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Why do we repeat the same negative relational patterns over and over again?

Written by Tim on 2 April 2015

For many people a feeling of déjà vu is common following an argument or falling out with a close friend or partner. Disagreements on their own are not necessarily a cause for concern, but regular emotionally draining fallings out may signal something that needs to be addressed. There are many reasons that could lead to these patterns, but an understanding that has drawn my attention is based upon an observation by Freud entitled repetition compulsion. He recognised that for many of his clients there was a tendency to repeat negative events or put themselves in situations where these events are likely to happen again.

The Theory

The foundation of the majority of counselling theories is that the primary motivational force in us is towards developing relationships and gaining emotional closeness or proximity to others. The first way that we try to achieve this is through our parent or primary caregiver who will ideally be someone who is readily available, positive and affirming. However, if such a person is unavailable then instead of giving up, we begin to make little sacrifices in order to achieve that closeness. The extent of these sacrifices determine the way in which we feel comfortable when interacting with others. It is the time when we develop feelings which we might later describe as ‘chemistry’.

Interactions in childhood may seem insignificant but they are instrumental in developing a sense of emotional security that is foundational to adult relationships

One of a child’s first interactions may be to cry in order to get the attention of a caregiver. In a functional relationship the caregiver will respond to the child’s cry and fulfil the needs that they require. However, if a parent does not respond readily to a child’s cry then they will learn very quickly that crying is not going to achieve what is desired. They may even find out in time that by not making any fuss at all, the parent is at least calm when they do choose to spend time with the child.

The child who is responded to readily will develop an understanding that relationships can be stable and that their needs will and should be fulfilled. They realise that they do not have to act or pretend to be someone they are not. Although they may be expected to behave in a certain way and are taught to conform to certain social norms, they are loved unconditionally for who they are as a person. On the other hand, the child who does not receive a regular or expected response will develop an understanding that most relationships are and should be like that. They may learn that in order to get close to someone they have to act in a certain way and not to voice their concerns or unhappiness. By conforming to this at least the child achieves some sort of stability and interaction with the parent or caregiver. While it may be obvious when looking at the relationship from an outside perspective, the child may be unaware that it is not perfect. In fact it will become the norm for the child. The way in which these relationships unfold are the basis for a blueprint which will influence all of our future relationships.

How might this transfer to an adult relationship or close friendship?

You may or may not identify with one of these individuals in a close relationship. Person A is someone who likes to please everybody. They rarely have (or at lease vocalise) any favourites in any area of life, struggle to make decisions, do not like confrontation, are very adept at knowing what others want, and like to feel needed. Person B is the opposite. They are picky, can make decisions easily as they know what they want, do not mind confrontation and perhaps have a slightly less keen eye for understanding others. They say opposites attract, and indeed they do. Person A does not have a favourite because they find it easier to just go along with Person B. Neither of them understands why, but their traits both annoy each other and suit each other. Person B gets annoyed with person A because they do not make decisions, blissfully unaware that they would not actually like it if they did. Person A regularly gets annoyed with person B because they are so demanding, but they are also blissfully unaware that they would not be comfortable if the roles were reversed. Arguments are regular and seem to be over the most ridiculous things but there is something that seems to draw them together again each time. In actual fact both parties are receiving exactly what they need, just in a slightly dysfunctional way. While there are arguments, there is a sense of familiarity with the other person and they know deep down that the other will be there for them. The emotional security that we all crave is available albeit, and strangely, alongside times of emotional turbulance .

Linking back to repetition compulsion

Freud’s observation of repetition compulsion goes back to the blueprints of how we think relationships should be made back in childhood. No matter how painful they may be, they are tried and tested ways of receiving the recognition from others that we crave. As such, and perhaps without realising, we will be drawn to the same types of people time and time again. It feels right, the chemistry feels good.

What to do with this information

First of all it is important to note that regular arguments can be dealt with. However, if you do identify with what is said above then it is not likely to be changeable overnight. Considerable time and effort needs to be put in. It is also important to say that it is certainly not the aim of this article or therapy to change the foundation of how you interact with people. Becoming aware of the ways in which we interact with others along with a bit of tweaking are usually more than sufficient to provide a significant positive change in relationships. By investing time and effort we can understand ourselves better. Change is possible!