Understanding The Compulsion To Repeat

We sometimes find ourselves in the same relationship, meaning we are always having the same problem but with different people. On the surface the problem may even seem different because it may manifest differently, however the root of the problem always seems to be the same. Self-awareness is key to fixing any problem, in order to know how to fix a problem we need to know what is causing the problem. The recurring themes in our relationship is an invitation to look at ourselves and examine what is going on. This is where we can ask ourselves, why do I keep having the same relationship experiences, like what is this about really? Theory explains our tendency to be in the same relationship repeatedly as the compulsion to repeat. We maybe repeating relationship patterns that we have witnessed in our families, or we maybe repeating the same patterns in our individual relationships. No matter what the scientific or theoretical explanation is, at the end of the day it is an opportunity for you to learn and grow. As that is what all experiences are meant to be, they are learning lessons. The experience is the teacher and you are the student. I invite you to be a student of your life and learn all that you need to learn so you can be the best version of yourself. Whether your compulsion to repeat is about you trying to overcome something, or if it’s about being in something that feels familiar, no matter what it is for you, just let it teach you something. Learn from it. Grow because of it. Be better because it happened.

If you have ever been in a serious relationship have you noticed how you and your spouse basically keep having the same argument although it appears different on the surface? However, if you really analyze it perhaps, you will notice that it is the same overarching theme. Due to our childhood experiences and because we all were raised by imperfect human beings, we all tend to have some experience with feeling unworthy. And this may sometimes be the underlying theme in our relationships. On the surface you maybe be arguing about your spouse not listening even after you’ve told them the same thing for the hundredth time, but in reality, what’s really happening is your wondering why am I not important enough for them to listen? Why am I not important enough for them to care? If they really cared they would not keep doing the same thing repeatedly? And for the life of you, you tell yourself that the next relationship will be different, and it maybe appear different, but underneath it is the same thing, right? Or if you remain in the relationship, you say this problem will not exist anymore. And you wonder why this keeps happening? Do not beat yourself up or blame yourself for it because there is a theory that may explain it. The compulsion to repeat.

“We repeat what we do not repair.” —Christine Langley Obaugh

According to Freud the compulsion to repeat is our attempt at mastery, it is our way of correcting the original experience that we felt unsuccessful at. It is our attempt to prove that we can get it right and that we are worthy of love. According to Freud the compulsion to repeat leads to the resolution of the original pain, however the research does not support his theory. Freud is not the only person who attempted to understand this phenomenon. Bessel Van Der Kolk often discusses repetition compulsion in his research on trauma. His research highlights the fact that sometimes people who experience trauma, sometimes unconsciously find themselves in situations that are like the initial trauma. On the outside looking in, its easy to wonder why someone stays in an abusive or unhealthy relationship. From a limited perspective it does not make sense, but from a biological and primitive perspective it might make more sense than we realize regarding traumatic relationships.

A primary function of a human being is to survive, and our brain works extremely hard to ensure our safety on a moment to moment basis. There are complex neurological processes happening in our brains every second of the day. While it may seem absurd to think that our brain has anything to do with our compulsion to repeat, it makes perfect sense. Think about our primitive ancestors who lived in the wild. They survived via repetition, imagine a lizard out in the wild looking for food. One day while out hunting for food, it encounters a threat in the form of an animal bigger and stronger than him. Luckily, he escapes so the next day he takes a different path, on this path there is no threat and he also secures his meal for the day which guarantees his survival. So, the next day, which path do you think the lizard is going to take? Of course, he is going to take the path that ensured his survival and was absent of any threat, right? And while we are  not lizards and we have other parts of our brain that evolved us to the thinking and feeling humans that we are, we still have that reptilian brain and that reptilian brain is what is responsible for our survival. In short, we do what we know works. We do what kept us safe the last time we encountered this threat.

Now I know it seems like I am going on a tangent and you are probably wondering what one has to do with the other but hold on I promise it will make sense in a minute. At a primitive level, our survival is centered on the evasion of pain and the replication of pleasure. I went to a trauma workshop once and the speaker was sharing her experience with trauma. She explained how she was being sexually abused and subsequently was removed from the home and placed into foster care. She then shared how she ran away from her foster home to go back to the home where she was being abused at. Her explanation as to why she did this made perfect sense to me, she said “the unfamiliar is scarier than the familiar.” Like the saying goes “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.” It is like choosing the lesser of two evils. She explained that while returning to that home was putting herself in danger, at least she knew how to protect herself from that danger. For example, she knew if her abuser were coming, she could hide in the closet. Being in a new environment, those threats were unfamiliar, and she had no defense against them, going back home, while dangerous, at least she had a better chance for survival.

Ok, so let’s bring this back to our compulsion to repeat and how it relates to our relationships, especially the unhealthy and or traumatic ones. In short, we have the tendency to engage in repetitive patterns of behavior because it is familiar. We seek out relationships, people, and experiences that are familiar because we know how to survive them. In life we have had many experiences and experience has taught us what works and what does not. When we find what works we tend to repeat it because it ensures our survival. Ok, maybe not in a literally since, but in a metaphorically since, especially since our brains does not know the difference between a real or perceived threat. To our brains an argument with our spouse and a tiger waiting to pounce is an equal threat. When we are in relationships with people that mean something to us and give us some form of pleasure, we want that relationship to work because we want to experience that pleasure, even if it sometimes accompanies pain. Our brain tells us that pleasure is good for our survival and we must repeat that pleasure for continued survival. No relationship is all good or all bad, even in what seems like the worst relationship possible, some type of pleasure is derived and seeking that pleasure is what keeps us in relationships we otherwise think we should not be in.

There are multiple theories out that there that aim to explain why people stay in unhealthy relationships. Whether it be because of a trauma bond, or a primitive need for survival, or conditioning, or feeling like you do not deserve to be happy and treated well. At the end of the day all relationships serve a purpose and that purpose is to heal. Our relationships expose our wounds and present an opportunity to fix them. However, we sometimes miss out on this opportunity because it is not always easy to look at ourselves. If we find ourselves in the same relationship repeatedly, with the same underlying theme, which is different for each of us, we must start to pay attention to what our compulsion to repeat is trying to teach us. While there may not be any empirical data on the fact that our compulsion to repeat is our attempt to correct the original experience, this theory makes sense to me.

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