NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, March 5, 2018

Are You Unconsciously Choosing An Unhealthy Relationship to Fix Your Childhood Relationship With a Parent?

I've written about relationships and choosing healthier partners in prior articles (see my articles: Emotionally Unhealthy Relationships: Bad Luck or Poor Choices?Are Your Fears of Being Alone and Lonely Keeping You in an Unhealthy Relationship? and Learning to Make Better Choices in Relationships).  In this article, I'm focusing on a particular problem with unconsciously choosing an unhealthy relationship as a way to fix your childhood relationship with your parents.

Are You Unconsciously Choosing An Unhealthy Relationship to Fix Your Childhood Relationship With a Parent?

What is Repetition Compulsion?
Most people don't consciously choose to be in emotionally unhealthy relationships.  It's usually an unconscious process based on what's familiar.  And who is more familiar to you than one or both of your parents?

The biggest problem usually occurs when people unconsciously choose a partner who is similar to one or both parents in an effort to fix their childhood relationship with their parents.

With regard to relationships, the unrecognized wish behind this unconscious process is that the repetition of a dysfunctional family pattern in a romantic relationship will provide a chance to repair what couldn't be repaired in childhood with the parents.

This dynamic is known as repetition compulsion in psychotherapy.  When people engage in repetition compulsion, they are repeating traumatic circumstances over and over again in situations where the pattern will most likely be repeated in an unconscious effort to repair the original trauma.  

People who start psychotherapy often don't see these patterns at first.  After their psychotherapist hears about the family dynamic and recognizes the same dynamic in the romantic relationship, the therapist recognizes that the client is engaging in repetition compulsion.

The person who chooses a romantic partner who has the same dynamics as one or both of his parents doesn't always see the similarity between the romantic partner and the parent.  There can be a certain amount of denial about it.  But, usually, over time, client in therapy will recognize it as the therapy evolves.

A Fictional Clinical Vignette: The Problem With Choosing an Unhealthy Relationship to Try to Fix Your Childhood Relationship With Your Parents
The following fictional clinical vignette is about the unconscious process of repetition compulsion in an unhealthy relationship and how it involves a wish to fix a childhood dysfunctional relationship:

Meg started psychotherapy because she was having problems in her one year relationship with her boyfriend, Ed.

Are You Unconsciously Choosing An Unhealthy Relationship to Fix Your Childhood Relationship With a Parent? 

During the first six months of their relationship, Meg and Ed got along well.  They enjoyed each other's company and spent a lot of time together.

After five months, Ed moved into Meg's apartment and this is when the problems began.  Then, when they were together for six months, Ed quit his job after he got into a disagreement with his supervisor.

Meg was annoyed that he left his job without finding another job first and that he was making no effort to try to find another job.

When she came home from her stressful job, she would see Ed laying down on the couch watching TV instead of job hunting.  Since she was now carrying the financial burden for the two of them, she told him that it annoyed her to see him loafing around and allowing her to take responsibility for their joint expenses.

Whenever this topic came up, they would argue.  Ed told Meg that he would find another job, but he didn't like to be pressured by her.  He said if the roles were reversed, he wouldn't complain about it.  He said he would give her time and space to figure out her next move.  And Meg argued that she wouldn't leave her job without having another job, so it was unlikely that their roles would be reversed.

Six months later, Ed was still making no effort to find a job, and Meg was furious.  She complained about it to her psychotherapist during the first two therapy sessions.  Although she was very angry, she didn't want to throw Ed out of her apartment.  She felt that it would be cruel to tell him to leave, so she allowed him to stay, but they were barely on speaking terms.

When Meg's psychotherapist asked her about her family background, Meg described a dysfunctional family dynamic.  She was the older of two daughters who witnessed their parents arguing a lot.

Meg explained that her father had problems keeping jobs because he tended to quit whenever there was a problem on the job instead of trying to resolve the problem.  This placed all the financial burden on Meg's mother, and it was a source of frequent arguments.

Although her mother complained a lot and her parents argued about the father's unstable work history, her mother frequently told Meg and her sister that she would never break up the family.  And the father spent more time being unemployed than working.  As a result, nothing ever changed, and the mother struggled financially throughout all of Meg's childhood to support the family.

As a child, Meg was closer to her father than she was to her mother.  Whereas she thought her mother was often irritable and short tempered with her, she thought her father was more sensitive, nurturing and patient.

