Making the same relationship mistakes?

Find yourself repeating the same old relationship pattern with a new look, new location, new partner? Yet, unmistakably you're mired in the same dynamics.

Here's one explanation...

Consider that you may be engaging in reenactments.

A reenactment is an extremely clever device that emerges from your unconscious for the purpose of positively working through an earlier experience.

Let's consider, for example, that you have never felt "heard" in your family of origin...

A string of failed relationships leaves you feeling the exact same way. No matter how positive the relationship starts, it eventually plays out the same familial pattern you're familiar with. Despite your ability to observe these patterns, you inevitably feel powerless to avoid reenacting the same scenario.

Finally, after doing enough of your own personal work, you begin to develop a sense for how the pattern starts and how you get drawn into it. You create a space for choice in the matter. Soon, you feel only an echo of the pull. You're finally free.

Eventually, you attract someone who understands you, who really "gets" you. It's like coming home to a home you never knew existed.

How awesome is that!

The other story about reenactments

To the outside observer, reenactments can be really confusing. Folks just don't get how some people can go from one miserable situation to another.

Let's take a classic example. For instance, let's say, I've had a series of relationships that have all ended badly. My partners have eventually all become physically abusive.

Thing is, initially, it sure didn't look like this was coming down the pike. In fact, each new partner felt distinctively different and I was so hopeful that this time around he was a keeper.

Yet, "the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree". In other words, each new partner ended up having the same MO as the last and the patterns of abuse continued.

Reenactments helps us heal...who would have thought!

Patterns of reenactment are deeply rooted in the nervous system. They arise from a traumatic event or from experiences during our early years with our primary parent (or caregiver). Like other relational patterns, they get laid down implicitly.

Reenactments that arise from our early years typically go unnoticed as they are less conscious but no less powerful. Generally, we keep cycling through them until we become more conscious of how they worm their way through our lives. For the most part, it's just feels like, "this is me and this is how I live my life".

Yet, reenactments are actually the body's way of healing--even if it doesn't feel like this at the time.

You see, we recreate scenarios from past painful moments in ways that replicate aspects of the original event. That is, we unconsciously orchestrate our interactions with others to enable us to replay wounding we've experienced previously in order to create a different outcome, one that is positive.

Reenactments are everyday events

We actually relive these moments frequently.

Imagine this scenario.

Marnie, a child of four, looks up excitedly at her mother exclaiming the wonderment of a new discovery.

"Mom, look what I can do." Marnie starts twirling in her pretty dress across the living room floor. In her mind, she's a dancer and she's free.

In response, her mother recalls a similar experience she had as a young girl. She bitterly remembers her own mother telling her to stop making a rukus. She now feels anxious at her daughter's liveliness and exuberance. She moves to temper her daughter's excitement.

"Now Marnie, settle down."

This message was repeated in many words, in many ways, over many occasions and over many years.

Jump twenty years into the future. That same child is now a grown woman. One sunny morning as Marnie looks at the beauty of the scene from her back deck, tears form in her eyes. She is in awe. "Isn't it beautiful" she exclaims to her husband. In response, he remarks, "Now Marnie, we've got no time for this right now. We've got things to do."

Marnie collapses internally and in despair thinks to herself, "I don’t know why I said that, I don’t' know why I thought it could be any different."

Marnie was hoping to have a shared moment with her husband, a moment during which she felt "seen".

Reenactments and Psychotherapy

With the right conditions your therapist can provide a corrective emotional experience that helps you to move through the constraints of reenactments.

Consider for example, if Marnie was recalling this event in her therapy session and her therapist suggested she imagine the beauty of that scene once again. Then her therapist encouraged Marnie to continue the imaginal scene as she exclaimed, "Wow, Marnie, that's amazingly beautiful!"

Marnie basks in the surrender of a warm moment with her therapist. She settles internally.

What has just happened?

Well, Marnie'e therapist has brought the evocative scene into the present providing Marnie with an opportunity to experience the longing of a shared emotional connection with a significant other. Indeed, it is a moment where Marnie finally feels "met" by another.

A new way of looking at reenactments

Reenactments are an attempt to free oneself from the blocked energy of an historical experience. We feel drawn or compelled to recreate dynamics in our interactions with others (including other events) in ways that trigger the emotional pain of earlier experiences. Owing to the interconnectivity of the brain, the present day reenactment naturally triggers the neuropathways related to that past event. In this way, the new heals the old.

The term reenactment is synonymous with trauma. A popular example is the sexually abused girl who grows up to become a prostitute. She is theorized to be engaging in a reenactment.

If a pattern is laid down during a traumatic event(s), the successful resolution of trauma enables us to discharge the 'fight or flight' energy that otherwise is immobilized in the nervous system.

More typically, we are unaware of the act of reenactment and confound ourselves by our own behaviour. Sometimes we rationalize around it; other times, as mentioned above, we completely block it from awareness.

Bringing consciousness to our behaviour aids in the process of preventing the reenactment but even consciousness may not be enough. A full resolution of the fight/flight energy may be required.

Reenactments arise from the body's innate wisdom

According to Chinese medicine, emotional pain held in the body requires energy to contain it. Too much pain essentially means too many body resources are being devoted to containment, robbing the body's defenses of its capacity to mobilize against threat and to repair damaged cells, organs, glands etc.

So it is natural that the body/mind would devise ways to increase the chances of getting rid of this unwanted energy. (And you thought that the left "logical" brain was the only one controlling the show…)

You can't fix it, if you don't know it's broke!

Reenactments have puzzled folks from the beginning of time, not only the individuals who engage in them, but the present day analysts who try to figure out the underlying dynamics. When you understand this concept you'll gain a greater appreciation for the length to which our unconscious selves undertake to heal.

Maybe Diana Atkinson says it best:

[""Reenactment,"] ...therapists call this business of waking up periodically along the course of one’s life, to find oneself smack in the middle of a drama which, though removed in time and possibly distance from some early traumatic situation, nonetheless manages to recast its characters and reproduce its basic elements with uncanny clarity."

Shambhala Sun January 2006

Readers Comments

Therapy Guru Avatar


With dissociation I go into a dream state...

For many years, I didn't know what I was reenacting in my romantic relationships. It seemed to be "being rejected" but that didn't give me any experience of release.

Just today, reading this column, I realized that I was reenacting "being abandoned". This evoked a bodily response (feeling of sadness, fear) which made me release that this was it and I feel a sense of release. This reminds me never to give up and keep working on myself. Thanks for a great site.

Gina (Tel Aviv, Israel)

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink


Thanks Gina. That's wonderful to hear of your shift. It's funny eh, how one minute we can be feeling one way, and the next, the feelings have shifted. These moments inspire me too to keep working on myself.

I bet those romantic relationships were a kind of training ground. It's very possible those experiences were exactly what you needed in order to get you to the place you are today.

And in this way, I suspect we're all trying to grow in our own way. It's just some folks are more focused and awake about it.

Thanks for dropping by,


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