The experience we have with our caregivers and our early life experiences become the lens through which we view our self-worth and our capacity to be empathic, caring, and genuine. As children, our parents are the “all powerful” center of our universe. If they think badly of us, then it must be true and we come to feel that way about ourselves. A child has no perspective from which to cast doubt on this assessment. We then “internalize” their negative opinion and incorporate it into our view of ourselves. If we were regularly criticized or demeaned we can easily develop a damaged sense of self-worth.
When we enter into relationships as adults, both partners bring along all their unresolved conflicts, fears, hurts and expectations. There is a strong tendency to recreate relationships from childhood with our adult partners. At times, these can be neglectful, hurtful and even abusive. These old dysfunctional patterns become indistinguishable from current emotional triggers from the present. A stacking of emotions can occur whereby an event in a current relationship triggers the unleashing of old feelings and reactions, creating a confusion of powerful old hurts and new ones.
If our emotions in a situation are disproportionate to the provocation, we are probably bringing up an old hurt.
The tendency to unconsciously attract relationships that reenact past conflicts and beliefs is called repetition compulsion.
We have an intrinsic drive to repeat familiar patterns, no matter how painful or self-defeating, which is very powerful. For example, adult children of alcoholics frequently marry alcoholics, and an abused child with a high tolerance for maltreatment may grow up and attract high levels of stress and conflict in his/her marriage.
Partners commonly have differences in their attachment styles and internal working models (belief systems). These working models, based on past relationships, guide their current perceptions and construction of reality.