Many people find themselves involved with the same type of person over and over again despite the proven lack of success in such a relationship. A large percentage of second marriages fail because partners inadvertantly choose someone much like the former spouse and subsequently face many of the same problems they had in the first marriage. Constantly repeating the same mistake is known as repetition compulsion. It manifests itself in many areas of life beyond choosing a romantic partner – binge eating, drinking, gambling, spending money, drug use – to name a few. The cycle is the same – engaging in the behavior, regret (and sometimes self-loathing), ignoring the self-destructive behavior or acknowledging it and vowing to change, and then failing to change and repeating the cycle.
As much as we may recognize the negative traits of our ex it is not at all uncommon to wind up with another person with those same qualities we swore we would avoid the next time. Why would we keep going down the same road when we know it will not lead to happiness? What drives mature rational-minded people to continually seek out the same type of partner?
If you’re thinking childhood issues you’re on the right track. Freud identified this behavior back in 1914 and therapists ever since have worked with people that submit to this compulsion. The family dynamic growing up has a tremendous impact on the types of mates we select as there is comfort in familiarity even what is familiar was painful and destructive. If a parent was very controlling, chances are high that you will end up with someone controlling. If you were the kid who flew under the radar and tried not to cause any problems, you may wind up with a narcissist as your instinct is to please. Likewise if a parent was emotionally unavailable or a substance abuser, so might be person with whom you fall in love or become involved. Despite the fact that over time you begin to resent your partner and your own role in the relationship, the overall dynamic can feel comfortable. If you wind up ending the marriage or relationship, some part of you may be compelled to recreate the conditions and find a new partner with the same qualities as you unconsciously attempt to rewrite your own history.
Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a New York City licensed marriage and family therapist explains, “We continue to repeat “pathological” behavior patterns until we get them right. Even though we consciously see all the warning signs, we are pulled by our unconscious into the same old, same old because we want to fix the situation. It’s based on our instinctual drive to heal.”
Breaking out of the comfort zone of dysfunction is not easily done because doing so is, well, uncomfortable. Discomfort can cause anxiety and sometimes people would rather not pursue a dream or a better job, remain in an unhappy relationship and even reject partners that would offer a healthier relationship rather than take those risks. Often it takes psychotherapy to uncover the roots of the issue you keep replaying in your adult relationships as repetition compulsion acts as a defense mechanism against the unresolved pain from your past.
If psychotherapy or counseling is not for you, there are scores of books written on this subject that you can read to gain a better understanding of your behavior. One way or another you must confront and examine your past in order to release the power this compulsion has on your present. With self-awareness and honesty, as well as willingness and commitment to change, it is possible to free yourself from this cycle and find a healthy relationship.