Gaining Understanding of A Painful Relationship Pattern
Over the years, I’ve experienced a clear pattern in my romantic relationships, one that has been among the most painful and difficult aspects of my life. Time and again, these relationships have begun with the development of an extreme, intense attraction and chemistry between me and a particular woman. A seemingly very strong attachment builds quickly and we both become inspired by the idea that we may have finally found someone who can help us feel wonderful about ourselves and bring a newfound excitement into our lives.
However, inevitably, this inspired state soon changes drastically. The situation turns unstable as the woman begins to become uncertain, scared or ambivalent and starts to distance from the relationship. Seeing my hopes for a lasting intimate connection threatening to disappear yet again, I tend to become more needy and attached, which only serves to push her away further in a vicious cycle. In the end, the woman eventually runs completely from the relationship, leaving me feeling invisible, abandoned, disposable and very hurt.
After a number of these painful abandonments over the years, I began to seek greater understanding of why the pattern played out over and over and what could be done about it. In the wake of one such relationship with a woman who told me that she had Borderline Personality tendencies, I looked deeper into that subject, reading I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me and other related books about Borderline Personality Disorder. After another such relationship, I followed my instinct that there was an addictive quality to these interactions, and read several books about addictive relationships including Facing Love Addiction, How to Break Your Addiction to a Person (which is the book that then led me to study Inner Child Healing and its role in the pattern), and Finally Getting it Right. After another relationship, I got into therapy which helped me understand even more about how my development had led me to play out this pattern. And yet another such relationship led me to find Harville Hendrix’s Imago Relationship Therapy and its concepts when I read Keeping the Love You Find: A Guide for Singles. I also later went on to read the Imago book for those already in relationships, Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples.
The Repetition Compulsion and Its Role in Intimate Relationships
While all of these books gave me different perspectives and angles on why this pattern kept playing out in my relationships, there was one thing that they all agreed and focused on in one way or another - the fact that there definitely is a well-documented tendency to repeat difficult and painful patterns from our past in our present lives. While not all of these sources named this concept precisely, many of them did, pointing out that it is called the repetition compulsion. This repetition compulsion was first formally named by Sigmund Freud, and while it can be seen in many areas of our lives, almost all of the sources I’ve read agree that it often has its deepest, most powerful impact within our romantic relationships.
All of these books explained, in their own ways, that we tend to unconsciously - seemingly magically - attract and develop the strongest chemistry with people who trigger our deepest issues and wounds from childhood, giving us the opportunity to play out and resolve what Gestalt Therapy founder Fritz Perls and Harville Hendrix have called our “unfinished business.” My own life and relationships - as well as those of many people I have known and worked with - have provided ample and unavoidable evidence to me of the existence of the repetition compulsion, especially for those with significant past wounds, and especially in the area of romantic relationships.
Schema Therapy and Reinventing Your Life: Learning From My Current Repetition
Lately, I’ve been reminded yet again just how powerful this repetition compulsion is. For, despite all of my reading, knowledge and insight, I find myself once again in a relationship that has played out according to the usual script. It began quickly and intensely, led to a feeling of deep connection and partnership, and then - despite many discussions aimed specifically at preempting this outcome - suddenly became unstable and ambivalent in the manner so perfectly captured by the title I Hate You, Don’t Leave Me. After months of push-pull dynamics, the relationship has now reached a pivotal point where, despite my hopes that this could be the relationship that finally turns out differently than the rest, it seems likely to end in the same type of abandonment as in the past.
As is my tendency, I’ve used the recent painful events in the relationship as a spur to continue gaining more insight. Specifically, since this relationship, like many past ones, has been plagued by certain typical Borderline patterns, I spent some time revisiting that issue, especially reading related message boards and websites. While much of this research simply reinforced my knowledge from past experience and readings, I did come across something new. In my past research, I had become familiar with several approaches - Inner Child Healing and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, for example - said to be optimal for improving a situation with a person exhibiting Borderline patterns. However, during this round of research I read claims that a model called Schema Therapy had, in some studies, shown even greater effectiveness. I read a little about Schema Therapy and was intrigued. When I discovered that the founders of the model had written a book called Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthough Program to End Negative Behavior…and Feel Great Again, I immediately went out and got it.
Lifetraps: Systematizing our Repetition Compulsions
Reinventing Your Life discusses how the repetition compulsion, which it names explicitly, makes it difficult to treat chronic, pervasive, unhealthy personality issues in symptomatic fashion and the need to deal with such difficulties more systematically. This idea, of course, appeals to me, Systems Thinker that I am.
