Repetition Compulsion and me

A longtime friend, Mark Friedman, was the most dramatic example I ever met of someone with a repetition compulsion. Psychologists tell us that the compulsion to repeat the same painful pattern over and over is an attempt to resolve some injurious conflict that tormented us in our childhood.

In Mark’s case, as near as I could figure it, it had to do with feeling that his father never respected him, and that his mother could not love him enough to compensate for this. The primal wound he suffered is somewhat subjective and I don’t want to sound judgmental, but that he was compelled to repeat the same three act play throughout his tormented life is something I saw up close for many years.

The shape of the story was always the same, the three act tragedy identical each time.

Act one was great admiration, enthusiasm and pure enjoyment of a person who was finally able to provide everything he’d been looking for. This person was cool, smart, funny, ingenious, talented, charismatic and a great friend, the very best person he’d ever met.

During Act two cracks would predictably appear in this exaggeratedly perfect facade, which would become increasingly worrying to Mark.

Act three was the final, unforgivable betrayal of Mark, which happened every time as regularly as the sun rises and sets each day.

I don’t know of another case of repetition compulsion as dramatic as Mark’s. It was so clear to see, and so frustrating to me that as otherwise smart as he was he simply couldn’t see it. He’d get furious, in fact, if you pointed out any similarity in his crashed relationships. That, as much as anything else, was the cause of our final estrangement. Which, of course, fit the pattern, betrayal by his trusty longtime best friend was dictated by the three act structure.

While Mark’s self-destructive pattern was easy for me to see, the compulsion is much harder to recognize in oneself. Why was it that I was always attracted to smart, tormented, bitter, angry, darkly — sometimes sadistically — funny people throughout my life?

It was an attempt to work out with them what I could not work out with my own smart, tormented, bitter, angry, darkly — sometimes sadistically —  funny father. In the end each of these relationships ended in a bitter falling out that I tried, sometimes for years, to prevent.

The lesson that was so hard for me to learn was that these people I cared about so much were literally poison to me because they could never give me what I was looking for, what I tried so hard to give to them — the benefit of the doubt, empathy and friendship.

Without empathy or the benefit of the doubt we don’t really have friendship. If somebody is incapable of these crucial things, out of their own injuries, we often won’t notice it until conflict arises. They say conflict reveals character, and it’s true. Under pressure things you can’t see when everything is fine will squeeze you to death. While everyone is laughing together it’s easy to feel like great friends.

And it was this laughter, this often dark, cruel humor, that bonded my father and me in between our long sessions of brutal combat. These moments of shared laughter were a great release, a relief, as well as providing the giddy hope of finding any kind of understanding with my supremely difficult father.

So these sardonic characters who were my closest friends for many years shared this bond of black humor with me and made me feel I’d found indispensable friends and was not doomed to interminable, senseless mortal combat.

It has taken decades for me to finally learn this sadly simple lesson: just because somebody smiles wickedly and laughs at your sense of humor doesn’t mean that they are your soulmate. Funny as it may seem reading these dry, serious pages I post here, I am a very funny motherfucker and make many people smile wickedly and laugh. It has taken me half a century to untangle reactions to my sense of humor from the deadly limitations of some of my onetime closest friends. Droll, eh?

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