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Essential Secrets of Psychotherapy: Repetitive Relationship Patterns

Why would anyone persist in pursuing relationships that are doomed to failure?

One of the most common phenomena psychotherapists deal with is a chronic pattern of dysfunctional relationships. The person's partners share consistent similarities, such as physical and/or emotional abuse, unavailability, substance abuse, instability, narcissism, etc. And each relationship eventually ends badly because of these repetitive dynamics. After a while, such destructive patterns—objectively obvious to others—start to become apparent even to the patient. And the therapeutic question becomes: Why would anyone persist in pursuing relationships that are doomed to failure? What's going on here?

There are no simplistic or singular explanations for such destructive, self-defeating behavior. One part of the puzzle has to do with fear of intimacy and of the opposite sex. (See my previous posts on "sex wars"). If we unconsciously fear the opposite sex, how can we relate intimately to them? Instead, we defend ourselves from true intimacy with thorny defenses that keep the other at arm's length. Or choose partners incapable of intimacy. And, since this is done unconsciously, it becomes a repetitive pattern, undermining and sabotaging every relationship we try to create

But there is another insidious phenomenon frequently afoot. It is a variety of what Freud called a "repetition compulsion." A repetition compulsion is a neurotic defense mechanism. Here's how it works: The repetition compulsion is an attempt to rewrite history. The history we try to rewrite is typically the troubled relationship with our parents, particularly the opposite sex parent. When the early parental relationship is fraught with frustration, disappointment, rejection, abandonment, neglect or abuse, the child is in a precarious spot psychologically. In order to survive these narcissistic insults, children must deny the reality of their predicament, as well as their intense anger, depression, and despair. Instead, we cling to hope: childish hope that, if only we can be good, perfect, smart, quiet, funny enough, etc., that will win over mom or dad and they will finally love us as we need them to—as we are, unconditionally. The child mistakenly believes the problem with the parental interaction resides with them—an archetypal developmental misinterpretation—and that, therefore, they have the power to control and rectify it by changing into someone more acceptable. And so we try desperately to do so, over and over again, but to no avail. Because the reality is, the problem lies not with the child, but with the parent, who, because of his or her own psychological or situational limitations, is unable or unwilling to provide the love, structure and acceptance all children require to thrive—and deserve.

Naturally, no parents are perfect, and so we all go through this in one way or another. Just as our parents did. The hope of being able to change the parent's response by becoming what we perceive he and/or she want us to become wards off what psychoanalyst James Masterson (1990) terms the "abandonment depression." So long as we cling to hope, we avoid sinking into despair, which, particularly for a child, would be devastating. In adulthood, this childhood scenario is unconsciously and compulsively recapitulated by most of us to some extent. Our "inner child" (see my previous post) is still active, and still seeking to turn the rejecting or ambivalent or emotionally unavailable or abusive adult into a loving one. Only now, it is no longer only the parent of the opposite sex, but potential love interests of the opposite sex that are targeted. Symbolic stand-ins for the parent. Most adults have an uncanny attraction, a kind of unconscious "radar," for members of the opposite sex (or, in some cases, same sex) who, in ways often initially imperceptible, resemble—psychologically if not physically—the parent with whom we had difficulties. And these are the people we tend to "fall in love" with or with whom we get involved. We choose them unconsciously, of course. That is the nature of a neurosis. It's a "blind spot." Who would consciously choose—and often remain—with a partner who is rejecting, unavailable, or emotionally/physically abusive? That would be pure masochism. But it is not mere masochism in this case. It is a powerful repetition compulsion at play.

That wounded, rejected, abandoned little boy or girl is still trying to win mommy or daddy's love. In order for the repetition compulsion to play out, the love interest must, by definition, possess at least some of the emotional deficits or traits as did the original parent. Indeed, that is what the repetition compulsion is all about: a recreation of these relationship dynamics, so as to provide an opportunity to, this time, change the outcome. The inner child thinks: "This time will be different. I will get this person to love me. I can change him or her, if I only try hard enough. I won't fail again. Then I will feel loveable." But tragically, this futile effort is doomed to failure. For if, as part of the repetition compulsion, we specifically choose individuals who cannot love us because of their own limitations and problems, what are the odds of making them do so? Can we "fix" them? Force them? Transform them? Cure them? Not very likely. The rational adult part of ourselves knows that. But the wounded little boy or girl within is still trying, just as he or she did with the parents, each inevitable failure reinforcing feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, and unlovability. And so it goes.

So how can we resolve the pesky repetition compulsion? With great difficulty. Because to do so requires relinquishing the defense mechanism itself. The repetition compulsion defends against the experience of all those feelings we denied during childhood about our imperfect parents and ourselves: sadness, anger, rage, despair, hopelessness, hurt. Feelings we were unequipped to cope with then, and continued avoiding into adulthood, now must be faced. The childish hope that once kept us afloat must now be relinquished, and reality finally accepted: Never will we receive from our parents all we needed. Nothing can ever change that. "Healing," as I explain in my book, "entails the mature acceptance of the traumatic facts of one's emotional mortification, the causes and consequences, as well as a resolute willingness to swallow the following bitter pill: We cannot change the past nor undo the wound ... We can, nonetheless, allow ourselves to feel our rage and grief over this irretrievable loss ... We may even—with some good fortune, time and grace—find within ourselves the capacity to forgive those whom we feel inflicted our agonizing injuries." (p. 286) With this courageous, conscious acceptance, the repetition compulsion, like the past, loses its power over us in the present.

This is an excerpt from Diamond's forthcoming book Psychotherapy for the Soul: Thirty-Three Essential Secrets for Emotional and Spiritual Self-Healing.

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