“The fault is not in our stars” William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar)
It’s painful to helplessly watch as an otherwise intelligent individual becomes completely incompetent when it comes to choosing romantic partners. “Can’t Ronnie see what’s happening? Charlie is exactly like Ry, maybe worse. I can see exactly how this is going to play out. Why can’t Ronnie”? It’s difficult to comprehend why a friend or family member repeatedly ends up with partners that bring them only pain and disappointment.
To friends this endless cycle of bad choices poses a real threat to their ability to maintain their friendship. They must helplessly standby as someone that matters to them makes seemingly irrational decisions. Their friend, a well-intentioned, intelligent person may be consciously trying to choose a partner that is the polar opposite of a previous dysfunctional partner. But for some mysterious reason they always seem to end up in exactly the same pathetic or harmful predicament.
Being blind to a bad situation and choosing it regardless may be unhealthy even dangerous but it can also be totally understandable. Psychotherapists refer to this pattern of relationship choices as a repetition compulsion. It’s a means of dealing with unresolved childhood or traumatic issues by repeating them. As I’ll explain, from this perspective, it makes sense that someone would choose a mate that doesn’t have their best interests at heart.
The reason that these seemingly intractable patterns occur has nothing to do with gender. They occur because most of the information people have about relationships are derived from an unconscious wellspring of emotion and relational familiarity. Familiarity being the keyword here. Your childhood family environment plays a large part in determining how you will learn to negotiate relationships.
Because your relationship choices have been preconditioned by your earlier experiences, your intuition or feelings regarding a potential mate may be insufficient or inaccurate. Your ideals of love and affection have been influenced by what you did as a child to adapt in your family.
Adaptation to their environment is crucial for children. It is a basic survival mechanism. The resulting feedback or response kids get from adaptive behaviors in the family can determine how they come to define love as adults. This feedback loop becomes self-perpetuating from generation to generation as your children learn the meaning of relationships from the example you set.
For instance, if you grew up in a family in which you felt responsible for an alcoholic, narcissistic parent there’s an excellent chance that you will choose a partner with attributes that put you in the same relational position. It would be difficult for you to not choose someone like this as you really have no other script for how relationships work. Furthermore, your success in adapting as a child provided you with positive feedback which serves to reinforce the importance of maintaining these behaviors in later life.
So the adaptive yet unhealthy behaviors, which brought you positive feedback and helped you survive as a child, can be experienced in adulthood as love. In the above case, the child’s successfully providing emotional support to an alcoholic narcissist was crucial to that child’s survival. Therefore this type of relationship pattern has positive connotations and is likely to continue into adulthood.
To outside observers, taking responsibility for a person who shows no ability to appreciate what’s being done for them, as in the case above, may appear dysfunctional, but for the care-taking partner, on a deep psycho-emotional level, this type of behavior signifies the accomplishment of their mission in life. They’re doing what they believe they are supposed to do in intimate relationships. In other words, to them care-taking an emotionally unavailable person doesn’t feel dysfunctional, it feels loving.
These childhood relationship roles are unconscious and take on a life of their own. Although extremely important to your survival in childhood they may be only marginally beneficial later in life. Not all of the relationship lessons learned in childhood are unhealthy however. It’s possible that some relationship ideas formed in childhood may work well in your professional life but not necessarily in relationships with intimate partners and children.
No one is completely free of childhood family influence on their adult relationships. But the degree to which you are controlled by your past can be managed. The relationship roles you played as a child can prevent you from living the life you deserve. Recognizing this can liberate you, and your children, from the clutches of the generational cycle of unsatisfying relationships.
Books by Leo Terbieten MFT: “The Custody Manual” and “Change Your Mind Co-Parenting in High Conflict Custody Cases”.