Meg disliked hearing her mother call the father "lazy" and "inconsiderate," and she would defend her father to her mother, which escalated these arguments.  Meg would take her father's side, and her sister would take her mother's side.  This created tension in all their relationships.

When her psychotherapist pointed out the similarities between her parents' dynamics and her relationship with Ed, Meg got annoyed.  She didn't think these situations were similar at all, and she was offended that her therapist would say this.

Meg said that her father was a sensitive, compassionate man, but Ed was insensitive and inconsiderate.  For the next few weeks, Meg continued to defend her father and she maintained that her father was different from her Ed.

Meg's psychotherapist realized that, at that point in therapy, Meg idealized her father and she had a blind spot about his problems, so she realized that Meg wasn't ready to deal with this issue.

A few months later, Meg was sufficiently fed up with Ed that she decided to give him a three month deadline to either find a job and contribute to their joint expenses or move out.  In order to meet their expenses, Meg had to take on freelance work in addition to her full time job just to make ends meet, and she was exhausted.

The three month deadline came and went and Ed still refused to look for a job.  They were now arguing more than ever, and Meg really resented Ed, but she couldn't bring herself to follow through with her ultimatum.  Despite her anger and frustration, she allowed him to stay.

Her psychotherapist explored this with Meg in a nonjudgmental way to help Meg to get curious about it.  Over time, when Meg became less defensive, she could see the parallels between her relationship with Ed and her mother's relationship with her father.

Gradually, Meg developed insight into how she was looking at her father through the eyes of her younger self.  She realized that she idealized her father when she was a child because she needed to see him as being her "big, strong dad," and she was continuing to do this as an adult.

Although it made Meg feel sad to see her father's problems, she dealt with the loss of this idealization in therapy.  She also had a lot more empathy for her mother and realized that her mother was frequently irritable when Meg was a child because she was exhausted.

Meg also realized that, even though she idealized her father most of the time when she was a child, she admitted that to her psychotherapist that there were times when she felt angry and disappointed with her father.  But she never allowed herself to remain immersed in those feelings as a child because it was too overwhelming for her.  She needed to see her father as a hero.

Gradually, Meg realized that deep down she always knew, even when she was a child, that her father had these problems, but she didn't want to see it.

She also realized that she had made an unconscious choice to be in a relationship with Ed and remain in that relationship as a way to try to fix her childhood relationship with her father, "I never realized before that I thought I could fix Ed and, in a way, it felt like I could fix my dad.  My mother could never fix my dad, but I thought it would be different with Ed and me.  I really thought I could change him."

Now, she saw her father as someone that she loved very much, but she also accepted that he had problems.  She also realized that she couldn't fix her deep-seated childhood problems with her father by being in a relationship with someone who had similar problems or by trying to repeat her parents' relationship with Ed in order to have a different outcome.

Shortly after this, Meg told Ed that he needed to move out, and she no longer felt guilty about it.  By asking him to move out, in effect, this ended the relationship, but she felt better about herself.  She no longer felt like a victim in her relationship.

Afterwards, Meg dealt with the loss of the relationship in therapy.  Even though she and Ed weren't getting along by the time the relationship ended, she still recognized it as a loss.

Meg also continued to work on her childhood problems in therapy so that she wouldn't repeat the same mistake in the future by getting into another unhealthy relationship, and she could make healthier choices.

It's difficult to see your unconscious dynamics on your own.  Even when you're in therapy, you might have a blind spot for these dynamics before you're ready to see them.

The repetition compulsion of repeating earlier family patterns is common.

When people don't see that they're unconsciously choosing an unhealthy relationship as a way to fix an earlier relationship with parents, they can go from one dysfunctional relationship to another without seeing that they're repeating the pattern over and over again.

People often come to therapy because they're having problems in their relationship, and they believe that the problem is with their particular partner at the time instead of seeing that it's the same dynamic repeating itself with different people.

Once you're ready to explore the unconscious dynamics in therapy, part of the work is grieving for what you can't fix in your childhood history.

You will probably grieve the end of your relationship if you realize that it's emotionally unhealthy for you, but you also have a chance to make a positive change in your life and choose a healthier relationship in the future if you work through the repetition compulsion.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you're struggling with problems that you've been unable to resolve on your own, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who can help you to work through these problems (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

As I mentioned earlier, unconscious behavior is difficult to see on your own, but working with a skilled psychotherapist can help you to recognize and change these unhealthy patterns (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples, and I have helped many clients to recognize and change unconscious dynamics that were making them unhappy.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.