A popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. In psychiatric jargon, it’s usually called repetition compulsion, or “the ol’ R.C.s.”
When you pick up that phone around midnight after spending the day trying not to think about the girl or guy you were glad to leave behind (except maybe the sex part) you might be surprised to know that Freud has something to say about those late night texts or calls you keep making to that “ex.”
That lonely stuff often sneaks up at night. After some back-and-forth with yourself, you break down and pick up the phone and hit up that recently dismissed obsession (although, for some reason, at that moment you can’t quite focus your attention on the reason for dismissal). Or, if that person isn’t around, you opt for a reasonable substitute — someone you hooked up with last Christmas, or whose number you got at a bar or even somebody you met and exchanged quick but steamy glances with at a party a few weeks ago.
First you try texting. (What a godsend texting is! Less embarrassing, somehow; more non-committal; makes it easier to hide your vulnerability.) Five minutes go by — no response. Ten minutes. By fifteen, you’re really invested in not being alone. Finally you cry “uncle!” and make the damn phone call. But not wanting to seem vulnerable (and maybe just a little bit of shame) makes you hope both that he will and that he won’t pick up the phone.
Obviously, treating “loneliness” this way isn’t necessarily so much about the “who” as it is about the “why.”
The booty-call play bypasses the part of our brain where sadness and confusion are staring back at us. So diverting attention from the pain this way circumvents our need to mourn and heal from loss. It also diverts our attention from the consequences of such avoidance. Apropos the definition of insanity given above, if we keep diverting our attention from doing this admittedly unpleasant work and keep settling for Mr or Ms Right-Now, those late-night text-messages (right-swipes or their equivalent) will probably become a habit that may not be broken for months — or even years.
How does irrelationship fit into Hooking Up?
An irrelationship is a two-person psychological defense system that defends us from anxiety. It protects us from awareness of the fears and apprehension that come with taking emotional risks. However, irrelationship does not protect us from the consequences of hiding our hearts and hiding from our hearts. Repeating the same type of dysfunctional “relationships” over and over again (even if you’re still living together) is a chronic type of irrelationship.
Another downside is that, like late night hooking up, irrelationships leave you with a hangover — a vague, something-just-isn’t-right-about-this feeling the next morning, or even before. The difference is that in irrelationships, you’re pretty much aware of that “something-isn’t-right” feeling pretty much all the time. And since you’re blocking awareness of certain kinds of feelings, i.e., pain, loss, fear of being alone or abandoned; you’re also blocking the kind of vital, emotional experiences necessary for breaking this cycle.
One of Sigmund Freud’s fundamental concepts is the repetition compulsion (or,”RC”). Freud observed that a lot of people appeared to be driven by a compulsion to repeat self-destructive behavior patterns. While some of the people Freud observed were frankly aware and able to talk about their compulsions, others were unaware, or pretended to be unaware, of them. What fascinated Freud was that awareness of an RC didn’t seem to make much difference in a person’s ability to control or change it.
Those of us who have experienced the booty-call habit are probably aware of how hard it is to keep from picking up that phone, even though we know we aren’t gong to feel too good about it “afterwards”! Remembering those feelings just isn’t enough to throw cold water on our desire not to be alone.
Freud’s (1914) seminal paper, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through” introduced the concepts of repetition compulsion and of working through such a compulsion. A particularly well-known passage provides a definition of acting out:
“The patient does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out. He reproduces it not as a memory but as an action; he repeats it, without, of course, knowing that he is repeating it…he cannot escape from the compulsion to repeat; and in the end we understand that this is his way of remembering (p. 471).”
In a similar vein, Rycoft (1995) sees repetition/acting out as “a substitute for remembering past events” while French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan (1988) describes acting out as “a demand for recognition.”
However we frame it, acting out is generally seen as behavior that allows us to bypass awareness of an intolerable emotion. One may even argue that a primary task of our unconscious mind is to protect us from uncomfortable emotions — fear, pain, sadness and the like.
Irrelationship serves the same function. Like a repetition compulsion, it completes a process that we feel we must achieve by acting out a carefully constructed song-and-dance routine. In this case, the song and dance routine of irrelationship corresponds to the acted-out behaviors making up a booty-call.
If acting out is remembering, and a booty call is a search for recognition, then the obsessive-compulsive underpinning of a dysfunctional relationship is a repetition of a crucial emotional conflict.
When we irrelate to others through our song-and-dance routines, we distance ourselves from perceiving the depth of separation represented by our acting out behaviors. The “relief” of a late night tryst is also an increasingly poor “stand-in” for experiencing sadness and mourning of past loss or losses. As long as we put off facing those feelings, we postpone being able to “move on” so that we no longer need such relief.
Self and Other
In irrelationship as in other types of obsession, the thing we think we want or need most is just a little bit out of reach, which is precisely the point. In thinking about booty-calls and other types of irrelationship, perhaps we can consider a different tactic: delaying gratification so that gradually we build up enough objectivity about our feelings to create space for stepping into a different perspective on our behavior and opting for a different solution. Such self-awareness is a building-block of self-acceptance that’s crucial to giving and receiving love.
Our work on the repetitive, slow-burn destructiveness of irrelationships is grounded in a perspective incorporating relational psychoanalysis and cognitive neuroscience. It offers hope that what has always been need not always be — that different results can be realized by deconstructing our “same thing over and over again” and coming to believe that we can walk away from it.
Freud, S. (1914). Remembering repeating and working through. Standard Edition, XII, 145- 156.
Lacan, J. (1988). Freud’s technical papers. New York: Norton.
Rycroft, C. (1995). Critical dictionary of psychoanalysis. New York: Penguin.