Why Do People Repeat the Same Dysfunctional Patterns?
Jane is a 44 year-old woman who has been in three abusive relationships. The last one was particularly bad and it took a lot of courage and help to free herself. Not surprisingly, Jane grew up in a family where her father regularly abused her mother both physically and emotionally. He didn't physically abuse the children, but he was emotionally abusive to them at times. Jane had a mixed emotional relationship with him. She was his favorite and he spent extra time with her. On good occasions, he was loving and interested in her, but the relationship could take a big shift when he was angry. During those times he was overly critical and attacking. Over time, Jane's self esteem suffered and she learned to doubt her own perceptions of herself. As an adult, she sought out relationships with men that alternately placed her on a pedestal and tore her down. She was also the victim of physical abuse in each of these relationships.
When you look at Jane's story, the patterns are obvious. She repeatedly got into relationships that mirrored both her and her mother's relationships with her father. So the question is, and this is the question everyone always asks, why didn't she as an adult make better choices? Why didn't she learn? Why would she continually place herself in situations where she would be abused and hurt? Why indeed.
The answer is complex in that there can be a variety of factors, but the short version is "it's hard to leave home." Let me explain what that means. Back to Jane. What Jane learned early on is that love and abuse were two sides of the same coin. Her early experience was that the man who loved and adored her was also the man that could be harsh, abusive and attacking. The child is not able or capable of seeing these behaviors separate from themselves. They internalize this treatment as being deserved. It is something they bring on, not a problem the adult has. In Jane's case, love and abuse were married together early in life. It was her experience with her father, and the experience modeled by her parents. Jane didn't have the self-development or cognition as a child to make a distinction between her parents' problems and her sense of herself. Whatever Jane received emotionally from her parents at an early age were taken in as hers, meaning she brought those behaviors to her. So at an early age, the deal was sealed. Jane's emotional home was full of conflicting messages, and her capacity to accurately perceive situations was greatly compromised.
The Emotional Home
As an adult, Jane sought out the emotional home she was raised in, and the one that was instilled early and tied to her self image. Such patterns are not easy to throw off. Home is home, even if it isn't a good or healthy home. Sure, from the outside looking in we say "Why would anybody stay in a situation that causes them pain?" Because what holds us in situations is often tied to early powerful experiences that have installed what I would call experiential presets. Every time we hit the dial to move to another station, it automatically moves back to the one it was on. We actually have to go into the system and remove those presets in order to have free range of all the channels.
Adaptive As a Child, Maladaptive As an Adult
I learned this from a therapist I once saw myself and found it be one of the most helpful nuggets of reality I have ever learned. As children, our world is quite small. Originally it is comprised of our parents almost exclusively, and some of our most important development takes place with those early primary relationships. As we get older, our influences come from other family members, peers, teachers, coaches, media, and the culture at large. Even with all of those other influences, our home life and our parents still have the greatest power and the world within our homes is where we learn how to form relationships, deal with conflict, handle our emotions, and form our behavior patterns. Children, because they are at a disadvantage in terms of having power and being fully developed to make decisions, must rely on their parents. They learn how to navigate within the family system the best they can. In a healthy family, children learn how to successfully create good behavioral patterns. They learn how to handle negative emotions, solve conflicts, give and receive love, take care of themselves, develop self-discipline and a whole host of other important capacities. In dysfunctional families, and especially in abusive families, children learn how to survive. Survival may require developing behavior patterns that are not healthy in the long run, but serve to stay afloat while trying to dodge abusive and overly negative messages, experiences, and attacks on the self. The child who's mother has an explosive temper and propensity to grab the belt in a heartbeat and use it until her anger has subsided, will ultimately learn to lie about situations to avoid the abusive behavior. The lies begin as little white lies and build over time as consequences become harsher and the child gets older. The lies backfire sometimes, but often work to avoid the painful experiences of abuse at the hands of the mother.
This same child as an adult finds herself lying to her partner when she is afraid he will become angry or upset with something she has done. Even though the players have changed and she is now a full grown adult that can make her own decisions, she still reverts to the behavior learned as a child to handle a situation she perceives is the same. As a child, the lying was adaptive. It served to avoid being the victim of abuse, at least in the short term. As an adult, the lying is maladaptive. It serves to create unhealthy communication patterns in the relationship. It creates dishonesty and mistrust. But, by identifying the pattern and working with it, new patterns can be created that are healthier strategies for dealing with fear, negative emotions, and communication. This is where really seeing history is important. We can learn from it, but not if we don't recognize it first, and then deal with the emotional transition to new behaviors. It requires creating new adaptive strategies and in some cases . . . leaving home.
How Home is Experienced
Home is much more than the house we grew up in, or the city, state, country, or location. Home is a set of beliefs, values, patterns of behavior, methods of communication, ways of dealing with conflict and negative situations, beliefs about ourselves, relationship patterns, habits, habits, habits . . . Home is all that we've learned and incorporated into our personalities, our sense of ourselves, and our sense of others. We do all have characteristics we bring to the table at birth which are our tendencies, temperament, physical characteristics, predispositions and so forth, but these all interact with the home environment and it is in this environment that our personalities are formed. We develop throughout our lives as I have mentioned before, but that development occurs on top of and in continuation from our early development, which is primary. We can make significant changes, however, and that is what this blog is about. I believe that to make real change, it is first necessary to see where we are and a big part of that is understanding "home." People don't leave home easily, even a highly dysfunctional, abusive home. It is familiar and it was created at a time when we were highly malleable and receptive; a time when we were in our greatest period of growth and personality formation. To ignore that can be dangerous, because what we don't see ultimately can wield a lot of power. What we see, we can change, discard, or edit.
Something to Get You Started
The exercise for this section is to make a list of habits, patterns of behavior, beliefs about yourself, relationship strategies, or anything else that comes to mind, that you believe was adaptive growing up and is now causing you problems in your life. By looking at these you can change them. Also important is to understand that people don't just have maladaptive patterns because they are inept, lazy, ignorant, or bad; they have them in most cases because they learned them early on and at the time found them to help deal with the reality of their "home." Gangs are the extreme example of this. A young boy who gets involved with a gang because it gives him a sense of belonging, self-worth, structure, and safety, is adapting to his life situation. The adaptation is ultimately highly damaging and sometimes life threatening, but it was chosen to solve a problem at the current time. What I'm trying to get across is that to change maladaptive problems, you must first understand and forgive yourself for having them in the first place. See them in the context of which they were formed. Empathize with your desire to adapt to situations in your past with behaviors that aren't ultimately good for you, but seemed necessary at the time. When you have that point of view, it's much easier to move forward and make changes.