As students, those of us who were pursuing a career as psychodynamic psychotherapists learned about the repetition compulsion. The Oxford Reference (www.oxfordreference.com) defines this phenomenon as “a tendency to place oneself in dangerous or distressing situations that repeat similar experiences from the past.” Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary describes a compulsion as “an irresistible impulse to perform an irrational act.”
Both of these definitions capture the felt sense that many of us therapists had through our training that repetition compulsion is essentially a negative process, although an inescapable part of human psychology that can be put to good use in a therapeutic relationship. Couples therapists are quite familiar with the repetitions of the past that seem to endlessly and destructively occur in couple conflicts, in spite of our best efforts to convince them to stop their repeating.
Neurodynamic Couples Therapy reframes repetition compulsion into a necessary and helpful part of couple relationships that can be utilized to create profound healing and change. We believe that the intersubjective system of the partners nonconsciously and mutually constructs conflicts that include the dangerous, distressing, and irrational behaviors they must repeat together to open perfect windows into unmetabolized historical feelings in both partners. We find that pathologizing either partner’s contributions to repetitions is a sure path to missing the clues they are trying to give us to what it has been like to live their lives.
Simply describing to couples how their most distressing conflicts are actually an attempt to help each other can be comforting. Most couples will have described each other’s repetitive behaviors as wrong, leading to characterizations of each other as “sick”, “bad”, “broken”, etc. Reframing their behaviors as the only option available to free their most painful and traumatic experiences from the confines of the unconscious is at the very least intriguing enough to interrupt unsafe repetitions.
Using the information we have gathered about our clients’ childhood pasts, couples therapists conduct the work with endless curiosity about the nature of the repetitions, rather than resorting to conceptualizations about partners’ character structure. There is compelling and mounting evidence that many of the long-held beliefs about character pathology that exist within our profession are a lack of thorough empathic understanding about the historical traumas that make partners’ repetitions completely logical.
Neurodynamic Couples Therapy views the rawness and hurtfulness of the repetitions with which couples enter our offices as a plea to use the gift their system has served up to help them complete the process of healing. Instead of attempting to stop the repetitions, we focus on injecting enough safety into the work that the language of the repetitions (as addressed in the previous blog post) can continue to provide an avenue for both partners to experience and describe feelings that are waiting to be known, understood, empathized with, and integrated.
Fully understanding the purpose of repetition compulsions in couple relationships makes it impossible to see one partner as the “identified patient”.
Next post: Avoiding the identified patient trap