The book says:
“That we keep repeating the pain of our childhood is one of the core insights of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Freud called this the repetition compulsion. The child of an alcoholic grows up to marry an alcoholic. The abused child grows up to marry an abuser, or becomes an abuser himself. The sexually molested child grows up to be a prostitute. The overly controlled child allows others to control her.
This is a baffling phenomenon. Why do we do this? Why do we reenact our pain, prolonging our suffering? Why don’t we build better lives and escape the pattern? Almost everyone repeats negative patterns from childhood in self-defeating ways. This is the strange truth with which therapists contend. Somehow we manage to create, in adult life, conditions remarkably similar to those that were so destructive in childhood. A lifetrap is all the ways in which we recreate these patterns.”
It goes on to say:
“The technical term for a lifetrap is a schema. [Note: This concept obviously interests me due to my fascination with schemes and schemas]. The concept of a schema comes from cognitive psychology. Schemas are deeply entrenched beliefs about ourselves and the world, learned early in life. These schemas are central to our sense of self. To give up our belief in a schema would be to surrender the security of knowing who we are and what the world is like; therefore we cling to it, even when it hurts us. These early beliefs provide us with a sense of predictability and certainty; they are comfortable and familiar. In an odd sense, they make us feel at home. This is why cognitive psychologists believe schemas, or lifetraps, are so difficult to change.”
The authors identify and name eleven major lifetraps. They define lifetraps as constellations of issues with three characteristics.
- They are lifelong patterns or themes (ie: they start in childhood and continue throughout life).
- They are self-destructive.
- They struggle for survival (in other words, they have a tendency to repeat themselves and strongly resist change).
Lifetraps and the Chemistry of Repetitive Self-Destructive Relationships
Reinventing Your Life spends a great deal of time focusing on how these lifetraps powerfully influence our relationships. It talks at length about how each lifetrap leads a person to feel intense chemistry and be drawn into relationships with particular people who trigger the “unfinished business” or unresolved wounds related to that lifetrap.
At one point it says:
“Let us now look at how lifetraps affect the chemistry we feel in romantic relationships.”
It later goes on to add:
“It is one of the most puzzling facts of life that we seem to keep repeating the same self-destructive patterns over and over. This is what Freud called the repetition compulsion. Why would someone who was abused as a child willingly become involved in another abusive relationship? It does not make sense. Yet that is what happens.”
The Repetition Compulsion in Intimate Relationships: Contrasting Recommendations on a Central Phenomenon
This book, discovered by way of yet another unstable Borderline-riddled relationship, and focused significantly on the role of the repetition compulsion in attraction and romance, has led me to review and reconsider all that I know about this crucial phenomenon. All of the most important books that have shaped my view of relationship dynamics agree on the central role of a repetitive mechanism in attraction and intimacy, with many of them explicitly identifying that mechanism as the repetition compulsion. However, where they differ, often greatly, is in how we should respond to this repetition compulsion in our relationships. The sources generally fall into two camps on the subject.
View #1: The Repetition Compulsion in Intimate Relationships as a Self-Destructive Mechanism to Avoid and Overcome by Choosing Partners That Trigger Less Intense Chemistry
On one hand, there are those sources, including Reinventing Your Life, How to Break Your Addiction to a Person and Finally Getting it Right, that see the repetition compulsion in intimate relationships as a self-destructive mechanism to be avoided and overcome. They recommend viewing a quick, intense, often highly sexual attraction to a person as a red flag that they are likely to help you repeat your lifetrap. They advise avoiding that person and instead becoming engaged with people around whom you feel safer and calmer, even if you aren’t as strongly attracted.
For instance, Reinventing Your Life, in explaining how to change the Abandonment lifetrap, offers the recommendation:
“Avoid uncommitted, unstable, or ambivalent partners even though they generate high chemistry. Try to form relationships with stable people. Avoid people who are going to take you on a roller coaster ride, even though these are the exact people to whom you are most attracted. Remember that we are not saying that you should go out with people you find unattractive, but an intense sexual attraction may be a sign that your partner is triggering your Abandonment lifetrap. If this is so, the relationship means trouble, and you should probably think twice about pursuing it.”
In explaining how to change the Mistrust and Abuse lifetrap, they suggest:
“Try to recognize the danger signals in choosing future partners. Knowing the danger signals can help you feel confident that you can pick a trustworthy partner. Even if the chemistry is weaker, get involved with men/women who respect your rights and do not want to hurt you.”
In discussing the Emotional Deprivation lifetrap, they advise:
“Avoid Cold Partners Who Generate High Chemistry. This is that simple rule that is so hard to follow. Do not get involved with depriving partners. The rule is so hard to follow because these are precisely the partners who attract you most. We often give patients this rule-of-thumb: If you meet someone for whom you feel a high degree of chemistry, rate how much chemistry on a 0 to 10 scale. If you rate the person a 9 or 10, then think twice about becoming involved with this person. Occasionally, such relationships work out, after a great deal of turmoil. But, more often, the strong chemistry you feel will be based on lifetraps that they trigger in you, rather than positive qualities that will make the relationship last.”
