Did you have an alcoholic parent growing up, and now you somehow only date alcoholics? Or perhaps your parent was a workaholic, a rager, emotionally unavailable, a narcissist (or whatever), and sure enough — that’s exactly who you shack up with. Isn’t that shit wild?
For years, I used to think that recreating the relationship dynamics of a painful childhood was something people did so they could try to fix it. When we’re small children, we’re usually powerless in whatever awful situation we find ourselves. I just assumed people reenacted that same relationship because 1) it’s familiar, predictable, comfortable even, and 2) as adults, we feel powerful enough to redeem our childhood by doing it differently this time.
I used to say, “People keep recreating their shitty past so they can try to paint a happy ending on it.”
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
In Dr. Bruce Perry’s book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, he tells the story of a child who watched her mother get raped and murdered at age three. She too had her throat cut open and was left for dead. By some miracle, she survived but had to be placed in the witness protection program because she had a contract out on her head (this whole book is completely fucking bananas, by the way).
They called Dr. Perry to work with the traumatized girl before she could testify against her mother’s killer. During the course of her treatment, time and time again and of her own accord, she would reenact the gruesome scene. She slashed at Dr. Perry’s throat with a crayon and said, “It’s for your own good, dude.” Heart-wrenching, but he had the wisdom to know how important it was to just lay there and let her do this as often as she needed.
To paraphrase, he says that reenactment is an attempt to create a more tolerable pattern of stress where we are no longer powerless but have some measure of control over the situation. In short, patterned, repetitive exposure leads to tolerance.
Then it dawned on me. Oh shit… we don’t recreate the abuse, neglect, abandonment, and dysfunction of our childhood so we can make it better. We do it to make it tolerable.
There is nooo happy ending on that fucking thing. That’s not even the goal! As far as your nervous system is concerned, building tolerance and familiarity with your own personal hell is the big win.
Yeah, I was wrong about that.
Hope For The Hopeless
Literally one hundred percent of my past relationships were with drug addicts and alcoholics. And currently, I am married to someone who is very clearly neither of those things. It’s quite remarkable. I also have the privilege of working closely with men and women who are making exactly such transformations in their own lives. So the good news is that you can definitely heal from trauma and stop recreating shitty relationships over and over again.
Wait a second… are you telling me I have trauma?
Look, the vast majority of chronic relationship challenges stem from insecure attachment (anxious, avoidant, or disorganized), and those are definitely trauma responses. And to clarify, trauma is not necessarily some horrifying thing that happened to you, but what happened inside of you when you were left alone with your pain.
And trauma doesn’t come back to you as a memory but as a set of feelings and reactions. It’s so deeply ingrained that people mistake it for their personality and never suspect they’re actually the walking wounded and in need of medical attention.
The Healing of Trauma: Awareness
In last week’s article, I described the three components of trauma that are trapped in our bodies — what happened to us, what didn’t happen because we were powerless at the time, and how we adapted to survive (trauma response).
First, you’ve got to consciously decide to practice the healthy behavior (what didn’t happen) that your coping strategy originally replaced. This requires a tremendous amount of self-awareness or the help of a skilled therapist. And even still, awareness is not enough.
Your nervous system is wired with a specific stress response that reacts for survival without even needing your input. This autopilot is evolutionarily advantageous as far as survival goes. But when it comes to not recreating shitty relationships, it’s more of a pain in the ass than anything. In other words, you can be woke as the Dalai Lama but continue shitting the bed in the broad daylight of your painful awareness without further healing work.
This is so common, it’s even cliché at this point. People read one million self-help books and can diagnose their problems in exquisite detail like violinists aboard the Titanic playing a sweet melody as it sinks into certain oblivion.
Impressive, but not entirely helpful.
The Healing of Trauma: Safety
Your next step is to create feelings of safety in your body. If you don’t feel safe, the world is a cruel place that can’t be trusted, and nothing matters anyway. This means safety in your relationships with friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, romantic partners, etc. You’ve got to learn how to set healthy boundaries with yourself and others.
Feeling safe also includes being competent at getting your needs met, which necessarily includes knowing what your needs are (and most people don’t, btw).
Furthermore, as Dr. Stephen Porges so eloquently points out, “Safety is much more than the absence of threat – it’s the presence of connection.” A toddler locked in a room is certainly safe, but I guarantee it doesn’t feel safe. Therefore, creating safety in your life requires vulnerable, authentic, satisfying connection and belonging with people who don’t suck.
Boundaries, needs, and connection — all things that require not just awareness, but action in direct opposition to how a traumatized nervous system operates. This is why healing can be so challenging; it requires repeatedly doing super uncomfortable shit as you literally rewire your nervous system. For this, the help of a coach, therapist, twelve-step sponsor, mentor, or support group of some sort will be indispensable. (Remember, patterned, repetitive exposure leads to tolerance.)
The Healing of Trauma: Obstacles
Control, self-reliance, shame, and isolation are natural responses to trauma. Hypervigilance. Anti-dependence. All these things make people who need the most help least likely to ask for it. This is why the number one indicator of positive mental health is reaching out to another human being for help.
Healthy boundaries, satisfied needs, and connection are virtually impossible in isolation. And if pathological self-reliance is your survival strategy, I gotta tell you that it’s not nearly as helpful as you think it is. I.e., you can’t use your trauma response to heal your trauma. Obviously. But I’ll be damned if people don’t use that thing to beat every last nail into their own coffins.
It’s tragic, and it’s happening all around us. Yet I truly believe humanity is finally waking up to a deeper understanding of the human condition and how relationships work. Yes, we’ve been procreating and traumatizing the shit out of each other for thousands of years in complete ignorance. But there has never before been more access to information, guidance, support, and healing resources than there is today. And I do think a new chapter in the evolution of human consciousness is begging to be written.
Let it begin with you. Take the free relationship quiz here.
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2 thoughts on “Why You Keep Recreating Shitty Relationships”
Trauma is not a memory. Brillant ! Is is how i feel, a chain reaction, a train wreck, al the wagons flying in the air and down in the river 100 km below. A catastrophy at the worst timing, very spielberg-ish… Agreed. The lack of safety is one of my triggers. As soon as some safety comes back, I recedes. The isolation doesn’t help (in quebec, we are back to social restriction). Merci pour cet excellent article 😉
Thank you Sylvie. I was just telling a client today that feeling safe is the #1, #2, and #3 most important thing in life (in relationships and in healing from trauma, especially). When we feel safe, THEN we have the opportunity to do something besides a trauma response. If I don’t feel safe, there’s not a chance in hell my nervous system is gonna lay down its weapons. Nooooope.