Why We Repeat Painful Patterns in Relationships
Examining the "repetition compulsion."
Posted May 25, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- The “repetition compulsion” is a basic concept in psychotherapy.
- Freud believed the repetition compulsion was a reflection of the death instinct—an unconscious drive toward self-destruction.
- The repetition compulsion is acted out through processes such as displacement and projection.
The “repetition compulsion” is a basic concept in psychotherapy. The compulsion to repeat is particularly interesting because what is repeated is not pleasurable. On the contrary, it is usually a painful and destructive pattern of feeling and behaving.
How different types of therapists interpret repetition
Different “brands” of psychotherapy explain the causes in a variety of ways. For example, behavioral therapists treat the repetitions as bad habits that can be changed by conditioning. Cognitive therapists view the repetitions as irrational ways of thinking that can be changed by rational thinking. Psychoanalytic therapists trace the repetitions to childhood experiences that get replayed in adulthood. For example, children who are abused often grow up to be abused or abusers as adults.
Freud believed the repetition compulsion was a reflection of the death instinct—an unconscious drive toward self-destruction. Most psychoanalysts have rejected the concept of the death instinct and believe these repetitive feeling states and behaviors were originally adaptive and necessary for a child’s psychic survival, but in adulthood they can be self-destructive. Many contemporary psychoanalysts understand the repetition as an attempt at mastery—the hope that this time the mother or father or grandfather (or their stand-ins) will behave differently. From this perspective, the woman who tries to seduce her male analyst by dressing seductively and making seductive remarks unconsciously wishes the male analyst (father) will not act out his sexual feelings toward her as her father did.
Displacement, projection, and transference
The repetition compulsion is acted out through processes such as displacement and projection. Displacement involves experiencing and treating one person as if he were another. Thus, the patient may experience the analyst as if she were his mother. Projection involves experiencing another person as having feelings that you have. For example, the patient is feeling guilty and experiences the analyst as thinking she is bad. In psychoanalysis, the feelings and experiences that the patient has toward the analyst are called “transference” and the analysis of the transference is at the heart of the psychoanalytic process.
Working through repetition and transference
The repetition compulsion and transference do not only occur in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis—they appear in our lives on an everyday basis. The only difference is that in psychoanalysis, the repetitions and transference are identified through insight and “worked through.”
By “working through,” I am referring to the process of being able to distinguish the analyst from the person with whom you developed this pattern in childhood and internalizing a new way of relating and feeling. For example, I have a patient who experiences me as uninterested in her the way she experienced her mother. It makes her alternatively desperate to engage me and angry at me for not being engaged. She experiences this with her husband, friends, and colleagues as well as with me. But it is with me that she has come to see that this is a lens through which she experiences the world.
In our relationships with our lovers, friends, husbands, wives, children, friends, and co-workers, the repetitions (based on the lens through which we color the world) do not generally get identified or worked through. In my work with patients, I describe it as similar to Bugs Bunny’s carrot machine. Whatever he put into it, it came out in the shape of a carrot.
The "working through" process takes a long time. We do not simply stop doing or feeling the way we experience as “natural” and what we have been doing our whole life. In addition, stopping a repetitive pattern usually involves giving up something. This is the basis for what psychoanalysts call “resistance.” If people have so much trouble stopping a behavior pattern that causes them pain, the pattern must have some function. The most concrete and conscious example is addictions. The ecstasy of a heroin high or of winning a horse race is so intense that the person cannot give it up, despite the fact that it destroys their family, career, or friendships.