She keeps busy caring for her family and serving in several volunteer positions. She is married to Dan, who is a successful corporate executive. With the support of his wife, he works long hours to build his status and reputation in the family business. Although Dan likes to be in the public eye, he still makes himself available for his family’s personal and emotional needs. Their matching lower opposite CSVs results in mutual feelings of love, respect and care. When Sandy is sick and can’t care for the children, Dan will take a few days off of work to cover her domestic responsibilities. If Dan needs help, Sandy will step up in any way she can to help him.
Vignette of an Unhealthy -5/+5 Sum Zero Relationship:
Ken (CSV -5 codependent) works two jobs to care for his three children and his wife Allison (CSV +5 pathological narcissist). Ken harbors deep resentment toward Allison because he has to work multiple jobs to make ends meet for the family. Allison has been largely unresponsive to Ken’s unhappiness. Although Ken is highly bonded to his children, his work schedule keeps him away from many of the quality moments with them. When they married, Allison unilaterally decided to quit her successful accounting career because she wanted to be a stay at home mother. Despite Ken’s repeated assertions that they needed two incomes, Allison insisted that she needed to be at home with their kids. Ken’s fear and anxiety of conflict results in the stuffing of his resentment for Allison. Allison’s narcissism prevents her from understanding Ken’s need for love, care and respect. They are likely to remain married, but miserable (mostly Ken).
Continuum of Self Values (CSV) Relationship Categories
CSVs are categorized into three groups: Healthy/Balanced, Problematic and Unhealthy/Dysfunctional. Lower CSV pairings illustrate healthier relationships that are characterized by higher levels of mutuality in the exchange of LRC. Higher CSV pairings demonstrate less healthy relationships that are characterized by a lopsided exchange of LRC – more to the SSO and less to the OSO. Couples who fits into a specific category can move forward or backward on the COS, as they either evolve or devolve relationally.
- Healthy/Balanced: (0), (-1 & +1) and (-2 & +2)
- Problematic: (-3 & +3)
- Unhealthy/Dysfunctional: (-4 & +4) and (-5 & +5)
The Simplification and Redefinition of Codependency and Pathological Narcissism
According to the COS Theory, a codependent is a severely OSO person with a CSV of -5. When in romantic relationships, they focus almost completely on the LRC needs of their pathologically narcissistic partner, while ignoring, diminishing or neglecting their own similar needs. Although unhappy and resentful, they remain in this relationship.
In contrast, a pathological narcissist, a severely SSO person with a CSV of +5, almost always focuses on their own LRC needs, while ignoring, diminishing or neglecting their partner’s similar needs. They seem oblivious to their OSO partner’s resentment or unhappiness about the relationship. They, therefore, have no investment or interest in changing the relationship.
Unhealthy or Dysfunctional CSVs/SOs
The Unhealthy/Dysfunctional SO or CSV range is -4 & +4 to -5 & +5. Although “balanced” and “stable,” these dysfunctional CSV pairings result in a one way “narcicentric” relationship. As such, +4 and +5 narcissists receive the lion’s share of LRC, while the -4 and -5 OSOs are typically on the short end of the receiving stick. As such, the OSO suffers more than their SSO partner.
In an effort to avoid upsetting the narcissistic partner, the -4 & -5 CSV OSO partner tolerates and, consequently, adapts to their SSO partner’s narcissistic ways. Because the OSO is neither adept at nor comfortable with communicating anger, displeasure or resentment, or knows by doing so, the problems would only worsen, they are likely to suppress these feelings. Communicating their resentment or anger would likely result in rejection, conflict and/or personal or relational harm, all of which they actively avoid. Therefore, they perpetuate or enable the dysfunctionally balanced relationships by adjusting to their partner’s narcissistic behaviors.
The -5/+5 relationship is typically resistant to change, mostly because of the pathological narcissist’s inability to acknowledge their role in the relationship’s dysfunction. Denying culpability or responsibility for the pathological relationship reinforces the narcissist’s position that neither they nor the relationship would benefit from psychotherapeutic services.
The -5 codependent is correspondingly resistant to change, as it would result in potential emotional, psychological and even physical harm or in deep and profound feelings of guilt, shame and loneliness. Codependents, however, are able to accept responsibility for their problems and seek help, just not often.
