The reliving strategies that were described in the previous post are some of the building blocks for recycling dramas. Together the brains of intimate partners nonconsciously create interactions in current life that take the form of dramatic dialogues that come out of childhood memories. These dialogues have a scripted quality that replicate the feelings from their childhoods that are waiting to be metabolized. All couples who seek treatment have been experiencing these recycling dramas for a long time. They know well the repetitive pain and frustration of these circular arguments that always end at the same place they began, with both partners feeling the same form of awful every time.
Recycling dramas are a failed attempt to metabolize old childhood feelings. Partners’ brains are trying to bring old unmetabolized feelings into the open, but they are stuck on blaming each other for the feelings they are experiencing in the present. They are literally recycling old feelings over and over again, not knowing that their brains are trying to help them start the metabolizing process with those childhood feelings.
All ongoing, repetitive conflicts between intimate partners are recycling dramas. They have a potentially productive purpose that is completely unrelated to the actual present content. Solving the current, real-life problem will lead to the need to create another recycling drama that may be around different content but will contain the same unmetabolized feelings. Disagreements about current problems that are relatively easily resolved are not recycling dramas. The qualities that determine the recycling drama are the intense and regressive level of emotional upset, the inability to find a solution to a problem, and the repetition of the same feelings.
The goal of therapeutic intervention with recycling dramas is to shift the focus to validating and understanding both partners’ feelings, instead of trying to solve the specific current problem. In order to accomplish this goal, it is obviously necessary to interrupt the unsafe mutual blaming that usually accompanies recycling dramas. Both partners must be helped to tolerate their own feeling states, learn to articulate what they are feeling, and develop the ability to be genuinely concerned about their partner’s feelings. The search for which of them is “right”, who should “get their way”, or which is the perfect solution to the present-day problem is useless.
Recycling dramas can be grouped into four basic types: 1) dramas of opposites; 2) competition dramas; 3) victims and villains dramas; and 4) shame/reunion dramas. There is some overlap between the types, and some dramas do not fall neatly into one of these categories. However, having this typology can help the therapist recognize that a recycling drama is occurring and see more clearly which feelings are attempting to be metabolized. All recycling dramas are an attempt by the brains of intimate partners to get old childhood feelings into the present so they can be metabolized.