When I talk to people about my relationship pattern, I’d say that nearly every one of them, in their feedback to me, reflects this view (though of course some of them fail to take the same advice in their own relationships). And who can blame them, as it seems so obviously sensible to try to avoid partners that are likely to re-trigger a repetitive, self-destructive pattern.
View #2: The Repetition Compulsion in Intimate Relationships as a Purposeful and Required Catalyst for Full Healing Through Mastering Resolution Skills with Partners That Initially Trigger Intense Chemistry
However another extremely credible and brilliant source, Harville Hendrix, disagrees with this assessment. In his Imago Relationship Therapy model, as expressed in books like Keeping the Love You Find and Getting the Love You Want, Hendrix says that (all quotes in this section are from Keeping the Love You Find except as otherwise noted):
- The repetition compulsion in intimate relationships involves selecting partners with some correlation to our original caregivers, has been recognized by others in the past, and occurs for a purpose.
“The reconstruction of the past by selecting a partner who resembles one’s parents was originally given the name ‘repetition compulsion’ by Freud. The idea was expanded by Fritz Perls, founder of Gestalt Therapy, and given the name ‘unfinished business.’ For Perls, this consists of feelings and memories that are unconscious and avoided but are expressed in behavior. Some view this repetition as an attempt to restore the familiar, thus as a static and nonpurposive process. I side with Freud’s view of the purposive character of repetition as an attempt as resolution.” - Notes from Chapter 3 of Getting the Love You Want
- This purpose for choosing the mates we do is related to an unconscious agenda.
“Now we arrive at the heart of the matter. Our ‘free’ choice of a mate is, in the end, a product of our unconscious, which has an agenda of its own.”
- That unconscious agenda is to heal our childhood wounds and become whole.
“And what the unconscious wants is to become whole and to heal the wounds of childhood.”
- In the service of this agenda, our unconscious creates an “image” of its ideal mate, which Hendrix calls the Imago, based on the way the traits of our original caregivers, usually our parents, interacted with our attempts to get our childhood needs met.
“It [this ‘image’] is forged in the interaction between how we attempted to get our childhood needs met and how our caretakers responded to those needs, and etched on a template in our unconscious.”
“I call this buried parental image the Imago, after the Latin word for ‘image.’”
- Our unconscious then compares romantic prospects to that “image” and alerts us that a potential mate closely matches our Imago through the experience of “chemistry.”
“To this end, it [the unconscious] is carrying around its own detailed picture of a proper match, searching not for the right stats, but for the right chemistry.”
“When we meet an Imago match, that chemical reaction occurs, and love ignites. All other bets, all other ideas about what we want in a mate, are off. We feel alive and whole, confident that we have met the person who will make everything all right.”
- This experience of “chemistry” with an Imago match is sparked by our unconscious belief that this is a person who can help us heal from our unmet childhood needs.
“And what is that chemistry? Nothing more than our unconscious attraction to someone who we feel will meet our particular emotional needs. Specifically, that need is to cover the ‘shortfall’ of childhood by having our mates fill in the psychological gaps left by our imperfect childhood caretakers.”
- The reason the unconscious is driven to heal from those unmet childhood needs with this particular person is that they possess both the “positive” and “negative” traits of the caretakers who originally failed to meet those needs.
“How do we go about that? By falling madly in love with someone who has both the positive and the negative traits of our imperfect parents, someone who fits an image that we carry deep inside us and for whose embodiment we are unconsciously searching.”
“What we unconsciously want is to get what we didn’t get in childhood from someone who is like the people who didn’t give us what we need in the first place.”
- The “negative” traits that this person shares with our original caregivers unconsciously exert a stronger influence on our Imago, even though we may consciously perceive ourselves being attracted only to the “positive” traits.
“Though the Imago is a picture of both the positive and negative traits of our caretakers, the negative traits carry the most weight in our attraction. Because incidents of neglect, abuse, criticism, or indifference affect our survival, they are more deeply etched on our Imago template than our memories of caring and attention. They are the aching sores that we want healed. This is frustrating, because we consciously seek only the positive traits in a potential partner, so that we can get our needs gratified. But without the negative traits, we would not be attracted in the first place.”
- Therefore, our unconscious will only accept complete healing with someone who is, whether we recognize it consciously or not, similar to the person who originally wounded us, especially in sharing their “negative” traits.
