Why Do We Get Into Dysfunctional Relationships That Mirror Our Childhood?

A child growing up in a dysfunctional home does not have many options. In order to survive such an environment, they must adapt.

Some children adapt by minimizing or denying just how bad things really are as a way to survive. A child doesn’t understand that their adult caregivers are dysfunctional, a child just feels bad a lot. A child does not have the maturity to say to themselves ‘Geez, these parents are nuts and I’m out of here!’.

Instead, the child almost always blames themselves for the bad feelings they are experiencing. They feel bad so therefore they are bad or put another way I feel bad therefore I am bad. It’s far easier to negotiate the idea that I am bad then my parents are bad. After all, if my parents are bad then I am in big trouble. Who will take care of me? (Hart., et.al 2011). This idea that their parents might not be able to take care of them is so frightening that the child needs to adapt not only by minimizing but also by idealizing (Knipe, 2015).

Children idealize their dysfunctional caregivers in various ways. They do this by creating a fantasy of who their caregivers are. They literally tell themselves lies. They make up stories in their mind about how wonderful their caretakers are. They exaggerate their caretaker’s strengths to minimize the deficits or abuse as a way to survive the dysfunctional system. They tell stories to themselves about how wonderful their father, mother or caregivers are so that they can be sure to omit the abuse, adapt and carry on.

As children start to mature, this is their way of adapting; their defence gets stronger and rigid. This way of adapting to the dysfunctional family system becomes a way of surviving – a way of reacting to not only their parent’s dysfunctional behaviour but also their personal relationships. Is it any wonder then that children who grow up with dysfunctional parents end up with dysfunctional intimate partners? These two defences are powerful and the primary motivations for the phenomena that Freud referred to as the compulsion to repeat the trauma.

How do we heal from this? How do we step out of this feedback loop? First of all, recognize that you made it. You survived! You are a survivor and that deserves a pat on the back. Second, know that you can begin to work with  these defences with a good therapist. You absolutely can let go of the way you adapted as a child and make different choices as an adult. You can get help. You can be free of dysfunctional relationships. It’s not easy and it will require a lot of hard work and if you can hang in there, the growth is worth it.

Knipe, J. 2015. EMDR Tool Box: Theory and treatment of complex PTSD and dissociation. New York Springer Publishing.

Boon, S., Steele, K., Hart, O. 2011. Coping with trauma related dissociation: Skills training for patients and therapists. Norton and Company