Patterns of Abuse & The Repetition of Trauma

Photo by ian dooley on Unsplash

If you fly above the human landscape, from that altitude one can see pattern after pattern. Our relationships run on patterns, our families run on patterns, we run on patterns. The world runs in such a manner that it displays these unflinching rhythms of almost disturbing continuity. I’m being abstract, sure.

Let’s bring it back down to earth: It’s a known fact that those affected by abuse often tend to carry the residue of this experience into their later life and in many cases, as sad and depressing as it is, tend to become ensnared in doling out abuse themselves. In theory, if you had memories of being abused as a child, say, simple rationality would suggest that you would feel inclined to distance yourself from anything involving a shred of familiarity with this trauma.

Because we know that the abused have a distinct likelihood of becoming abusers themselves, we know that such basic reasoning doesn’t hold up. Furthermore, consider another troubling mystery of the so-called human landscape: that of a person who seeks out an abusive relationship when their mother might have done the same — a clearly destructive endeavor that clearly carries with it the taste of harm and danger to oneself.

Why do harmful things in the world occur? Surely the answer can’t completely be chalked up to “bad” people. Surely there are some plainly malevolent people out there but this isn’t the full explanation. And in another sense, we all contain a speck of evil, but even this is too broad and insufficient an explanation for why patterns of abuse, in this case, persist.

It is worrisome, however, that if caught in such patterns of abuse that the victim does not appear to reach a breakthrough point wherein they stand up straight, clear their eyes, and sober up enough to realize the implications of what is happening, and resolve to not follow in the footprints of abuse. Such clear-eyed, resolutely sober “breakthroughs” don’t materialize nearly as often as we think. It is more common for people to unconsciously play to the rhythm of their original trauma, as messed-up as it sounds. The compulsion to repeat trauma is a powerful unconscious force braided into the substratum of many people’s lives, and thus, our social fabric. Just pick your head up and look for it; it’s all around you.

Now, this “unconscious force” is infrequently mentioned because it’s not a concept that can be reliably confirmed or repudiated by the scientific community. It’s a theory whose originations can be traced back the father of psychology himself — Sigmund Freud. A ‘repetition compulsion’, Freud proposed, was the tendency for someone to reenact a traumatic event and its circumstances repeatedly. He also described it as the following: “the desire to return to an earlier state of things”.

According to Freud, self-destructive behavior wasn’t merely the result of some present conflict or stimuli but was the outgrowth of a far more primitive source, from what may have been negative and damaging (but nonetheless impactful) experiences in our early years. Trauma is a unique phenomenon which almost appears to cut off a portion of someone’s personality development.

Once trauma is experienced, it leaves something stunted. The victim usually wishes to forget it or is otherwise at a loss as to how to process it. They resemble a tree with a pruned limb, in a sense. In that area, they are kept primitive and will most likely have a challenging time overcoming this truncated growth.

As well, there’s the power of familiarity to contend with: People return to what is familiar — even if it is negative and damaging to the self. If an individual has not faced the difficult task of confronting the trauma head-on, assiduously dissecting it with a therapist so that they might bring light and understanding to it and potentially drain it of its power to continue powering that unconscious rhythm, then a pattern of abuse might very well entrench itself.

It is, of course, not rational for people to turn towards self-destructive behavior, but despite our cultural proclivity to think in terms of rationality and logic, it is the humbling reality that our psychologies do not operate in this manner. When it comes to the shadowy realm of feelings, thoughts, experiences, memories, etc. we are not these entirely conscious, entirely pragmatic decision-makers with a clean, blank slate of personal history and no elusive emotional energies powering us.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as blindly subservient to unconscious behavioral impulses that we don’t fully understand and in many cases, aren’t aware of. We don’t like the idea that we perpetuate patterns instead of being the forthright, direct, and involved shapers of our own immediate realities. But the truth is that we are all affected by unconscious processes. For those with experiences of trauma, neglect, and abuse the fragmented memories tend to eerily dominate their inner, mental experience even if they are not aware of it and it manifests as an incredibly hazy preoccupation.