“There is a perverse logic here; the old brain [Hendrix’s term for the more primitive, emotionally-driven part of our brain] is making sure that we find what we need to heal. Inevitably, the person you need in order to heal is similar to the person with whom you were wounded, because that is the only type of person from whom your unconscious will accept what you need.”
- Because this type of person who is our only hope for fully healing shares the same “negative” traits as the original caretakers that wounded us, they are simultaneously most likely to wound us again in exactly the same ways, rather than to help us heal those wounds we so desperately want healed.
“Unfortunately, since we’ve almost surely chosen someone with negative traits similar to those of the parents who wounded us in the first place, the chances of a more positive outcome this time around are slim indeed. In fact, most people who have had serial relationships report that despite their best intentions they manage to find the same problems each time around.”
- Despite these risks, and as much as we may wish it, we cannot and should not try to consciously choose attraction to partners other than those that share these traits of our caretakers and activate our deepest wounds from childhood. For it is exactly these people with whom we must engage to confront those very traits and wounds in order to heal.
“When I was single after my divorce, I consciously sought the ideal mate, foolishly thinking I was immune from the process to which others, lacking my knowledge, were fated. I made a list of the qualities I wanted: warmth, vitality, intelligence, laughter, emotional stability, sensuality and sexuality. I tracked down several potential mates who had all these qualities, but nothing was stirred in me. They were all interesting people to be with, but I was bored. Each lacked the essential traits that corresponded with the depression of my mother; my abandonment fears were not activated.”
“There is no way around this. You cannot avoid choosing partners with the devastating problems you had at home. Many times I have had people approach me after my lectures distraught because I’ve said that they are fated to repeat the devastating problems of their childhood. ‘Isn’t there any way I can avoid marrying an alcoholic (or someone who is physically abusive, or emotionally frigid)? Isn’t it enough that I have been in therapy, that I faithfully attend AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] (or ACOA [Adult Children of Alcoholics])?’ It is heartbreaking for me to tell them that the work they are doing is of tremendous benefit, but they cannot avoid the problems, that in fact they need to confront those very problems as adults in order to heal.”
Hendrix is emphatic that it is only with an Imago match that we can become fully whole and that we do it precisely by revisiting and resolving the old conflicts and wounds that only they can activate.
“Is there no escape from falling for an Imago match? Unless your mate is chosen by the village elder, or you send away for a mail-order bride, the answer, I’m afraid, is no. To understand the Imago, and its seeming stranglehold on our will, we have to return again to our original thesis: our goal in life is to return to that original state of relaxed joyfulness that we somehow remember, to feel alive and whole. In order to do that, we have to go back to the scene of the crime, to the place where we were wounded, in order to undo the damage and re-find what was lost. From the perspective of our old brain, we must get what we need from the person or persons from which it should have come in the first place - or, failing that, from a reasonable facsimile.
But childhood is over; we cannot run back to our parents to get what we missed. So we find the next best thing - a relationship that recapitulates in its vital aspects the complex, idiosyncratic pattern of our wounding and loss. The tool that our unconscious uses to perform this feat is the Imago.”
- As much as we might wish to escape from a troubled relationship with such an Imago partner, in all but the most severely destructive situations, resolving the inevitable conflicts within the relationship is itself the cure and running away will only lead to further repetition in future relationships.
“I have had clients tell me that they were encouraged at their AlAnon meetings to leave their drinking spouses. This is appallingly ignorant. The idea of the disposability of the troubled spouse is dangerous and destructive. Relationship problems are a dynamic between two people: until you are perfect, there is no perfect partner. Until you correct your codependent behavior, you will choose an abuser partner. While you are an addict, the only partner you find will be codependent.
Wanting to escape a troubled relationship is an understandable human impulse. There are plenty of times when I’ve wanted to go away myself, just to be alone for a while, to have a break from dealing with the conflict, ill will, and day-to-day hassles that arise in any relationship. But the relationship itself is always a vital part of the cure. It is the ambience in which the early trauma can be experienced, dealt with, and integrated, so that it loses its power to cause pain. Running away solves nothing; eventually the same problems show up further down the road. The criteria for leaving a partner, to my way of thinking, are few, regardless of the severity of the problem. When it is clear that a partner is unaware of his problems or unwilling to do anything about them, there is probably no way to salvage the relationship. Often, I know, this is the case where there is chronic abuse and addiction. However, when the addict or abuser is willing to acknowledge and work on the problems, I feel the attempt to save the relationship should be made.”
- What we need to heal fully is what Hendrix calls a “conscious relationship” with an Imago match. This is a situation where a partner who has the “positive” and “negative” traits of our caretakers and activates our wounds and unmet needs commits to using new tools, strategies and communication techniques, such as those suggested by Imago Relationship Therapy, to heal with us.
