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Why Do You Keep Making the Same Relationship Mistakes?

Psychology explains why we repeat mistakes -- over and over again.

Lisa Ann’s* first words to me were, “I’ve done it again. I’ve chosen the wrong man once again.” She explained that the man she had been dating for the past three months had just broken up with her. “He tells me he loves me, but he can’t be with me,” she said. “He says I’m too intense. I want too much.”

“It’s not the first time I’ve heard this,” she said. “I’m an intense person. I work hard and play hard. When I love someone, I love him intensely.”

It turned out that all of her boyfriends had, at some time or another, urged her to tone down her intensity. One said that she wanted too much from him. Another said she took things too seriously. And yet another said that she was not playful enough.

Her sister told her that she needed to look for a different kind of guy, that there were plenty of men who would find that intensity lovable and desirable, but Lisa Ann said, “I thought he was different. He was different. How could I know he would have the same problem as every other man I’ve been with? And how can I help who I’m attracted to?”

Does this sound at all familiar? Or do you have other relationship mistakes that you keep making?

Do you keep having the same argument with your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse?

Do you keep falling into the same relationship rut?

Do you think you’ve changed only to discover that you’ve just repeated a familiar


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If you do, you’re not alone. Despite the familiar quote (maybe or maybe not from Albert Einstein) that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result, the truth is that we humans are creatures of habit. We like routines and familiar behaviors, even when they disrupt and distress us. So we repeat them.

Freud called this need to repeat a familiar experience despite the unpleasant consequences “the repetition compulsion.” He believed it was caused by a drive that was both physical and psychological in nature. Although there were many problems with his conceptualizations, he may actually have hit the nail on the head in this particular case.

Contemporary neuroscience has come up with the same explanation: the repetition of problematic behavior is both psychological and physiological (specifically, neurological).

The psychological part, we have come to understand, may be a desire to master difficult situations. If we do it again and again, our psyche thinks, one time we’ll figure out how to make a painful or unpleasant occurrence go differently.

But our neurology explains why discovering a new pattern requires more conscious effort on our part. According to current research, our behavior is often dictated by neurons that our brains fire off. And those neurons like familiar pathways as much as our psyches and emotions do!

I once heard Daniel Siegel, author of several books on the subject, speak on the subject. Here's the wonderful image he offered to describe what is happening in the brain:

Imagine that you are going to a park to feed the ducks on the lake. You park your car at the top of a hill. There is high grass going down the hill towards the lake. You don’t see a path through the grass, so you walk carefully down through the high grass. You feed the ducks and then head back up the hill. Of course, you walk on the same path through the high grass that you have just created. It wouldn’t make sense to struggle through the grass to make a new path.

Then someone else comes to feed the ducks. They follow the same path that you took. And then someone else follows the same path. Before long, that is the path everyone takes down to feed the ducks.

Our neurons fire in the same way – once a path is carved through the “high grass” of our brains, it’s just the path that neurons follow.

To change our behavior means to change the neurons. Not an easy task, but not impossible, as you know if you’ve ever tried doing something new. The great psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell gives us another image for this process. Let’s say you are a good tennis player, but you want to get better. You go for tennis lessons, and the pro has you hit the ball a few times and then tells you that your problem is the way you’re holding the racket. The pro shows you a different grip and practices with you for an hour. Then new grip feels a little awkward, but you can feel that your strokes are stronger, more powerful when you get it right.

But then you go to play a game, and you’re completely off. You lose worse than you’ve ever lost before. You feel like an idiot. You go back to the pro and angrily describe the situation. More than likely, the pro will take a look at how you’re holding the racket, make a couple of small corrections, and then tell you that you have to get used to the new grip, but that soon you’ll be playing better than ever.

If you keep practicing the new grip (and if the pro knows her business), you’ll discover that she’s completely right. What initially felt new and awkward soon becomes familiar, comfortable and powerful.

When it comes to relationships, of course, it’s a little more complicated. But the principles are the same:

  • We are comfortable with familiar patterns, even when they cause us stress or pain. We therefore continue to repeat them, even when they do not get us where we want to go.
  • We often do not recognize what the patterns are, and we frequently cannot see where we step off onto the familiar path.
  • To change, we often need good advice, but we also need to remember to take change in small increments.
  • Small steps, like a small shift in the way we hold a tennis racket, can lead to significant change.
  • We also need to remember that even a tiny change often feels uncomfortable at first.
  • And finally, practice makes the change feel familiar. And then we have a new pattern that our neurons can follow – without even thinking about it.

For Lisa Ann, the change involved going out with men for whom she did not feel an instant attraction. “If I feel that zing go through my body,” she said with a grin, “it means the neurons are firing down the same familiar path.”

In a familiar, repetitive argument with a spouse or a family member, it may mean simply stopping the action before you get into the fire. Daniel Goleman, in his classic book Emotional Intelligence, tells us that an argument cannot be won after 20 minutes of discussion. Both participants fall into old neuron-firing patterns and neither can change their own opinions – or the other person’s – after that. I would suggest that to alter a repeated pattern, familiar arguments should be stopped after five minutes. Raise your hand, say something like “I don’t want to go down this path again,” and ask for a cooling off period. Although Goleman suggests that you physically separate, I have found that it works better if the two of you try to do something different, but together. Watch tv, go for a walk, do the dishes. Try to do it together if possible.

The most important point of all, however, is to remember that to change the path that the neurons fire down often means to understand why you want to be different. Most of us want to stay the same, but to have things in our lives change. But to really make a change in your life, you’re going to have to slowly retrain your neurons. Knowing why you want them to behave differently can help.

*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

Further reading:

Daniel Siegel: The Developing Mind

Stephen Mitchell: Hope and Dread in Psychoanalysis


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