Tragedy on Repeat: How Our Traumatic Past Informs Our Tumultuous Present

These sessions have been reproduced with the expressed consent of my client. Names and other identifying information have been altered. Some of the events are fictious.

One of the major questions that people who seek counseling wish to address is: why do I keep choosing terrible partners? This conundrum baffles their family members and friends as much as it torments them. In examining our patterns, we look for causes, or answers, as to why they exist. Those who’ve found themselves in perpetual patterns of poor relationships often can’t seem to stop them, hoping that insight will reduce intense desire, itself being the harbinger of relief.

A client of mine, let’s name her Irene, whom I’ve been working with for several months sought to break her pattern of dating troubled men, those who needed her rescue. In our work together, she expressed her tragic relationship with her step-mother, who was emotionally abuse and unavailable. And she spoke, in virtually positive terms, about her aloof, and acquiescent father, who frequently allowed her step-mother to walk all over him. As may be expected, the men she sought out greatly resembled her father; they were kind and caring, yet self-loathing and passive. Throughout our treatment, Irene was frequently in despair about the lack of stability in her relationships, and the constant rejection she faced when pursuing these effusive men, who on the surface appeared to adore her. She ruminated about whether all of it was a lie, and if she had been duped by master-manipulators.

As treatment progressed, she provided me with vivid accounts of her step-mother’s emotional abuse, her yelling and manipulation, and the days when she pinned Irene against her dad, in her attempts of isolation, which occurred in the service of altering his behavior to suit her needs. Irene recalled being a pawn in their marriage, and her childhood dread of siding with her father, fearing that it would lead to intense rage and further instability. Irene’s only option was to play the role of a biased mediator, placating her mother, while devaluing her father in the process; this, as can be expected, was hell for her. As she reached her teenage years, Irene viewed relationships as power struggles, which encompassed battles for supremacy and control, so she resolved to stay away from anyone who gave her any form of romantic attention.

Eventually, as her doubts subsided through her friends’ successes, Irene started dating, believing that she wanted someone who was as kind and caring as her father was. Sher wanted someone to spend time with, and to comfort her when she cried. She loved her father, and thought that his sweetness resembled none other. In a string of short-term relationships, Irene found herself in relationships with good guys, ones who showered her with compliments and made her feel like she was on top of the world; they seemingly adored her, and as she spoke, they held onto each word. In each of them, Irene was convinced that she had found substance, a relationship with someone who would understand and love her for who she was; but, each of them failed, one after the other. One person told Irene that she wasn’t a good match for him, another ghosted her, and her final attempt ended in the loss of a friendship, as the man she pursued told her that their level of intimacy scared the hell out of him.

Unable to make sense of her relationships, she came to see me to understand what was wrong with her and why these men, one by one, left her. She was certain there was something awful that they saw, a toxic quality she was obviously blind to. As we delved deeper into her past, Irene became confused about how it affected her present, thinking that it was a waste of time, as despite its difficulty, it was an aspect of her life which was now long gone; after all, she came to therapy to igure out what was wrong with her!

In her resistance toward connecting time-periods, one day she presented me with a dream. She described it in vivid detail, emphasizing her sense of confusion. In the dream, she played herself as a child, involved, as she had been countless times, in a dispute between her parents. Her stepmother was angry with her father for spending too much money on their credit card, yelling at him for being reckless and superficial. Her father attempted to explain why he believed that he needed what he bought, but her mother wasn’t open to a discussion, reminanicent of many prior altercations. Despite her perception of herself as a child, Irene was fully aware of her mental development, sustaining insight into herself as an adult. As her dream progressed, her father morphed into the last man she dated, Alex. Alex was, at the time, involved with someone else, but purportedly not in a romantic way. When Irene met him, he was financially supporting a woman whom he was no longer seeing. According to his account, his ex-girlfriend was being sued by two different people for the same perceived crime, but that she was innocent of both. Irene fell for him instantly; she was smitten by his loyalty and his kindness, despite his naive misguidance. She tried several times to help him see what others saw, elucidating point after point which indicated the evidence for his ex’s poor character and questionable choices, but each attempt ended with failure. Alex, though adamant about the lack of emotional attachment, was convinced that she wasn’t a bad person and simply needed help.

Disheartened, eventually Irene gave up, leaving him and the potential for what could have been a romance sent from the heavens. For weeks, his inability to leave his past behind gnawed at her, as she couldn’t accept that she wasn’t to blame, remaining certain of her inferiority. Then, came the dream. Morphing into Alex, Irene perceived her father in a different light, one which now illuminated her role in each relationship. She realized that Alex was a stand-in for her father, a charmingly aloof doormat who allowed others to manipulate him. In her relationship, as in her dream, Irene recognized her attempts to protect and save her dad, to make up for what she couldn’t accomplish as a child. As we spoke about her other relationships, Irene acknowledged how much helping, and even guiding, her partners meant to her; she loved that they needed her, and she adored her role in their development. Unlike with her father, Irene was afforded the chance to try to help these men become assertive and, in turn, self-compassionate; it was the ultimate correction, what Freud called the repetition compulsion. As children, we aren’t able to master our traumas due to limited control, but as adults, we’re able to foster similar scenarios in which we correct past endings, a manifestation of our inherent need for justice.

As the session drew to a close, Irene drew comparisons between her father and the men she dated, accepting their self-loathing and their inability to form relationships with individuals whom they perceived to be superior. Irene’s father found a woman whom he could take care of, who would need and constantly depend on him, and Irene, in turn, sought men whose souls she could save. She wasn’t able to help her father overcome his need for codependency, but in time, she overcame her need for hers. Irene later began dating men who didn’t need saving and who had the self-esteem requestite for commitment.

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