“All you can hope for,” I have to tell them, “is to find someone who is aware of his or her problems and willing to do, with you, the hard work necessary to heal.”
Much of Hendrix’s work goes on to describe in great detail the nature of a conscious relationship and the particular work through which we and our Imago partner can heal.
Thus, Hendrix and Imago Relationship Therapy do not suggest that we attempt to engage with partners that fail to provoke intense chemistry. Rather, they advise that we accede to the repetition compulsion in our choice of partner and engage, as we are naturally drawn to do, with a powerfully attractive person who activates our deepest wounds. However, they explain that in order to benefit, rather than simply be re-wounded by such a relationship, we must find such a partner who is also willing, along with us, to become conscious, change and grow. When we and our Imago partner are willing to communicate in new ways that promote beneficial insights and behavioral changes within the relationship, we can avoid experiencing the repetition compulsion in the relationship’s outcome, and instead achieve mutual resolution of our childhood wounds.
To put it in the terms of the authors of Reinventing Your Life, Imago suggests not that we avoid allowing our lifetraps to influence our partner choice, but that we find a partner willing, along with us, to help each other work on and heal the issues that maintain our mutually attractive lifetraps. We should expect and accept repetition in the type of partner we choose, Imago advises. But what we shouldn’t repeat is how we relate to that partner. Rather than relating to different people, Imago tells us to relate to those people to whom we are naturally attracted in different ways - namely through using the tools and techniques of Imago Relationship Therapy.
Reviewing the Dilemma
So here we have several very credible sources in agreement about the existence and importance of the repetition compulsion in intimate relationships, but in serious contrast with each other regarding how we should respond to it.
One group of sources sees danger in our being attracted to and staying with partners that engage our lifetraps and urges us to intervene at this point in the process by avoiding or disengaging from such situations. This sounds highly sensible in many ways.
Yet, on the other hand, we have Harville Hendrix who takes a somewhat opposite view. He worries that the greater danger lies, in this day of broken marriages and homes, in the suggestion that highly intense relationships, once they encounter difficult challenges, be treated as disposable. He proclaims that we need instead to learn to stay in these relationships and intervene in the repetition process at a point within the relationship itself.
“They say that breaking up is hard to do, but that is wrong. It’s easy to walk away before the going gets tough, to find another dreamboat - until the ship starts to sink again. It’s waking up that’s hard to do.”
By working with our partner to practice and master previously unlearned resolution skills, he explains, we channel the energy of the predictable conflicts in such relationships - the very conflicts from which the other sources advise us to run - using them as mutual catalysts for growth and healing.
This Imago approach also seems highly sensible, has a certain poetic and symmetric beauty to it, and, in some ways, provides a more satisfying framework. For, while the authors of Reinventing Your Life, for example, see the repetition compulsion as a “baffling phenomenon” and a “puzzling fact of life” that “does not make sense,” Imago explains very clearly why we carry out this repetition and how to harness it constructively.
Contrasting Views of Compatibility: Another Way of Framing the Dilemma
In a way, these two contrasting approaches illustrate a dilemma revolving around the issue of compatibility. Both approaches agree that we tend to perceive compatibility when we first become infatuated with a person due to the chemistry between our respective wounds, unresolved issues and lifetraps. They also agree that if we then engage deeply with that person, we will, at some point, encounter serious challenges within the relationship.
One approach, espoused by the authors of Reinventing Your Life, How to Break Your Addiction to a Person and others, sees these inevitable challenges as proof that we are, in a sense, incompatible with this person after all - that we have simply attracted another person who will re-wound us, and so should avoid or leave the relationship. Again, this view is understandable and is the one expressed by almost everyone that I talk to each time I find myself once again in such a situation. They say that I should leave the relationship and find someone more compatible. Often, when challenges arise, my partner in the relationship also echoes these same thoughts, claiming that they have simply realized we are incompatible as justification just before abandoning me.
Hendrix, on the other hand, says that this apparent switch in compatibility is temporary and is simply part of the natural course of events in an optimal relationship between two wounded people. He states that the initial infatuation between compatible Imago partners is representative of the “romantic love phase” - the first phase of such a relationship. When the inevitable conflicts between Imago partners arise, creating a perception of incompatibility, Hendrix says that we have simply entered the second stage of the relationship, which he calls the “power struggle,” in which just such challenges arise for the purpose of being resolved. If, rather than assuming we are suddenly incompatible and leaving, we resolve these temporary, though difficult conflicts, we then grow out of the “power struggle” and achieve the third and final stage of the relationship, the “real love” stage.
The particular wording that Hendrix uses to explain this process captures well the paradoxical relationship between compatibility and incompatibility in an Imago relationship.
