Have you ever known someone who seems to move from one troubled relationship to another, somehow always ending up with partners with similar traits to the previous one/s? You may even notice you do this yourself. For instance, you may frequently end up in relationships with partners who refuse to commit and, despite the obvious red flags, you’re continuously left wondering why this always happens to you. This is not just a stroke of bad luck or a series of coincidences, but what Freud termed ‘repetition compulsion’. This is our tendency to repeat painful or traumatic events or experiences over and over in an attempt to master or heal what is still unresolved within us.
Extensive infant and attachment research over the years confirms that our attachment patterns in adult relationships are determined by our earliest relationships with our primary caregivers, usually our parents. For those people who experienced neglect, emotional, physical or sexual abuse or any form of trauma as a child, such experiences need to be processed and worked through in order to prevent us being caught up in destructive re-enactments. Re-enactments may be adaptive or maladaptive, depending on how the original trauma is later processed and enacted.
In adaptive re-enactments, for instance, the adult trauma survivor would return to a situation or relationship reminiscent of his/her original trauma but, when doing so, be able to slowly integrate and work through the original pain, helplessness and other related feelings without it overwhelming them. An example would be a social worker with a history of childhood abuse who is able to use her experiences to help children with similar experiences. Whilst the experience of working with abused children would inevitably bring up painful memories for the social worker, repeated exposure to familiar experiences may allow a slow working through of the traumatic experiences. With the support of colleagues and psychotherapy, a progressive movement towards healing is possible.
Maladaptive re-enactments, on the other hand, involve people exposing themselves, sometimes compulsively, to situations and relationships similar to their original trauma but in ways that are defensive, re-traumatising and destructive. Taking a defensive stance to past trauma, for instance, may involve victims of abuse becoming abusers themselves. Here, the person who was abused as a child turns their anger and pain outward and expresses it towards others. The internal dialogue may be – ‘I’m no longer a helpless victim. No-one will hurt me again’. Here, unconscious attempts to master the original trauma are unsuccessful and result in a cycle of abuse passed down from one generation to another.
Another common maladaptive re-enactment and one which you may be more familiar with, is the tendency for people to unconsciously seek out people who resemble a parent or past abuser and recreate an earlier relationship. For instance, a man who was repeatedly rejected by his mother as a child may be drawn to women who are cold and unable to meet his emotional needs. Unconsciously, this man may be recreating the scene of the original trauma in an attempt to change the ending and seek healing. The internal, unconscious belief may be, ‘If I can get this woman to love me and accept me, I will be good enough’. This would lead to re-traumatisation as this man experiences rejection and pain repeatedly in his romantic relationships, once again reconfirming the script, ‘I’m not loveable’ or ‘I’m not enough’. In such cases, the romantic partner is a symbolic stand-in for the rejecting parent and it’s the inner child calling the shots, trying to win the original love of his mother.
Re-enactments also take place because survivors of child abuse tend to hold a negative self-concept, ranging from low self-esteem to self-loathing, as well as internalised shame, anger and a range of other negative emotions. In adulthood, such persons may seek out relationships or situations which are familiar, since familiarity may feel safe, despite the negative consequences. Their negative self-concept may also cause them to conclude that they deserve to be mistreated, therefore engaging in relationships which confirm their negative self-concept.
So, if you recognise yourself in the above, I’d like to offer you a ray of hope and remind you that you needn’t be doomed to repeat unsatisfactory and destructive relationship patterns indefinitely. What you do need to do first is recognise that a pattern may exist. If you suspect that this is the case, it’s important to remember that choosing partners who resemble people who hurt you as a child can never resolve the original trauma. The reason for this is that such people may be unable to love you and engage in healthy relationships due to their own limitations or issues, rather than it being a reflection of your own worth. The healing needs to take place by working through the original trauma, which would best be done with the help of a psychotherapist or counsellor. Only then can you start to move away from destructive and painful relationship patterns towards those which are satisfying and very different to those you experienced in your earliest years.