The two most damaging patterns in relationships

Of the numerous issues in dysfunctional relationships that mental health counselors have to deal with, chronic patterns of repetitive, damaging behavior are the most common.

Such patterns of destructive behavior can harm the emotional, mental and physical health and well-being for each side. Protective behaviors learned in childhood and carried forward into a relationship can eventually put the relationship off balance and lead to its demise, or end in separation or divorce.

The most toxic of the repetitive patterns in dysfunctional relationships are Repetition Compulsion and Demand/Withdraw (DM/W).

The Demand and Withdraw pattern

The DM/W pattern is oftentimes triggered by martial disputes about habits, intimacy, and personal communication – not so much by work, outside relationships or children.

Both demand and failure to communicate cause friction and damage the relationship.

Research has found that this is the reason why the tactic is linked to more negative emotions, an inability to resolve marital conflicts and an overall low marital satisfaction.

The pattern is more likely to become even more toxic if one or both partners are depressed, as depression makes them more likely to fall into its trap.

The findings come from a study in which 116 couples were asked to keep diaries of the conflicts they had with their partners and were asked about any symptoms of depression. Results showed that the DM/W pattern had links to sadness, fear, and anger in addition to threats of aggression. Authors Lauren Papp, Chrystyne D. Kouros, and E. Mark Cummings write:  “Demand-withdraw patterns were consistently related to greater likelihood of negative tactics (i.e., threat, physical distress, verbal hostility, aggression) and higher levels of negative emotions (i.e., anger, sadness, fear), and to lower likelihood of constructive tactics (i.e., affection, support, problem solving, compromise) and lower levels of positivity.”

Both husbands and wives were equally likely to be making demands, the authors continue: “…both husband demand-wife withdraw and wife demand-husband withdraw patterns were displayed at nearly equal frequencies, a finding that counters others’ demonstrations that wife demand-husband withdraw is more commonly expressed.”

Demand and Withdraw patterns are not linked to personality, which thankfully means that couples are not subject to them.

Repetition Compulsion: Childhood Survival Tactics in Adult Relationships

The repetition compulsion is a natural human behavior that compels us to repeat past trauma. The term was introduced by Sigmund Freud, who defined it as “the desire to return to an earlier state of things.”  This neurotic defense mechanism attempts to rewrite childhood history, typically the troublesome relationship with the opposite sex parent from one’s biological family.

When children experience a parental relationship filled with neglect, abuse, rejection, intense frustration and disappointment or abandonment, they are put in a place of psychological darkness.

Struggling to survive, the child denies the reality of their situation, including pressing emotions of rage/anger, depression and despair.

In order to overcome these emotions and maintain a state of denial, a child will instead cling to hope. This form of hope is a childish one where the young believe that if only they could be good enough, their problematic parent will finally give them the love and affection they need and deserve. Mistakingly, the child believes that they are the problem and they must do what they can to repair the situation by becoming someone more worthy of their parent’s praise and acceptance. They desperately try to fix the relationship over and over again, not understanding that the problem lies with the parent, not with them.

When the child becomes an adult they can often have an uncanny attraction for someone of the opposite sex who, in some way, resembles the parent with whom they had issues. At this point in time, the inner child is making the rules and the person is making the choice for this parent-like mate subconsciously, which is why the repetition compulsion is viewed as a neurosis.

In adulthood, the wounded inner child is still attempting to win their parent’s love. By recreating the relationship dynamics of his or her childhood with their love interest the adult is provided with an opportunity to try and change its outcome. The inner child keeps on carrying the hope that this time things will turn out differently.

And while the rational adult side of the hurt individual is aware that a change is highly unlikely, the wounded inner child continues making attempts to repair the situation, just as they have always been doing. The cycle goes on repeating, with hopes that change will come, but the inevitable failure results in reinforced feelings of inferiority, inadequacy, and absence of love.

The damaging pattern of repetition compulsion can be healed, but only if the suffering individual willingly accepts the traumatic facts of the abusive childhood, gives up on the defense mechanism, and forgives the abuser (even if only in their heart). When the reality of their childhood is accepted, the compulsion to repeat their historical mistakes loses its influence and the once-wounded person is set free to live a painless life.

Demand/Withdraw and Repetition Compulsion are some of the most damaging patterns in today’s relationships. By familiarising yourself with the ways in which these patterns operate, you can steer your own relationship on a new path of wholeness and healing. 

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