“Romantic love is supposed to end. It is nature’s glue, which brings two incompatible people together for the purpose of mutual growth, and enables them to survive the disillusionment that they did not marry perfect people.”
“When you meet your incompatible partner, nature has arranged for a biochemical reaction to occur, which transmutes the chemistry of attraction into the chemistry of growth.”
Notice how Hendrix uses the term incompatible to describe the type of person we should be involved with in order to provoke and resolve the “power struggle.” He believes that it is precisely someone with whom we initially feel compatible and then encounter certain archetypal incompatibilities that offers us the opportunity to achieve mutual growth and wholeness. In his view, paradoxically, a person with whom we experience this drastic shift in apparent compatibility, leading to a temporary phase of seeming incompatibility, is the only person with whom we really are ideally compatible.
Pursuing Wholeness Alone and Through Relationships: A Clarification of the Various Views
Let us be clear. None of these fields are suggesting that we can’t grow at all on our own or that personal development work done by ourselves is meaningless. Far from it. All agree that we can do much healing on our own and that the healthier we become, the healthier will be those people that we attract to us. This, for example, is part of why Harville Hendrix wrote Keeping the Love You Find - to help singles improve themselves as much as they can before entering a committed relationship, even as they learn and prepare to better negotiate those relationships when they do come along. In essence, to the extent that we heal some of our wounds on our own, we can partially change our Imago, becoming less dependent on a partner to meet our needs and making ourselves more attractive to a partner who is similarly less dependent on us.
However, where these various fields differ is in their views of how much growth we can accomplish on our own, what the necessary conditions are for us to reach wholeness, and just how feasible it is to expect humans to unconsciously settle for anything less than wholeness.
Some fields believe that we can become relatively whole completely on our own - an idea that appeals to many, but seems to me to ignore the deeply social and relational nature both of human beings and of the most fundamental wounds that stand between us and wholeness.
As Hendrix says:
“In short, we need relationships, and in particular we need the kind of committed long-term love relationships that allow us to heal and grow. To my way of thinking, perpetual singleness stunts growth, for it denies the fundamental needs of the unconscious. I believe that singleness is meant to be a stage, not a permanent way of life. There are certain things that we can only accomplish, spiritually and psychologically, in a committed dyadic relationship.”
“This preparation - your awareness and your willingness to educate and change yourself - is all you can do as a single person. You can begin the process of becoming whole while you are single, but you cannot fully heal your wounds or fully recover your wholeness without a partner.”
Other fields seem to believe that you can become whole through a combination of your own work and work in a safe relationship of the type promoted by Reinventing Your Life or Finally Getting it Right with a partner who doesn’t fully trigger your most sensitive buttons. Still others advise that since we can only become whole with a highly triggering partner, and such a partner poses too great a risk of re-wounding, we should instead give up on our dreams of wholeness and settle for something less.
Imago goes further than any of these other fields. It claims that our quest for wholeness is “nonnegotiable,” despite any attempts to repress or suppress it, and that its success depends not just on any relationship, but specifically on a conscious relationship with an Imago match who triggers our lifetraps and unresolved issues.
“Although our unconscious selection process doesn’t bode well for marriage as a way of life, I am convinced that the negative Imago traits of our partners are the catalyst for personal transformation at the deepest levels. A conscious relationship, in which partners call on each other to change those aspects of themselves, and in so doing unleash repressed potential, is in fact the most effective path to psychological and spiritual wholeness. Our other options - denying our unmet childhood needs, trying to fill them on our own, or through friendships, ‘live-in’ relationships, or serial lovers - will never heal us. The love that is essential to our healing must come from an Imago match, and a partnership - committed, continuous, consistent - is the process through which we heal and regain our original wholeness and full aliveness.”
Declaring our drive for wholeness compulsory, while simultaneously viewing its achievement as dependent on such a specific partner and such a challenging process, Imago sets the bar very high, raising both the probability that many of us will never achieve it and the emotional and psychological stakes of that failure. Hendrix realizes that this can make accepting his theory somewhat unpalatable. In a section of Keeping the Love You Find entitled ‘We Can’t do it Alone’ he says:
“People disappointed in love don’t want to hear that they need a relationship to heal. They want to feel that they can be autonomous, and restore their spiritual wholeness on their own, if their caretakers, or their mates, aren’t up to the task. But this is a delusion. While there is much you can accomplish on your own, especially with regard to modifying your character defenses, you can’t go the whole way to healing without a partner.
The idea that we need the help of others for our fulfillment is unpopular because it challenges the primacy of the individual. The sovereignty of the individual is, rightly, a cornerstone of democracy. The tension between the individual and the collective, the individual and the dyad, the family and society, produces the chemistry of the evolutionary process, in terms of growth as well as in the development of new social and political systems. But there is no individual not in a context, not in a relationship of some sort, and not in a dependent relationship.”
