The Repetition Compulsion

One of the more mysterious processes in the human experience is the repetition compulsion, the pull towards the recreation of the familiar, even when it is ultimately painful. Freud, who first named the process and coined the term, defined it as “the desire to return to an earlier state of things.” The drive towards repetition might play out on as mundane a level as getting the same thing for lunch every Wednesday. Or more interestingly, and strangely, it might mean unconsciously recreating again and again the same relational dynamics that bring about some of our deepest pains.

Any therapist with this concept on their radar will tell you that the compulsion is as common as it is curious. So often I see clients who will choose relational partners (friends, lovers, co-workers) who 1) possess qualities that are reminiscent of earlier, ultimately disappointing important people in the client’s life; and then 2) are engaged by the client in much the same way as they might have engaged the previous, failed relationships.

Unsurprisingly this pattern often results in a repetition of familiar suffering. Sometimes this is quite obvious. The son of an absent father becomes an absent father himself; an abused child marries an abusive spouse. Sometimes the repetition is subtler. A middle aged man who experienced a degree of emotional deprivation within his family of origin, whose father was a workaholic and whose mother was depressed and inward, might again and again choose relational partners who are unable to meet him fully. On the surface, the pattern might not be clear because the partners all seem to have different personalities (perhaps one is narcissistic, another emotionally immature, another married and just looking for sex), but underneath is the persistent dynamic whereby his needs are subjugated, and he feels unseen, undernourished and lonely.

Why do we do this? Freud was deeply perplexed by this question and proposed that it was the flexing of our death instinct – a drive towards self-annihilation and a return to an inorganic state. To me that’s pretty far-fetched. Perhaps brain science will someday conclude that the repetition is compelled on a neuronal level. Until then we might simply assume that the repetition is an expression of our need for the world and our place in it to be familiar, to above all be known and predictable, even when it is enormously painful.

Typically this mechanism is entirely unconscious. One of the most exciting aspects of good therapy is the process of the unconscious becoming illuminated. An essential component of breaking out of the repetition is seeing that it’s happening and knowing clearly our role in the perpetuation of our own suffering. While the assumptions about ourselves and the world that underlie the repetition compulsion are quite durable, we’re not doomed to play the repetitions out for the rest of our lives. It is true that many of us do. And yet many of us don’t. The underlying problematic assumptions can be challenged, unlearned, and replaced. It is my belief that this is most likely to happen within the context of a healthy relationship, perhaps (though not necessarily) a therapeutic relationship, where the engagement is of a very different kind, and the repetition gives way to a new and far more satisfying experience of human connection.