Although the -4/+4 relationship constitutes a dysfunctional relationship, both individuals have some capacity, albeit minimal, to break free of their polarized SO differences. To illustrate, the -4 OSO is minimally capable of setting and maintaining boundaries regarding the LRC imbalance. Likewise, the +4 self-oriented partner has some, but minimal, capabilities to demonstrate concern and willingness to better meet their partner’s LRC needs. This relationship is still resistant to change as the -4 narcissist is negatively reactive and fragile about accepting constructive or critical feedback about their narcissism. For this reason, marital/couples therapists struggle with this (and the -5/+5) CSV paired relationships.
According to the societal and cultural standards of most developed western countries, the -3/+3 relationship is often considered problematic, in that the distribution of LRC is not equally and fairly distributed. In this relationship category, the LRC balance is significantly tilted toward the OSO. Even with the inequity of LRC given and received, this couple is still capable of minor to moderate levels of mutuality and reciprocity. For example, the others-oriented partner is able to set some boundaries, as well as communicate some of their LRC needs. Conversely, the self-oriented partner is capable of minimal to moderate levels of empathy and motivation to meet their partner’s LRC needs, while also being open to some constructive and critical feedback.
The delineation between healthy and unhealthy CSV pairings is not always clear. From the vantage point of modern western culture, a couple with a -3 or +3 CSV pairing may be considered unhealthy, as there is a distinct disparity with the exchange of LRC. However, from the perspective of other societies, cultures or ethnic groups in which the norm is oriented towards an acceptable discrepancy between the giving and taking of LRC, the relationship would be considered healthy and normal. If these romantic partners are satisfied and happy with their relationship and there is no harm perpetrated against the OSO, then their somewhat polarized exchange of LRC may actually constitute a culturally specific healthy relationship.
Healthy and Balanced CSVs/SSO
The normal, or healthy, CSV pairings are -2/+2, -1/+1 and 0/0. Couples who fall within this range practice a healthy balance of LRC give and take. Although a -2/+2 couple may not share an exactly equal exchange of LRC, they still experience an affirming, balanced and mutually satisfying connection. This relationship is considered healthy because both partners are content and satisfied with their unique LRC flow. In other words, this relationship works because both partners feel loved, respected and cared for in a manner that satisfies their uniquely healthy SO.
An example of such a relationship is a healthy psychotherapist who enjoys helping others, but still sets boundaries when feeling neglected, or a healthy writer who lives for affirmation and recognition, but can still fulfill his partner’s needs for the same. This and other healthy relationships, therefore, are defined by both a zero sum balance and an equitable distribution of LRC.
CSV Flow and Permanence
Except for the pathological narcissist, who may have a personality disorder, a person’s SO or CSV is neither fixed nor permanent. A person’s CSV typically ebbs and flows throughout his or her lifetime. It is possible, albeit not usual, for a person to move from one side of the continuum to the other. In the case of an SO switch, the person usually begins with a lower negative or positive CSV. This person has likely participated in some form of long-term or regular mental health service(s). With motivation, emotional fortitude and good psychotherapy, most OSOs and SSOs are capable of increasing their amount of LRC mutuality.
Maslow’s Hammer and Nail
As much as the COS Theory attempts to identify and quantify human relational behavior, it is neither feasible nor appropriate to rely on just one theory to explain complicated human behavior patterns. There are inherent dangers to having a limited or narrow view on human psychology. According to Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of the humanistic psychological theory, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” This author hopes that the COS Theory is just one of the many tools in a therapist’s toolbox that can be utilized to understand and change our clients or our own dysfunctional relationships.
Since an addiction mimics pathological narcissism, a significant period of recovery is needed before determining a person’s baseline self orientation.
The COS only measures a person’s self-orientation. It does not purport to measure more complicated and multi-faceted personality or relational characteristics or dynamics. Also, the COS theory should only be applied in a clinical setting with a competent and qualified psychotherapist who is trained in the COS and other related psychological theories.
Although the COS theory attempts to explain and simplify the complex attraction dynamic, it does not pretend to be bigger and more inclusive than it was designed to be. It is a narrowly focused explanatory paradigm that measures an individual’s SO, while accounting for the attraction dynamic of opposite but compatible personality types. It is not intended to be a stand-alone or comprehensive theoretical explanation. It may be useful as an adjunct to other psychological theories.
As a new psychological theory, COS has not yet met the rigors of scientific scrutiny. However, it is hoped that it will contribute to the current understanding of human behavior, as well as stimulate further thought and discussion on the topic.