I have known some people to find this notion that our dreams of wholeness rest on interacting with a highly risky and challenging romantic partner so distasteful that they attempt to discredit it based solely on their disdain for it. They may offer no evidence or rationale to back up their view, or even take the time to consider the research supporting Imago’s claims, but simply assert that the very idea is so unpleasant to them that it must be false. However, obviously, whether we happen to like Hendrix’s conclusion is irrelevant to the facts of the situation. The question is not which of these models we like better, but, simply, which is true for us. It is a dilemma that I continue to struggle with, as my relationships repeatedly bring it back to the forefront in my life.
Should We Stay or Should We Go?: Facing the Dilemma in My Current Repetitious Relationship
As mentioned, the pivotal situation in my current relationship, combined with the accumulated insight that I have gained in the wake of similar past relationships, has placed this dilemma at the center of my life once more. True to form, the relationship started quickly and intensely, before - despite an unprecedented level of conscious attempts to anticipate and prevent them - conflicts began to arise. My partner, just as Harville Hendrix describes in the “power struggle” stage, has taken to mentioning how, despite the initial intensity, she feels that we are incompatible after all. It is a textbook example of my repetition compulsion (and as far as I know, of hers as well).
What should I and this person - or anyone in a similar situation - do, ideally, given that both models in their ways make so much sense? Should we stay in the relationship and continue trying to heal, using Imago type techniques to resolve the “power struggle” (if this person is even willing to do so with me, of course)? Should we disengage and seek safer partners who fail to trigger our lifetraps and with whom we feel less attraction than we did initially in this relationship (assuming this is even an option, given that our Imago not only dictates a pattern in the people to whom we are attracted, but also in which people are attracted to us)? Or is there some third hand solution that can reconcile these two options?
I still can’t claim to be sure of the answer to the dilemma. Perhaps that will become even clearer later in this relationship or in future relationships. But I do have some tentative ideas on its resolution.
My Current Approach to the Dilemma
At present, my best assessment of the dilemma is this:
Seeking and engaging in a healing-oriented relationship with an Imago match is like an investment that has a high risk, but offers the possibility of the highest reward. If you can find an Imago match or have one and they are willing to do the work of a conscious relationship with you, this is the ideal situation and will provide the most healing each of you can possibly get, as well as having the greatest constructive ripple effect on the world around you. As you and your partner become more whole, growing in ways that you can only do within such a relationship, you will have even more to share with others, helping them to become more whole as well.
However, such relationships involve serious risks. Imago partners that are not willing to become conscious and work cooperatively threaten to take us to the opposite extreme, re-wounding us over and over again, rather than healing us. This is especially true in relationships where the Imago partners bear serious wounds from childhood. These situations tend to be especially volatile and to feature at least one partner whose personality is specifically constructed around a deep lack of trust in oneself, others, and the possibility of change so as to fiercely resist any commitment to becoming conscious and growing. This creates a vexing catch-22 for those of us most wounded - and thus furthest from and most desperately yearning for greater wholeness - in which the only partners with whom we can heal are those whose very personality structure is antithetical to doing so. In such a situation, where either partner is absolutely unwilling to resolve conflicts, even Hendrix admits that the relationship probably cannot be saved.
In circumstances that match us with such an unwilling Imago partner and/or render us ultimately unable to find one willing to consciously heal with us, then I believe we may eventually have to give up actively seeking complete wholeness and settle for the next best thing. We can achieve a certain measure of growth through processing the pain brought to the surface by our previous re-woundings and salvaging valuable lessons and practice even from ultimately failed relationship attempts, while seeking a safe relationship in which we can heal some, if not all, of our remaining wounds, without being constantly re-wounded.
How Long Should We Hold Out Hope for Wholeness?
If my assessment is correct, however, this leaves many of us faced with an extremely difficult question: How long should we struggle to find a willing Imago match or to convince our current Imago match to commit to mutual healing before we give up actively hoping for the ideal of wholeness and settle for something less? After all, finally abandoning our conscious and unconscious hopes for a relationship in which we can revive all of the wounded parts of our being is akin to accepting partial death and requires a profound existential sacrifice. For the drive to attain the type of wholeness that Imago is designed to achieve is, according to Hendrix, core to our humanity. As he says in Keeping the Love You Find, “Which brings us back to our innate human yearning. Our search for wholeness is compulsive and nonnegotiable. We are hooked on life and will do whatever is necessary to feel fully alive.”
