Some people unwittingly choose destructive relationships over and over again. The consequences of their choices are painful and emotionally damaging, yet those that engage in this repetitive behavior never seem to learn from their experience. Instead they go from one bad partner to the next, much to the chagrin of those closest to them (including therapists) who pull their hair out trying to stop them. Why does this happen?
Traditional psychoanalytic theory offered an intriguing, yet seemingly unlikely explanation for such self-destructive relationship choices. People who choose such partners must derive pleasure from being mistreated. Simply stated, the choosers are masochistic. If the "pleasure principle" drives people, as analysts argued, certainly this behavior follows the same rules. The therapist's task was to make the unconscious pleasure known to the patient--and then they would be free to choose a more appropriate partner.
Yet, in my years of doing therapy, I never found any client who received any pleasure at all, conscious or unconscious, from the abuse and neglect heaped on them by narcissistic or otherwise destructive partners. Rather, my clients were simply hurt over and over again. Still, the "repetition compulsion" was true enough: no sooner had a client ended with one particularly hurtful person then they found another wolf in sheep's clothing. There had to be a good reason. Here's what my clients have taught me over the years.
People who have not been given "voice" in childhood have the lifelong task of repairing the "self." This is an endless construction project with major cost overruns (much like the "Big Dig" in Boston). Much of this repair work involves getting people to "hear" and experience them, for only then do they have value, "place," and a sense of importance. However, not just any audience will do. The observer and critic must be important and powerful, or else they will hold no sway in the world. Who are the most important and powerful people to a child? Parents. Who must a person pick as audience to help rebuild the self? People as powerful as parents. Who, typically, is more than willing to play the role of power broker in a relationship, doling out "voice" only insofar as it suits him/her? A narcissist, "voice hog," or otherwise oblivious and neglectful person.
And so it goes. The person goes in the relationship with the hope or dream of establishing their place with a narcissistic partner, only to find themselves emotionally battered once again. These are not "oedipal" choices--people are not choosing their father or mother. They are picking people they perceive powerful enough to validate their existence.
But why doesn't a person leave when they realize they are in yet another self-destructive relationship? Unfortunately, on occasion things go well with a narcissistic partner--particularly after a blowout fight. A narcissist is often expert in yielding just enough "voice" to keep his or her victim from leaving. They grant a place in their world, if only for a day or two. The wish that this change is permanent sustains the voiceless person until the relationship regresses back to its usual pattern.
Giving up a destructive relationship is difficult. The brief moments of validation are cherished, and the person who finally leaves must relinquish the hope of "earning" more. When the person finally breaks free they are faced with an immediate and lasting feeling of emptiness and self-blame that makes them question their decision.
"If only I had been different or better--then I would have been valued," is the usual refrain. Once the old relationship is sufficiently grieved, the person immediately resumes their search for another partner/lover with the qualifications and authority to again secure him or her a "place" in the world.
Ironically, this "repetition compulsion" is hardly masochistic. Instead, it represents an ongoing attempt to heal the self, albeit one with disastrous results. The cycle repeats itself because the person knows no other way of preventing themselves from feeling tiny or immaterial.
This is exactly where therapy comes into play. The analysts were correct in at least one important matter. This repetitive behavior has its roots in childhood, the time in which "voice" and self are established. People are often aware that they are struggling to be heard, to have a sense of agency, and to be valued in a relationship, but they are unaware that this is usually the very same struggle they had with one or both parents. A good therapist reveals this by closely examining their personal history.
And so the presenting problem is redefined and broadened to a life issue--and the work begins. A therapist bears down with all the resources available to him or her. Insight is certainly one--for, as suggested above, there is much the client does not know about the depth and breadth of the problem. Just as important is the relationship between therapist and client. Simply put, the relationship must be real, meaningful, and deep. The client must learn to establish voice, and it must be appreciated by the therapist in a genuine way. For the therapy to be effective, the relationship will likely be different from every other one the client has had. Advice and encouragement, often seen as hallmarks of good therapy, are by themselves insufficient. To make headway, the therapist must partially fill the same void that the client was unconsciously hoping their lover would. The client must feel: "My therapist is someone who hears me, values me, gives me a 'place' where I feel real and significant."
Once the client feels certain of this, they can begin looking for partners using more realistic, adult criteria. And they can finally free themselves from people who chronically hurt them. In this way, the self-destructive, repetitive cycle is broken.
By Richard A. Grossman, Ph.D