Why People Repeat Their Relationship Mistakes

There is an old joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”

Like the saying suggests, repeating things helps us master them. Humans like to gain mastery over difficult things. We “repeat to complete. We like the feeling of accomplishment when we can finally do something we have struggled with for a long time. When this works well, it can be the key to great achievements. But when this mechanism drives us down an unhealthy path, it can lead to a lifetime of unnecessary struggle.

If you watch a young child play, you notice that they repeat certain actions until they can do them to their liking. They are gaining a feeling of mastery over some difficulty. Similarly, adults do this in relationships. When a certain relationship is frustrating, people seek out similarly faulty relationships later on, with the hope of fixing them this time. Normally, people’s earliest relationships with parents set the template for what people try repair in adult relationships.

Consider George (for privacy reasons, George is a made up example). When George was born his mother sank into a post-partum depression that lasted the first two years of his life. For a baby, there is nothing more terrifying than seeing depressed eyes staring back at them. Babies are entirely dependent on their mother’s vitality and ability to care for them. To not see a pair of responsive eyes staring back is unbearable for an infant. George’s need to see light in his mother’s eyes, lead him to become a precocious young toddler. If his mother was not alive, he was going to make her alive.

When George became an adult, he started dating a string of depressed women. Each of the women was attracted to his bubbly personality. He did is best to cheer each woman up, but with each one, he kept on finding himself sinking into depression when he could not maintain the long term effort. With each relationship, he left the women and swore never to “try rescue” another woman again.

Unfortunately, George kept on finding a string of depressed women. George was caught in repetitive pattern that he could not escape from. Through his early life, George had learnt that this was what an intimate relationship looked like. His young mind formed around the tantalizing hope that he could rescue his mother from her sadness (and hence save himself). As an adult, he could only function in relationships that looked like this. The empty hope that he could rescue his romantic partners from their sadness gave George hope, but he would find himself endlessly repeating the futile efforts of his childhood quest.

In therapy, George was able to understand the pattern he was caught in. He could see how his choice of partners gave him familiarity and comfort, but doomed him to a string of failed relationships. With this insight, George could take the risk of choosing different partners. At first, this was very confusing and scary for George. He had become used to being valued for being the “light” in his partner’s lives. To try build a relationship on other terms felt very vulnerable. Therapy provided George the ability to understand all the complicated emotions that arose due to changing the type of partner he dated.

Familiarity and tantalizing hope of “winning this time” trap people in endlessly repeating patterns of poor relationships. Sometimes our patterns are obvious, but often it requires some work and outside perspective for them to see. This is especially true, because the repetition compulsion leads people to repeatedly create the exact sort of experience for themselves.

I hope this article was helpful and provided you with something interesting to reflect upon. Thank you for reading. Until next month, take care.