And Hendrix is far from the first to recognize the deeply fundamental nature of our drive for wholeness. For example, the brilliant psychologist and student of Carl Jung, Erich Neumann, even gave it a name in his book Depth Psychology and a New Ethic:
“The structure of wholeness which is achieved by the integration of the psychic components is the fulfillment of a basic tendency in the personality - centroversion… Centroversion…arises out of the principle of wholeness in the personality, and…aims at the achievement and maintenance of this wholeness”
This centroversion does not yield easily and it is likely that even if we manage to consciously accept its ultimate failure, resigning ourselves to something less than a conscious relationship with a full Imago match, our unconscious will long continue to yearn for more.
In a way, the question of whether and when to abandon the quest for wholeness is similar to that facing a seriously ill patient who must decide how long to hold out for an ideal, but potentially unavailable cure - for instance, a transplant that can restore full functioning - before resigning him or herself to palliative care and management. It is a decision that challenges our deepest fundamental hopes and dreams for fully experiencing life.
What do you Think?
So, in light of all of these various theories, models, concepts and ideas, what are your thoughts on these issues?
- How whole can we become on our own, especially if we harbor deep relational wounds from our past?
- If we need relationships in which to achieve certain levels of healing, what kinds of relationships do we need at each level?
- Is the repetition compulsion in our choice of intimate partners a necessary, though risky, catalyst, driving us toward situations that challenge us to achieve mastery on the path to wholeness? Or is it something of which to be wary and to avoid?
- How does one ideally resolve the paradoxical situation in which the only partners that can heal one’s deepest wounds are those whose own wounds make them the least likely people of all to be willing to change and grow?
- If we do avoid the repetition compulsion in our choice of partners, are we giving up our chance for complete wholeness and settling for something safer, but ultimately less complete? Or can we have both safety and wholeness, with attraction growing for someone who wouldn’t initially activate our deepest chemistry?
And what about questions that go even further in challenging deep cultural assumptions? For example, must our healing come within what Hendrix calls “dyadic relationships” or can we heal through a variety of short and/or long-term relationships with partners that each carry pieces of our Imago?
The Profound Implications of Resolving the Dilemma of the Repetition Compulsion in Intimate Relationships
I believe that these questions have profound implications not only on the level of individual relationships, but even on the family, social and global levels. As Richard Schwartz makes clear in his Internal Family Systems model, these various levels parallel each other. So healing in our individual relationships is bound to emerge into greater health on the family, social and global levels and vice-versa - a point Hendrix makes in his work. As we learn the skills to engage and work to resolution with our most challenging intimate partners, we will also improve our ability to do the same with parents, children, co-workers, neighbors and even those billions of other people - and creatures - around the world with whom we share this earth.
At the same time, widespread failure to engage with and resolve unfinished business in our personal relationships will surely play out in increasing conflict and destruction on those higher levels and vice-versa. For example, consider how the current American approach to nations whose policies we find disturbing mirrors the avoidance strategy that many advise to those with extremely challenging intimate partners. Rather than persistently engaging and negotiating with leaders that provoke our deepest fears and anxieties, we often instead avoid interaction as a form of punishment or illusory self-protection, allowing polarizations to increase and drive the proliferation of greater threats and dangers to all of us.
While we may have the luxury of simply disengaging from problematic relationships and repetitious destructive patterns in our individual relationships, increasing globalization and interconnectedness have all but eliminated this option on those higher social levels. If we do not learn to practice resolution of unfinished business, even with those who press our most challenging and repetitive buttons on the individual level, how will we carry out those skills among social groups or nations on this finite planet that we share? Nearly all of humanity’s most pressing challenges involve familiar patterns of destructive acts or staunch resistance on the part of fearful, wounded, borderline-ish and/or narcissistic people and leaders. The paradox of global sustainability, much like that of the highly wounded Imago partner, is that the quality of all of our lives depends on motivating change in those most unlikely to embrace it.
This is why, when someone advises me to simply dispose of a relationship in which my partner repeatedly accesses my lifetraps, I often feel it is a bit of a copout. For, if we all choose to live that way, what will be the implications? While we can label people as “problematic” and simply avoid them in our personal lives, they and many others similar to them, of whom they were simply one representative, will surely continue to affect our interdependent world in a more insidious and indirect fashion.
And yet despite understanding this, there remain times when relationships fraught with mutual lifetrap issues - such as Borderline patterns - begin to feel hopeless indeed and even I wonder if it isn’t necessary to put aside the Imago ideal and seek the safer interactions recommended by How to Break Your Addiction to a Person, Reinventing Your Life and others. Either way, one thing is certain: In every role I play, from friend to lover to activist to intellectual, life persistently reminds me of the central importance of an improved understanding of the dynamics of the repetition compulsion in healing intimate relationships. And that is a pattern that I definitely expect will continue to repeat.
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