A Psychoanalytic Examination of Repetition Compulsion

In my last blog post, I made mention of a concept with which some might not be familiar: repetition compulsion. This isn’t a new phenomenon at all and was first observed by Sigmund Freud over a century ago. What it is can be understood easily, but how it works is another story altogether. So, I’m going to make a quick psychoanalytic hodge-podge and try to get to the core of the phenomenon using an example to which everyone should be able to relate.

Years ago, I had a friend whom we’ll call Bernadette. Bernadette had a knack for dating guys who seemed wonderful at first and then became more and more controlling over time. Her relationships ended horribly, often with her latest Mr. Right-turned-Wrong being forcibly ejected from their shared apartment in the middle of the night. She would then follow up this problem with the blanket statement, “All men are shit!” She couldn’t understand how her other friends kept their relationships intact and would even try to sabotage the happiness of others by pointing out flaws in the men her gal-pals preferred. She lost friends and eventually moved away. The last I heard, the pattern was still happening, and her love life was a continuous roller coaster of ecstatic highs and crippling lows.

Bernadette’s problem wasn’t that “All men are shit.” Her problem was that she was unconsciously attracted to men that would always repeat the pattern. All the guys she liked would inevitably repeat the cycle with her and she was oblivious to her own choice-making algorithms in selecting boyfriends. Of course, that’s not really her fault, as such algorithms are largely unconscious. She never asked herself, “Why do I pick men that turn out bad?” All she could do was argue that all men everywhere were Jekyll-and-Hyde monsters waiting to transform when women were at their emotionally most vulnerable state.

All repetition compulsion is like this. When a person suffers from repetition compulsion, they repeat actions that lead them into trouble from addiction to abuse to unwise spending and so on. Mainly, this phenomenon involves other people in some capacity—potential paramours, drug dealers, salesmen, etc.—who have different views about their relationship with the compulsive repeater (that’s the term I’ll use to describe someone with repetition compulsion). Even when someone like a salesperson doesn’t have malicious intentions, they end up abusing the compulsive repeater because the compulsive repeater can’t enter the relationship in a healthy way. 

The potential abuser doesn’t know it, but they lure the compulsive repeater into a bad relationship when they speak. The potential abuser makes some statement that is familiar to the compulsive repeater that betrays their abusive potential and this appeals to the compulsive repeater (screw it, I’m calling potential abusers the PA and the compulsive repeater CR from here out).

A PA makes some statement that appeals to the CR by saying something like, “I’m the kind of guy who knows what he wants in a woman.” This sort of statement is known as a personal construct, and all personal constructs are bipolar meaning there’s another angle to this statement. Moreover, the PA often has no idea that their firm assertion is bipolar. What I mean by this is that the statement evokes an unrealized, unconscious truth about the PA—a submerged quality that ultimately leads to the abusive relationship.

Consider that statement again: I’m the kind of guy who knows what he wants in a woman. To the CR, this sounds like she’s his ideal match and this makes her feel wonderful—he’s self-assured and wants her. How wonderful, right? But the hidden pole of the construct isn’t known to either the PA or the CR. So, what is that hidden pole?

The submerged end of this personal construct may be any number of things:

I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t know what’s expected of me.


I’m the kind of guy who expects a woman to know what she wants in a man.


I’m not the kind of guy who doesn’t recognize undesirable traits in women.

And the list could go on for miles. What’s important to recognize is that the visible pole of the construct reveals some hint about the nature of the submerged pole. What’s worse, the submerged pole will surface at some point and present the couple with a nasty surprise. The submerged pole is anchored with unconscious baggage and all of that comes up at some point even if neither party is willing to see it for what it is. Worse still, the PA is attracted to the CR for the same reasons the CR is attracted to the PA: the CR has revealed some personal construct that lures in the PA. Further, there’s not just a single construct involved here but multiple constructs that create a network of problems as the relationship moves forward.

Bernadette’s biggest problem was that she chose men who all shared the same submerged constructs. She couldn’t see what these were because these men couldn’t see them, but they expressed them when they revealed the visible angles of these constructs. She was lured to them and they to her and it always ended the same way.

Worse yet, we all have these problems. Consider the person who can’t quit smoking. They try to stop, slip up and smoke a cigarette, and then go right back to smoking on a regular basis. For such an individual, having one cigarette after days, weeks, or even months of abstinence constitutes failure. They express the personal construct “I’ve quit smoking” and don’t recognize that this is a very rigid statement. In this case, the submerged pole suggests that quitting must be a permanent state and that smoking is a permanent state; once someone has a casual cigarette, the state of permanence is questioned, and they go right back to smoking again. (One way to avoid this is to avoid making such rigid statements and simply say, “I’ve really cut back on the amount I smoke.”)

So, repetition compulsion is tied to the rigidity and bipolar nature of personal constructs. Psychotherapy pulls up the submerged pole for examination. When a submerged pole comes into consciousness, this is usually termed a breakthrough.

Shriek into the Void...

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