Why would people do this to themselves? It’s certainly not intentional. In the beginning of a relationship, these characteristics may be barely perceptible and often the person seems very different from our parents, but our unconscious has a finely tuned radar inaccessible to our conscious mind. It’s not that we want to get hurt again—it’s that we want to master a situation in which we felt helpless as a child. Freud called this “repetition compulsion.” Maybe this time, a part of you imagines, I can go back and heal that wound from long ago by engaging with somebody familiar—but new. The only problem is, by choosing the familiar partner, we guarantee the opposite result: We reopen the wound and feel even more inadequate and unlovable.
The therapist Terry Real describes our well-worn behaviors as “our repertoire of relational themes.” I have a feeling that this repertoire has kept you stuck on your ex and prevented you from finding a better relationship. But that repertoire can change. In therapy, a person might act out her repertoire with the therapist, but if the therapist responds in way that’s unfamiliar—say, more understanding or accepting than the family the patient grew up with—this “corrective emotional experience” changes the patient: The world, she learns, turns out not to be like her family of origin. Similarly, if you can intentionally put yourself in the unfamiliar situation of going on dates with emotionally available men, eventually you’ll get the experience you’re seeking with a compassionate, reliable, and mature partner—and that will start to feel like home.
None of this happens overnight, nor can you simply will away your thoughts or feelings as they come up. But the more you work to anchor yourself in the present and start to get curious about your current relational repertoire—despite the losses of the past and the future—the less power those feelings will have over you. Maybe you’ll do this with a therapist; maybe you’ll find support elsewhere. Either way, it will require you to look inward at yourself rather than outward at your ex, and when you do, a gradual shift will take place. Eventually, one day you’ll be sitting at home with the family you haven’t met yet in the future you can’t quite picture now, and someone will bring up the year you turned 40, and you’ll remember this time not with despair, but with relief. Because you’ll marvel at how unfamiliar that old home feels and how welcoming your new one does.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.