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Relationships • Breaking Up & Heartbreak

Stop Repeating the Same Mistakes

One of the strangest and most tantalising ideas in psychotherapy is that of the ‘repetition compulsion.’ This tells us that, as a result of certain traumas that have not been properly understood and  unpicked, we will be inclined to keep putting ourselves back into, and in effect re-enacting, difficult situations from the past that run counter to our emotional needs in the present.

For example, we may be tempted to keep falling in love with people who make us suffer by being distant or cold, muddled or chaotic. 

Photo of a box of broken eggs.
Photo by Peter Werkman on Unsplash

Psychotherapy advises us to learn to see such patterns and to try to break them: we should notice ourselves falling for one ungrateful partner after another or being mesmerised by one unjust lover after another – and go off to seek more fulfilling unions. 

However, this analysis risks missing an important nuance. We are not simply hunting out an awful situation and then attempting to repeat the whole of its course. We are trying to find a story familiar enough for us to be drawn to it,  and then we are attempting to give it a different ending. What leads us to keep repeating a story isn’t that it’s challenging to begin with, but that we’re not managing to alter how it ends.

Our deepest motivation is to go back to a key bit of childhood with all our adult faculties – and to ensure that this time, it can go right. 

We want to find someone who is as distant as our mother was but this time, we want to take her sort to therapy, have long dialogues with her, help her to see her wounds and act as her protector and her guide. We want to find the same kind of angry man as our father was but this time, rather than cowering under the sofa, we want a chance to be able to get to the root of their rage, appease it and ensure that they treat us well. We are seeking, in adulthood, a second chance to rectify a traumatic dynamic that our childhood weaknesses meant we were never originally able to fix.

We shouldn’t be surprised to see people trying to go out with characters like their unfulfilling parents. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Indeed, it is psychologically extremely enticing and, we can say, unavoidable.

What we need to make sure is that once we have found our pattern, we can manage to bend it towards goodness, freedom and light. 

This lends a more hopeful angle to the dispiriting notion of repetition compulsion. We aren’t merely driven by an urge to suffer, we’re motivated by something much more creative: a desire to identify something in the here and now that is broken like it used to be – and then by an aspiration finally to repair it with our adult strengths.

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