A key difference exists between people and rats. If a rat has a choice of five tunnels to explore and down the third tunnel is a piece of cheese, the rat will find the cheese. Given another chance a couple of days later, the rat will again explore the third tunnel and find cheese. This happens a few more times. When cheese is no longer in the third tunnel, the rat will still look for it there a few more times. Then the rat will explore different tunnels until it finds the cheese at the end of the fifth tunnel.
Unlike rats, when it comes to relationships, many of us keep going through the same cheeseless tunnel again and again, expecting a reward.
Anna and Gabe
Anna and Gabe, both in their sixties and married for over 30 years, show how this happens. Anna is chronically unhappy with Gabe. She wants a better relationship. Yet she criticizes him regularly. She belittles him for his Valentine’s Day gift of a blouse that’s a size too large, complains that he watches too much television, and disses him for being too quiet at gatherings with friends, and so on.
Feeling attacked and overwhelmed, he stonewalls her, saying nothing as he leaves the room. She gets angry at him for walking away. What she really wants is to feel loved.
Anna doesn’t realize that her criticisms turn Gabe off emotionally and sexually. They come to couples counseling and she complains, “We haven’t had sex in over a year.”
An objective observer would see that Anna keeps going through the wrong tunnel. If she would focus more on what she values about Gabe instead of on what she dislikes, she would be more likely to gain a loving husband. If she would switch from the criticism tunnel to the appreciation tunnel, she’d be likely to find a loving husband at its end.
Why does Anna keep going through the wrong tunnel?
And what about Gabe? He, too, keeps going through the wrong tunnel. Although he does gain the short-lived reward of escaping from the combat zone, what he craves deep down inside is to feel loved and cared for deeply.
Both spouses are making the same mistake.
The term repetition compulsion refers to the process by with people maintain hurtful relationships because of a pull to create the familiar. Interestingly, “familiar” and “family” both come from the Latin familia.
Both Anna and Gabe continue to behave in relationship-harming ways because it can feel strangely comforting to recreate the familiar. They get to relive in their marriage a similar dynamic to the kind that they grew up with in their families.
Anna describes her mother as very critical and not empathic. Her father responded passively to her mother’s criticisms, and the two of them were emotionally distant. Anna had a critical mother as a role model, who failed to support her emotionally.
Anna recreates what’s familiar to her by behaving in ways that discourage her husband from responding empathically.
Gabe’s expression is pained during their counseling session when he says that his father had been very critical. As a child, he dealt with his hurt feelings by quietly withdrawing, which is how he reacts to his wife’s criticisms. Breaking his pattern by becoming more assertive, such as by telling Anna, “I don’t like it when you criticize me,” feels impossible to him.
Anna and Gabe are recreating the familiar. Both are suffering.
It can be helpful for each to realize that they are actually receiving a reward of sorts for going through the wrong tunnel. They think they’re in the right one because they end up getting that strangely comforting experience of the familiar. But another part of each is heartsick because both really crave the reward of a fulfilling intimate relationship, which requires a different tunnel.
Unconsciously, they think they’re doing the right thing by continually choosing the same old tunnel. This happens because the way parents treated us as children becomes imprinted within us as normal or right; that’s how small children view their parents’ behaviors. Reliving feelings we experienced when very young feels strangely comforting, no matter how much we complain, when possessed by the repetition compulsion.
Overcoming the Repetition Compulsion
Understanding why we automatically repeat unproductive behaviors is one thing; freeing oneself from the grip of the repetition compulsion is quite another. If you want to overcome a longstanding self-defeating pattern, the best investment to make may well be getting good therapy.
Gaining Professional Help
Professional help can be in the form of couple or individual counseling. A good therapist is empathic while supporting both awareness and positive changes. She or he can help clients understand how childhood experiences in their families contribute to their current behavior.
Awareness is often the first step for changing. The therapist listens well and validates feelings, wants, and needs. The therapist often fills a gap for people who experience such responses too rarely. Over time, clients learn to become more self-accepting. Consequently, they become more accepting and empathic of their spouse and others.
A couple who uses therapy well can transform their relationship into a mutually satisfying one. We’re likely to experience bumps along the road to change, because the pull to repeat unhealthy behaviors in a close relationship can resemble an ocean’s strong undertow. The remedy is to notice when this is happening and make corrections as needed, with the support and guidance from a professional until being able to maintain such gains on our own.
The old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb, with the punchline that the bulb has to want to change, applies here. Because family systems are so powerful, it takes a strong will to change a longstanding pattern. It can feel safer for many people to quit therapy rather than to practice to learn and practice new ways of relating that disobey unspoken rules that guided interactions during childhood. Adults can feel vast anxiety about breaking such rules they absorbed long ago, such as that it’s wrong to express certain kinds of feelings or to ask for what you want directly or respectfully.
Qualities of a Good Therapist
A good therapist is one who you feel understands you and who supports you toward achieving your goal. She or he listens well, is patient with the process, and is empathic. This person accepts your feelings, wants, and needs without judging, can help you identify a self-defeating pattern, and suggest that you experiment with new, healthier ways of relating.
It makes sense to talk with more than one professional in person or on the phone to get a sense of which therapist is right to you. Nearly all will offer a free, short telephone consultation to help you decide if you want to schedule a session with them. It’s easier to feel vulnerable while seeking therapy. Be aware that you’re hiring the therapist or counselor to serve you, and you need to be feel safe opening up to this person. So be willing to ask questions about whatever you want to know in order to make a good choice.
Elvira G. Aletta, PhD’s article, “Ten Ways to Find a Good Therapist,” is one of several pieces accessible online with suggestions how to find someone who’s likely to be qualified and a good fit.
Humility Helps People Change
Ellen Kreidman, PhD, states that unlike people, rats lack egos. Because people have egos, we tend to believe that our usual way is the right way. We often seem to want to be right more than we want the “cheese,” meaning a fulfilling close relationship. It takes humility, the opposite of ego, to switch to a new tunnel. We need to allow ourselves to be vulnerable in order to seek professional help for gaining a more rewarding intimate relationship.