Expert advice to stop repeating mistakes and get your needs met.
Cynthia (not her real name) sits across from me in therapy, crying over Marty, her most recent boyfriend. He broke up with her out of the blue, and we’re sorting through the pieces.
“He wasn’t affectionate, never gave me compliments,” she sobs. “But I really thought he loved me.”
Even though she and Marty had been having problems, Cynthia thought he might be "The One." It wasn’t the first time. She sighs heavily in frustration, “Why do I always end up with guys who don't stick around?”
It’s a good question, and there’s likely an answer in Cynthia’s past that she can address in the present to protect her future.
The Repetition Compulsion
We tend to seek out relationships that remind us of ones that disappointed us in the past, and try for a second chance at making it work. Freud called it the repetition compulsion, and in order for this to work, we need to find a situation or person similar enough to remind us, often subconsciously, of the first one. The hope is to get it right this time, to receive the love, respect or visibility we didn’t get before, and change the ending to a happy one. But unmet emotional needs keep us chained in old habits—and the hoped-for perfect do-over becomes a perfect replay of disappointment.
The Need for Safety
The needs we all have as children—food, shelter, clothing, safety, affection and belonging—don’t go away when we become adults. We still need all of those things, and we look for them in our relationships. But our ability to get those needs met depends on how well they were met in the first place.
Let’s say your need for physical safety was met early in your life; you never felt unsafe in your home. You now carry that sense of safety with you, and you feel essentially safe as you go about your day—that is, until something suddenly feels dangerous. There’s a contrast between the safety you normally feel and the lack of safety you experience when danger is present. Since you know what safety feels like, alarm bells go off when a situation starts to feel unsafe. Your continuing need for safety motivates you to remove yourself as quickly as you can from the situation. On the other hand, if your need for safety was never adequately met, you don’t know what it feels like to be truly safe. A dangerous situation may not cause alarm bells to ring because there’s not enough of a change (from feeling safe to feeling unsafe) to trigger that alarm. You might end up in harm’s way more often than someone who enjoys a sense of safety.
Unmet Emotional Needs
The same holds true for other needs, like emotional visibility, appreciation, and respect. If those needs have never been adequately met for you, you won’t have the radar to avoid people who will fail you in those areas. You won’t see the red flags at the beginning of a relationship. In fact, such relationships might even be attractive because they’re familiar enough to appeal to that repetition compulsion. You might unconsciously think, "Maybe this time, I can get some affection out of this non-affectionate person. I can have my happy ending."
Until unmet emotional needs become conscious, unsatisfying relationship patterns tend to continue.
Be Your Own Loving Partner First
The next time a relationship begins to cause you chronic emotional pain, focus on your own heart. Don’t think about your partner, and what he or she is doing wrong and what they need to do to give you what you need. Instead, put words to your feelings: “I’m feeling lonely/abandoned/worthless/unlovable.” Concentrate on the emotions inside you, not the other person. Allow yourself to cry if you feel like it. Speak kindly and softly to yourself while you do it. Say things like, “I’m so sorry for you,” or, “I’m here with you, it’s okay to let it out.”
If you feel angry, ask yourself what is underneath the anger, fueling it. It is probably a more vulnerable emotion such as sadness or fear. Let yourself experience that: There’s nothing wrong with feeling that way. The more attention you pay to your emotions, and the longer you sit with them, the more you’ll be able to resolve them and help yourself heal.
Along the way you’ll get plenty of practice with self-compassion, which will create a contrast when you don’t receive compassion from others. You’ll learn to avoid those who don’t treat you as well as you now treat yourself.
Unmet emotional needs don’t have to seal your fate. You can start to meet your own needs right this minute, and begin a new cycle of positive relationships.