Repeating the Past in Relationships
In relationships, people tend to be drawn to others with whom we recognize an opportunity to repeat our past and this is especially true in romantic relationships and marriage. However, with this reliving, there often comes a great deal of pain. A person can find him or herself thinking, “why is it I can’t seem to change (fill in the blank) in my relationship” or “I keep trying to do (fill in the blank) in my relationship but never can seem to accomplish (fill in the blank)” or “why do I continue to find myself in a relationship with someone where I feel the same painful emotions”. All of these are signs that we are trying to relive something from our past to change the outcome. We all do this to one degree or another; to try to undo the pain of our past by finding new situations that are similar to the previous ones and create new outcomes. At times, we can’t find a situation or relationship that matches our past closely enough and we may try to influence the situation to make it look like the past. We may begin to behave in ways that results in another person treating us in the way we once were treated even when it is painful. Then we say to ourselves, “aha, you see! I knew it! I knew this would happen! This always happens to me”.
In my work as a psychologist and psychotherapist with clients in individual psychotherapy or in marriage counseling or couples counseling, I try to address this therapeutically. This process of trying to repeat is most often an unconscious one rooted in a desire to heal through reliving experiences that cannot be undone or relived. What our unconscious does not know is that this never works. It can’t work. For one thing, if we recreate the past in this way chances are we won’t be able to change the situation in the way that we want. For example, if we find someone who mistreats us in a similar way to how we felt mistreated in our childhood, in the hope that we can get that person to treat us well, usually that person does not change and begin to treat us well. Second, even if we can get them to change, we will not undo the pain of the past which is what is motivating us to begin with. All that will happen is that we will then get bored or lose interest and try to find a new person or situation that mimics the past and the process will begin all over again. The past is the past and whatever it was that we did not get from the past can never be undone and must be acknowledged and mourned. This is the only way to free ourselves for new experiences and greater fulfillment. This mourning and letting go is a very painful process that takes time but it can be done so that we can move forward. To mourn our past is a tall task that requires time and consistent effort in a relationship with someone we can trust. This is one of the central tasks of certain forms of psychotherapy (eg, psychoanalysis or psychoanalytic psychotherapy) and why psychotherapy can require a long-term commitment.