Repeat What We Don't Repair

We Repeat What We Don’t Repair

Do you seem to repeat the same dysfunctional relationship patterns – even though they leave you frustrated and hurt?

Why do some people end up in one codependent relationship after another?

Why does a woman with an emotionally distant mother repeat the same pattern with her own children?

Why do so many adult children of alcoholics marry partners with alcoholism?

And why are people who grew up in violent families more likely to repeat these patterns – as abusers or victims of abuse?

We Repeat What We Don't Repair. Why we repeat dysfunctional relationship patterns.

On the surface, this doesn’t make any sense. No one who grew up in a dysfunctional family or has been traumatized wants to repeat these patterns.

Why do we repeat destructive relationship patterns?

There are several different factors that contribute to our tendency to repeat destructive behavioral patterns.

  • We repeat what’s familiar. Even though we know it’s dysfunctional and not working well for us, we repeat behaviors because they feel familiar and we know what to expect from them. This is what I call “the devil you know” and we often choose it over the unknown simply because it’s known to us.

  • We repeat what we learned as children. The beliefs, coping skills, and behavior patterns that we learned in childhood become deeply entrenched because we learned them when we were vulnerable, and our brains weren’t fully developed. And after years of using them, they are hard to change.

  • We repeat what was traumatizing in an unconscious effort to gain mastery over it. If you felt rejected, unloved, or powerless as a child, you may recreate experiences and relationships where you feel similarly in an unconscious effort to change the outcome – to heal yourself by gaining the acceptance or love of someone or to feel in control. But, instead, we tend to choose partners and friends who treat us as our parents did and we continue to play our part as we always have and recreate the same outcome – not a different one.

  • We think we deserve to suffer. Traumatized children are often told that they are bad and deserve to be abused or they are the reason dad drinks or the family has so many problems. And even if we aren’t directly blamed, we internalize our family’s shame and blame ourselves. Our self-esteem is eroded, so we believe that we deserve emotional pain, abuse, failed relationships, and shame in adulthood.
repeat what we don't repair, dysfunctional relationship patterns and behaviors repeat

We repeat what we don’t repair

Unfortunately, dysfunctional relationship patterns are learned and passed from one generation to the next. And we will probably repeat them until we heal the underlying trauma and feel lovable and worthy of being treated with respect and kindness.

We repeat dysfunctional relationship dynamics because they’re familiar. Even when you know something is “wrong” or unhealthy, it’s hard to change; it’s always easier to keep doing what you’ve always done than to learn and apply new skills.

This is especially true in stressful situations. When your nervous system is overwhelmed, your emotions feel out of control, and your body is flooded with adrenaline, it’s extremely challenging to behave in a different way. This is in part due to our neurobiology.

What fires together, wires together

You may have heard of the phenomenon “what fires together, wires together”. This refers to the way neurons in your brain create stronger, more efficient, and more familiar pathways the more you think about or do something. We’ve all experienced this when we practice a skill. For example, the more you practice shooting a basketball, the easier it becomes to score.

The brain also creates connections between our feelings and specific situations, people, or places. For example, the smell of lemon Pledge might transport you back to your Grandma’s house if her zealous use of the cleaner created a neural pathway or strong association in your mind between her and Pledge. Likewise, we repeat maladaptive patterns (of thinking and behaving) because these pathways are the strongest.

If you were abused or neglected as a child, the neural pathways for those relationship patterns were strengthened and your brain becomes accustomed to them. So, you’re likely to seek out relationships with a similar pattern without even realizing it.

Children need to feel safe. They need parents who are attentive and responsive to their needs. And children need predictability. In dysfunctional families, these things are often lacking. And as a result, children are often tense, anxious, and afraid; they don’t feel safe. We cope by trying to control other people and situations – so we can regain a sense of safety.

When we recreate dysfunctional relationship patterns from our past, we’re unconsciously trying to re-do these experiences, so we can feel in control, so we can fix what we couldn’t fix as children. We think (again, this is mostly unconscious) that this time if we can be lovable or perfect, we won’t make the same mistakes – and thus avoid the abuse or rejection that we suffered as children.

Breaking dysfunctional relationship patterns

We can break old patterns, but the more you’ve done something, felt something, or thought about something, the stronger those neural connections are – and the harder they are to break. When we talk about “rewiring your brain” we really mean forming new neural connections so that new thoughts and behaviors become the norm.

When you choose to respond differently or think differently, you’re creating new neural pathways and with repetition, they will become the preferred and comfortable ways of acting and thinking.

