Schemas: Single and Repeatedly Alone

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

This is a fairly typical situation: 

“She was a successful lawyer with a major law firm. This woman was attractive, intelligent, warm and available. Yet, she was not able to hold onto a relationship for more than a few weeks. In fact, she seemed to be attracted to the same type of unavailable man over and again. What was the problem?”


I hear from countless numbers of men and women who range in age from 18 with the same complaint. They are single, available, want to meet someone and are very despairing of their inability to do so.

Some of these people blame the opposite sex. Women criticize men for being selfish and wanting nothing but sex. Men vilify women for teasing, looking for wealthy and not wanting a serious relationship.

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The personal story that underlies each one of these individuals will vary. However, there is one thing they share in common. Each one has a schema that shapes the way they see people and relationships.

What is a schema?

A schema is a cognitive framework or concept that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas can be useful, because they allow us to take shortcuts in interpreting a vast amount of information. However, these mental frameworks also cause us to exclude pertinent information in favor of information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and ideas. Schemas can contribute to stereotypes and make it difficult to retain new information that does not conform to our established schemas.

The formation of schemas begin to take from the earliest of childhood and continue throughout life. For example, a toddler is fascinated when he sees a dog. His mom tells him it’s a doggie. When he sees other dogs he is quick to smile, point and call it a doggie. However, when he and his mom visit the zoo, he sees a lion and calls it a doggie. It has four legs, a tail and fur. When the child sees a horse or cow, he will call each one a doggie. He has formed a schema for a doggie but not for the categories of other types of four legged animals. However, with more experiences he will develop a schema for each four legged animal.

So, schemas are formed out of experiences. These schemas shape how other experiences are perceived. Even though these perceptions may be inaccurate, they remain firmly in place and resistant to change. This happens if a child is repeatedly told by parents that they are stupid and ugly. Later, it will make no difference when someone tells them that they are smart and attractive because of the self schema of being stupid and ugly. The pre existing concept of “I am stupid and ugly” excludes and rejects any contrary information.

Concepts and perceptions are shaped out of these schemas and behaviors automatically follow. It,s now a concept and needs no conscious thought when events occur. There are relationship schemas that result from growing up, watching parents interact and absorbing how those parents interact with the child. Therefore, a relationship schema can form that relationships are dangerous. This type of self schema may result in the individual avoiding the perceived danger of relationships. This is one of a variety off schemas that are maladaptive. They are maladaptive because they interfere with growth, development and functioning. This is why so many personal problems are repeated. This is also why people with malaptive relationship schemas repeat bad marriages over and over regardless of who they marry.

Following are 18 relationship schemas:

1.  Abandonment/Instability  
2.  Mistrust/Abuse  
3.  Emotional Deprivation
4.  Defectiveness/Shame 
5.  Social Isolation/ Alienation  
6.  Dependence/Incompetence
7.  Vulnerability to Harm or Illness 
8.  Enmeshment/Undeveloped Self   
9.  Failure
10. Entitlement/Grandiosity 
11. Insufficient Self-control/Self Discipline
12. Subjugation 
13. Self-Sacrifice
14. Approval-Seeking/Recognition-Self-Seeking 
15. Negativity/Pessimism 
16. Emotional Inhibition
17. Unrelenting Standards/Hyper-criticalness 
18. Punitiveness

These are not indedendent of each other but form combinations.

There are three major ways people adapt and cope, depending on what their maladaptive schemas happen to be:

1. Surrender, which means giving in to our schemas and repeating them over and over; 

2. Avoidance, which means finding ways to escape or block out our schemas;  and

3. Overcompensation, which means doing the opposite of what our schemas makes us feel.

The point is that, depending on early experiences followed by those that occur later, schemas may indeed be what makes it so difficult for some individuals to find partners. It must be understood that people have differing underlying concepts, beliefs and perceptions about relationships but the overall result is the same in that they want intimate and warm permanent relationships but cannot find them.

A from of Cognitive Behavior Therapy, combined with other types of therapy is called Schema Therapy and is now available. Part of the therapy involves finding t

Jeffrey Young, Ph.D., is the founder of schema therapy. 

More information about Dr. Young and schema therapy is available by listening to Dr. David Van Nuys interview at:

If you are one of those people who wants intimacy but cannot find it or if you know someone struggling with this, psychotherapy is available, in the form of CBT or Schema Therapy

Your comments are welcome

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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