Codependency: A Case Of Repetition Compulsion?

Codependents often exhibit a certain behavior in adult relationships, often moving from one to the next in a “copy and paste” scenario. Given the symptoms of codependency generally, these relationships are often with emotionally distant or self-centered individuals with whom they spend their time trying to fix, care take and enable in a never-ending quest for validation and acceptance. Often when they break this mould and find someone giving and caring, they reject them as too “needy”. This for a codependent is too unfamiliar and far too much trouble. Needless to say, it doesn’t mirror what they have experienced since childhood and this is the key to their thinking and behavior.

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In our early relationships we establish what we can class as a template. These are patterns learnt from our caregivers (good and bad) that we tend to fit all our subsequent relationships into (especially the significant ones). As children, we have no idea whether the template or patterns we were given are the correct ones for us to function fully. They are often given to us by people with their own faulty templates. However, we believe our template because, firstly, we know no different and secondly, we believe our parents. For example, if we had a warm relationship with our father, we will look at authority figures (especially male) in a good light and we will tend to seek out that kind of relationship. Of course, the opposite is also true. If we were in competition with our siblings for scarce resources around our parents, we will often see our peers as competitors.

We do not have the cognitive abilities as a child to judge or change this and so we head off into adulthood armed with a certain way of looking at the world.

In terms of codependency, a specific template is formed. When a child is brought up by an emotionally distant or codependent parent, an alcoholic or sick parent or in cases of a child parenting the parent, a template of codependency is formed because the child puts it’s own needs aside to either garnish favour or validation from the parents. This is done for survival purposes. This template is then the framework for adult relationships.

To look at what happens next, we need to look at one of the basics of Freud and his theories. He describes a process called repetition compulsion where the template learnt in childhood is applied to the same type of relationship in adulthood. By this, he meant that we have a need to create for ourselves replays of difficult and troubling situations and relationships experienced in childhood. We all know people who involve themselves endlessly in situations that are guaranteed to have a bad ending. Codependency is a great example. It is a paradoxical part of our nature and seems to make little sense. One would think that by repeating unfavourable situations, we would be looking for a happy ending. However, if that happens, we often ( and codependents especially) see it as spoiled as it deviates from the original and is often rejected. We then prefer to revert back to seeking a ‘solution’ with the original template.

Freud believed that we were so enmeshed and fixated with the original situation that we unconsciously drive forward with the need to know what happened and why with different people. The original situation was defined by guilt, conflict and frustration and often rejection and feelings of not being good enough. This is why many codependents, especially find it difficult to match with kind, loving potential partners. They will often reject them and continue their search for a repeat of their template.

In therapy and especially when treating codependency, the analysis of the template and how it formed is an essential first step before assessing the possibility of repetition compulsion and repeated patterns of behavior. The ultimate aim would be to develop a new healthier template.

4 Thoughts

  1. I keep thinking of the things you mention about co-dependents. I have 2 older sisters and they were both co-dependents. Text book cases. Watching them in their relationships I was not particularly fussed whether or not there was a male in my life, preferrably not. When I did decide it would be nice to have someone to share things with, like travel, sailing, kayaking, hiking … I chose the type of men you describe.
    It’s confused me because my father was not a “distant” nor self-absorbed man, but he was very quiet. My parents had the usual division of labour and in times when money was not ample in most households and having 6 children they were always busy.
    The difference in their generation to recent times is that they were adults, liked being adults, took responsibility like adults and … looked forward to a time when they could spend more time together and travel together.
    There was never a lot of praise flying around our household, but nor was there meaningless criticism either.
    We were all raised to be self-sufficient and I can see myself when you describe not wanting to be in a relationship with someone who is very demonstrative. It made me feel too under-a-microscope and hog-tied.
    I was always raised to look inside when I needed something and …
    I look back and know which males I knew who expressed interest in me would have been good partners, but I really never wanted to be in such a mutually demanding relationship.
    I just wanted to work, study, exercise and travel. When I did marry, both times it was a ‘quiet’ man, who said he wanted to travel. hmmm Both times they ended up to be not-so-quiet and pretty much the type you describe as self-absorbed etc. Nor have they done much self-starter travel since.
    I thought I had “failed” at marriage, but realistically I was not going to be the type of female they want women to be. It’s a peaceful revelation. I was never going to change and I was definitely never going to waste my energy trying to change someone else.

    “Too soon old. Too late smart.” 🙂

  2. Thank you Dr Jenner.

    You do have this ability to put things in a nutshell.

    I can see this has played out for me over decades.

    Except part of me is codependent and the other part counter-dependent I guess.

    I have had a very bad template and you feel like you are constantly searching for something but cannot ever find it. I finally know that I am always trying to make right what went wrong in the very beginning. But you can’t fix that, because it’s already happened. You have to fix yourself by learning a new healthier template. Which is not easy and takes time.

    What is strange though is that I managed to find a loving individual with whom to marry and live with, it’s like somehow a piece of me (the survival part) knew that I needed that. However, love and intimacy are and still continue to be a big problem for me.

    However, I still have had the issue where for many years now I have felt the need to be connected to people who are distant, narcissistic and generally reject or hurt me in some way. And it does feel like a need. That feels naturally “right” for me.
    I have a natural strong compulsion to have that in my life. It doesn’t feel right unless I have that in my life.

    But I am slowly coming to realise that this is the bad/damaged template I was left with.

    There is still lots of work to do, because I still crave that bad template, but am learning more and more about myself, and learning that maybe it is ok to accept love, care and to trust???

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