Here are some ways to begin changing your old relationship patterns:

1) Become more aware of the relationship patterns in your family of origin. These were the models for all your future relationships. You might find it helpful to read about relationship dynamics, write or journal about your childhood experiences, or talk with a therapist who can help you gain greater awareness of your family’s unspoken rules and roles.

2) Reflect on your own behavior. It’s also important to be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and understand the part you play in your dysfunctional relationships. Ultimately, you’re responsible for your own actions and learning healthier ways to solve problems, get your needs met, and cope with stress.

3) Heal the underlying trauma wounds. Dysfunctional relationships stem from abandonment, rejection, shame, and other painful and traumatic experiences. You need to learn to feel worthy and lovable in order to find healthy, stable, loving relationships. Until your emotional wounds and unmet needs are resolved, you will continue to seek healing from partners who are unable to make you feel loved or lovable.

Many people find the assistance of a trauma-informed therapist is an essential component of healing.

4) Learn and practice new skills. To change our relationship patterns, we also must change our behavior. This might include learning more effective communication skills, how to better regulate our emotions, and consistently practicing self-care.

5) Be kind to yourself. Making significant changes takes a lot out of you. Realistically, you’re not going to change long-standing patterns in a matter of weeks or months. So, be gentle with yourself as you slowly make changes, learn new skills, seek new insights, and learn and grow.

©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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Sharon Martin, DSW, LCSW is a psychotherapist and author specializing in codependency recovery. For the past 25 years, she’s been helping people-pleasers, perfectionists, and adult children overcome self-doubt and shame, embrace their imperfections, and set boundaries. Dr. Martin writes the popular blog Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism and The Better Boundaries Workbook.

8 thoughts on “We Repeat What We Don’t Repair”

  1. I’ve read information like this before and what isn’t highlighted is that whatever type of dysfunction children are born into, the child accepts the dysfunction as normal. How could any child know differently. How could a child born into a family with an Alcoholic father who batters his wife, know that the father has an alcohol problem and what alcohol is and the effects? How can a child know that battering of the mother isn’t normal. How can the child know that when he/she is battered by the father that it’s abuse and cruelty. That was my world. I didn’t know that growing up I was seriously abused and my mother too. Believe me, until someone points out that you’ve been abused there is NO awareness for the child….. we think it’s normal! That’s why we accept abuse in our adult relationships. We don’t know what ‘healthy’ relationships look like. For me it was a part of my world and remained so until I was enlightened, which my that time I was in too deep. It was only when a friend pointed out that my husband was abusing me that I began to wonder about it. By that time in my life, I’d been systematically abused by two husbands and other people. At my core, I believed that in some way I must have deserved the abuse, that I must have done something to deserve the abuse or, that I was a flawed human being. You try and change that kind of wiring when an abused child is an adult with a long and painful history of abuse. How do you do it? I don’t believe it can happen.

  2. I would love an article that took me through the “how to heal”, “steps to healing”, or resources for real healing. I know my problem, where it came from, but what eludes me after years of therapy, and multiple therapists, how to get the healing done and stick. This article gives one sentence on the how: “Many people find the assistance of a trauma-informed therapist is an essential component of healing”.
    The journey to healing has been frustrating for me as I continue to find myself stuck in the same pattern even though I thought I moved forward in heading the broken parts. So frustrating.

    1. A prescient article that outlines the pain of the recognition of an abusive pattern and facing the complex PTSD that ensues are both challenges. It is not solely the victim’s responsibility to create healthy boundaries but a social responsibility to confront the dark triad in people and complicit institutions. Victim blame, parental isolation, police bias, and judicial systems that compound challenges that are all of our responsibility. I recognize the social exhaustion to deal directly with these social ills. What is the medicine? Acting in the moment when it happens, conversations with many telling ones truth and multi prong self care. One may not see the good that comes from these, perhaps our children will.

    2. It is extremely frustrating to have to pick up the pieces, especially with a depleted sense of self-esteem and self-worth.

  3. I’m separated from a narcissistic husband and I was raised by a narcissistic abused mother. I am with my emotions and feelings finally at the age of 56.
    I am fighting for myself and for my relationship with my daughter not to mirror that of a co dependent mother…Help

  4. I had narcisstic parents and married a narcissist and now have 2 adult kids who are narcisstic. I remarried a nice guy but heartbreaking seeing my narcisstic kids and cant change them.

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