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Breaking Out of the Make-Up-Break-Up Cycle

A psychoanalytic approach to moving on.

At 21, Rachel had been married and divorced, and now spends her Wednesday afternoons crying in the chair across from me. The time slot, typically reserved for students in my 'Psychology of Relationships' class, had turned less into an academic forum for the discussion of course material and more into a safe space for the sharing of relationship woes.

Rachel was stuck. She had recently divorced the "man of her dreams"—a man for whom she had fallen head over heels for just over two years ago. The man who, after six months of dating, had proposed in front of her friends and family; who, five months later, she had married, and two months later, divorced. Although she knew, in moments of clarity, that the two were never quite compatible to begin with, there was something inexplicable that drew her to him, and now, the endless make-up-break-up cycle couldn't seem to stop.

As Rachel reached for another tissue, I suggested we look into "Transactional Analysis," a psychoanalytic technique developed by Dr. Eric Berne. According to Berne, in early childhood life, three distinct states of mind develop, which encompass different thoughts, emotions, and accompanying behavior. The three states are named the Parent, the Child, and the Adult.

Our 'Parent' state of mind is dominated by the attitudes, feelings and actions we learned from authority figures in our early childhood. For instance, we have likely heard phrases like "don't talk back to me!" and "shame on you!" from controlling parental figures. Alternatively, expressions like "I'll take care of you" or "I'll help you" are representational of nurturing parental figures. Even as adults, when we take on our 'Parent' state of mind, depending on the situation, we adopt the impressions of a controlling or nurturing parent and act with others as our parental figures would have acted with us.

Our 'Child' state of mind is made up of the emotional freedom we experienced as children, like heightened joy or furious anger, but can also include our adapted responses to the demands of authoritative figures. Children, for instance, are uninhibited in throwing temper tantrums. As adults, we can still experience this impulsive 'Child' state of mind, but find more socially-acceptable ways of expressing our intense emotions. Similarly, it is in this state that we feel the need to please others, or feel emotions connected to how we might respond to a scolding adult: with embarrassment, guilt, or shame.

Our 'Adult' state is where rational judgements inform our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We discern our beliefs by reflecting on our own experiences instead of the impulses or adaptations we have in the 'Child' state or the overly critical or nurturing outlook we have in the 'Parent' state. In the 'Adult' state of mind, we seek to find an understanding of any given situation or, more broadly, the world. As a result, we are present, respectful, assertive, open, and aware.

We tend to move between these three states of mind in response to the situations we find ourselves in: For instance, while we may generally operate in our 'Adult' state, events which cause us to feel shameful or playful may move us into the 'Child' state, whereas events which cause us to feel controlling or nurturing might elicit the 'Parent' state.

Pierre Auguste Cot/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Pierre Auguste Cot/Wikimedia Commons

In examining Rachel's turbulent relationship through the lens of Transactional Analysis, it became clear that she spent much of her time with her now ex-husband in the 'Child' state: When she and Tom first met, she was surprised by his interest in her; Rachel always saw herself as a plain Jane and being wanted by a handsome man who she felt was out of her reach gave her a strong sense of self-worth. Their passionate physical relationship produced feelings of euphoria, and her longing for approval fit into Tom's strong, often critical 'Parent' state. The more Tom criticized Rachel, the more she yearned to please him. Subconsciously, this pattern fulfilled Rachel's own self-critical 'Parent' state, which told her that she could never "show her worth" to Tom, for, in her mind, she had none. Throughout the course of their relationship, however, whenever Rachel would reflect on her feelings towards Tom and enter into the 'Adult' state of mind, she found his criticisms untrue, unfair, and hurtful, which led her to question the health of their relationship. Through her "moments of clarity", Rachel could see that her relationship with Tom was ultimately toxic, causing her to initiate the divorce. Nevertheless she returned to him in moments of weakness, whenever her 'Child' state needed a replenishment of feelings of worth.

Only when in the 'Adult' state could Rachel find proof of her self-worth and assess her relationship as toxic. Through building and developing a strong 'Adult' state, she moved out of the toxic make-up-break-up cycle and onto a healthy relationship comprised of two 'Adults.'

Building a strong 'Adult' state begins with becoming self-aware of the 'Child' and 'Parent' states of mind; their needs, vulnerabilities, and how and when they are expressed. Once aware, we can begin to form patterns around what people, circumstances, or situations catalyze our states of mind, and seek to appraise them differently, allowing us to stay more permanently in our 'Adult' state. By reflecting on past experiences in this state, particularly instances of success, we can further establish our feelings of worth. Becoming acutely aware of our morals and developing a strong value system can further help us refine the parameters of our 'Adult' state and add to our feelings of worth through recognizing that we are acting within a defined system of personal morals and values. If you've found yourself in a situation where you repeat the same destructive patterns, exploring the situation through the lens of Transactional Analysis could help break the cycle.


Berne, E. (2016). Transactional analysis in psychotherapy: A systematic individual and social psychiatry. Ravenio Books.

Berne, E. (2011). Games people play: The basic handbook of transactional analysis. Tantor eBooks.

Steiner, C. M. (1996). Emotional literacy training: The application of transactional analysis to the study of emotions. Transactional Analysis Journal, 26(1), 31-39.

Stewart, I. (2013). Transactional analysis counselling in action. Sage.