We are so susceptible to patterns, it seems, that we are unconsciously motivated to continue them. They can hold us hostage. Early-life experiences are the foundation on which we build our lives and as such, can be hard to tear up. And because they happen at such a formative interval, we never truly get around to fully comprehending them — they stay trapped in a childlike realm, so to speak. Surely the theory of repetition of trauma can account for some of the confusing, seemingly oblivious nature of such self-destructive patterns as a man succumbing into alcoholism much like his father did, or a teenage girl becoming pregnant because her mother had her young herself. Neither of these two examples are ideal scenarios and our culture does not uphold either of them. Yet each of these patterns are alarmingly prevalent.

And one would think that the — and I’ll use the word “victimized” — generation, would balk at repeating the same mistakes that their predecessors did — that they would consciously work to distance themselves from tracing those same fateful footprints. Luckily, some of them do break the cycle, and do transcend the mistakes of their forebears. But, crucially, they only do this by waking up to the repetitive, unconscious forces at play and making a conscious decision to guard themselves against a similar predicament. Such a decision manifests in the person separating their identity from the previous provider of abuse, neglect, and trauma and this is something like a careful, meticulous process of unplaiting assimilation and association.

One of the dangers of leaving a pattern of repeated trauma un-dealt with is that a cycle entrenches itself across generations. Studies have shown that in the case of abuse, men tend to engage in identification with the original aggressor and demonstrate aggressive behavior when they grow up while females often show a disturbing tendency to latch onto an aggressive, abusive man in a relationship.

It is suggested that primitive feelings of fear and helplessness can be strangely overridden by this so-called “identification with the aggressor”, a phenomenon that can occur in both the male and female example. It is as if the coping strategy is to get as close to the threat as one can (either by becoming it or by searching for it in partner form) out of some instinctual compulsion at odds with rational behaviors of self-preservation.

Another theory posits that children who have experienced abuse are dangerously prone to assuming responsibility for it. The idea behind this is that it is difficult and destabilizing for children to believe that their caregivers are bad or untrustworthy and so in order to keep a vision of their parents as good and trustworthy, despite their actual actions and behavior, the child may take up the notion that they are to blame for experiences of abuse or neglect. Though obviously incorrect, this is a way for the children of abuse to transcend feelings of helplessness and to acquire some semblance of control by positioning themselves as the locus of responsibility.

Importantly, underlying anger derived from a traumatic early-life experience is all too prevalent and crops up in our society time and time again. Acts of aggression and repeated cycles of abuse have much to do with the perpetrator storing righteous rage at being cheated out of a loving, secure childhood which every human desperately needs and hungers for. This is not only stored anger against oneself (in cases of incorrectly internalizing feelings of responsibility for abuse) but also anger against the world, given that a traumatic experience must fundamentally restructure a person’s conception of the world that they live in.

The world then, is discovered to be not orderly and just, but rather, disorderly and unjust. At some base level, the pain inflicted by repeated patterns of abuse is simply a very archaic pain from one’s traumatic earlier experiences as a child wherein their world became chaotic and cruel and deprived of the relational nutrients necessary for a healthy upbringing. In some ways, I think people repeat trauma as a way of exacting vengeance on the world — a world that they perceived had failed them and that had been messy and harsh from their very beginnings. In this way, a compulsion to inflict pain makes awful sense.

Above all, people don’t disengage from things that they have not resolved and have not shed bright light on. If there is any way to stop the repetition of trauma associated with abuse, it is probably in the form of patient discussion with a mental health professional. People who have borne the brunt of abuse need to comb through their anger at the world (and there is usually much of this present in such cases) and to be able to organize their existence.

When people demonstrate a confusing penchant for perpetuating destructive behaviors, it is often not only that they are breeding a fair amount of anger, but that they are also demonstrating disorganization of their inner life — a dangerous sort of confusion which warps one’s sense of the world and themselves.

If we are to have any hope of disrupting ancient bad patterns, we must first bravely recognize the reality of the repetition of trauma phenomenon and endeavor to fight the slow crawl of it across our societies in the incremental ways that we can.




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Lauren Reiff

Lauren Reiff

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between. / I moved! Find me here: