Repetition and expectations in relationships

Sometimes we might find our current relationship to be oddly similar to a previous one. The people we are dating are different, but some dynamics keep coming up.

Why is it so common to repeat patterns in our relationships?

Attachment theory gives some important answers to this question. 

Since our birth, we start engaging in interactions with the most important figures of our childhood: our parents/caregivers.

Whoever is closest to us in those years teaches us something important (although not permanent) about two things: what to expect from others, and how lovable we are, in relation to what others express towards us.

These years have a strong weight on our later patterns because it’s where we are the most vulnerable we will ever be: we need protection, we need to acquire all our skills, and also need to learn how to feel autonomous and connected.

So the way our caregiver behaves determines our future expectations, and if they don’t become conscious, also a repetition of the same dynamics within our relationships with others.

If whoever takes care of us is available and supportive, we will learn that the world is generally a place worth exploring, populated by well-intentioned people, and that we are valued.

If this safety and availability is not there, or is unreliable, we will have doubts about others’ intentions, our own safety and value.

The unreliability often leads to a mix of anxiety and anger: vigilant and energetic requests for closeness are sometimes rewarded and therefore assumed as the right way of interaction. “Pay attention to me” seems to scream the child who is unreliably offered closeness and support. As a consequence, there is an exaggerated appraisal of danger, a constant over-activation, a disproportionate demand for attention.

The straightforward unavailability, on the other hand, leads more often to a down-regulation of the system: nothing is really worth seeking support, because frustration is expected as a result and that needs to be avoided. The goal of closeness is never attained, and this fosters a compulsive self-reliance: “I will suppress my needs because no one cares”. These needs are dismissed, and closeness is avoided.

Is this an equation? Of course not. As usual, theories are not there to be used as manuals.

This is an important one that tells us mostly two things: we learn to expect from others what we have experienced in the past (it is simply more functional for our brain to do so) and from this we derive our own sense of worthiness.

Can we do something to stop the cycle? Always. Awareness is there exactly for this reason: use understanding to stop repetition.

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