Unconscious Parent & Child Within. Repetition Compulsions: Seeking To Maintain The Familiarity of Past Relationships

Unconscious Parent & Child Within. Repetition Compulsions: Seeking To Maintain The Familiarity of Past Relationships (reprinted from The Right Brain & the Unconscious (Plenum Publications, New York, 1992).

Unconscious Parent & Child Within. Repetition Compulsions: Seeking To Maintain The Familiarity of Past Relationships
Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D.


Many people blame failure, lost jobs, lost opportunities, and arguments on bad luck, bad timing, bad people, fate, destiny, and sometimes even on themselves; i.e. bad judgment. However, in many cases there is a repetitive familiarity to it all. There seems to be a recurrence of situations where some of us lose control over our emotions, make people angry at us, become upset only to regret it later, or destroy some promising situation or relationship.

If we were to examine the circumstances surrounding these occurrences including our feelings and events which seem to provoke them it sometimes becomes clear that a pattern has been in motion for a number of years. Bad things seem to happen again and again. This is true even in regard to relationships.


I have had patients who will confide that this is their third marriage or relationship where their husband or boyfriend has turned out to be physically and emotionally abusive, their fourth marriage with a man who was an alcoholic and/or had a drug problem, their third marriage or relationship with a woman who cheated on them, their second marriage with a woman who turned out to be mentally deranged (e.g. schizophrenic).

In one case a woman patient complained that she was divorcing her husband because she was shocked to learn he was homosexual. She then confided that the last two men she dated were also homosexual or bisexually inclined, and that, like the situation with her present husband, she had not realized their predisposition until several months into the relationship.

Tanya complained that her current boyfriend, who was unemployed, at first borrowed money from her incessantly and then started trying to control all her finances, telling her she was spending too much. He was also doling out an allowance to her. "Money that was mine to begin with!" She then admitted that her last boyfriend, who was also unemployed "because he was in trade school," also borrowed money from her.

In addition, her current boyfriend would often try to control her by telling her whom she could see, for how long, and would even take her car keys away and sometimes not even let her drive her own car -even when he wasn't borrowing it. However, she said that she could understand this because "he had been really badly hurt by his last girlfriend who went out on him. He has trouble trusting women."

Moreover, so she claimed, this one is an angel compared to her first real boyfriend whom she married. "That relationship been a mistake from the very start." He liked to do "speed" and would go through violent mood swings. He sometimes beat her because he was "insanely jealous," or if she did anything to displease him.

"Jackie" confessed that she had maintained a long term relationship with a man who was impotent. When they broke up she began an intense relationship with another fellow and within weeks moved into his apartment. She then discovered he was a cross dresser and preferred sex when dressed in women's undergarments.

After breaking up with him Jackie finally thought she had finally found a good man, the vice president of her company whose home base was in another city. She carried on with him for two years, although the sex was never personally satisfying, hoping for marriage which he repeatedly promised but kept putting off for one reason or another. One week after they finally became engaged (after she gave him an ultimatum) Jackie heard at the office that he has been arrested for molesting a little boy.

When Jackie came to me for counseling she wanted to know why she kept having such "bad luck." She was adamant in the belief that she never had a clue to why she kept getting mixed up with "screwed up" people.

She is not alone. In each instance these and other people will steadfastly claim that they didn't realize that their spouse or boyfriend was that kind of person when they had met. It was only after several months what was obvious to their friends suddenly became undeniably apparent to them. However, if that were true, then how is it they repeatedly ended up with similar kinds of people or relationships which ended up badly? Bad luck? Not likely.

What is more likely is that when they met that "special" person they unconsciously detected certain familiar cues which alerted them to the possibility that this person was a liar, cheater, beater, alcoholic or mentally deranged individual. Their unconscious radar led them to that person whom they then found "attractive." They ended up chasing after a number of these people who displayed familiar characteristics which cued them to their abusive/alcoholic/philandering potential. They simultaneously rejected those who do not meet their particular criteria for abuse, hurt, or rejection.

What were the cues? and why did they keep forming relationships with people who were bad for them, who made them miserable?


Often when asked why they were drawn to this or that particular person some respond that they felt an almost immediate feeling of closeness and a comfortable sense of familiarity, or a feeling of being "needed," or, conversely, intense excitement and in the extreme, love at first sight. "It was easy to relate to him." "I felt he really needed me". "We were crazy about each other from the start." "I felt like I had known her for years. We were that close."

More often than not, what is familiar, however, is the similar relationships they have maintained in the past with an alcoholic, philanderer, abuser (perhaps their mother, father, first boyfriend). Now upon meeting a new person they unconsciously recognize those personality and behavioral traits which tip them off to that person's potential for destructiveness. The forces which make these choices and exert these influences reside in the unconscious Child and/or Parent ego/personality, and the right half of the brain which has a keenly developed ability to read body language and related nuances.


All to often, even in good relationships we often seek partners who meet the expectations of our unconscious Child or Parent. However, depending on how in touch we are with our feelings and past, and to what degree we successfully rely on our right brain capabilities, we can also be led to the best person, someone who will be supportive and encouraging. The degree to which these forces actually influence choice and behavior are determined by personal experience and a variety of factors.

Often, we may be attracted to individuals who remind us of our mother or father or even our own unconscious Child, providing us with the opportunity to recreate painfully familiar scenarios from childhood. If we know who we are, what we truly enjoy and what our true and growth promoting desires may be (e.g., hiking, dancing, reading, music, dogs, physical fitness, freedom, movies, and personal exploration and growth), and can recognize the unpleasant familiar when encountered, then we can utilize the right (as well as the left) brain and these same emotional representations, to meet and bond with someone who possesses the same growth promoting potential.

Of course, many people seek mates who in all respects seem completely different from their mom or dad. They do everything they can to avoid reexperiencing what at one time was so painful. Nevertheless, even in these cases the unconscious Child and Parent can be exerting their influence. This is why the conscious aspect of the personality may be doing all it can to oppose these forces.

In some cases somebody who felt rejected by his or her father will seek a rejecting man (or woman) and then attempt not only to recreate the painful familiarity of the past, but will use this new person to get the love she (or he) never got from her dad. This new man, who is like her father, provides a second chance to resolve a problem or to obtain something that was missing: Daddy will love me this time. Of course, this almost never happens and this is part of the reason this particular choice is made: to maintain the status qua; i.e. the familiar.

That is, if she obtained love and acceptance, it would feel unfamiliar and she would be forever threatened with its loss for at an unconscious level she would know they are undeserving. Hence, this love would not only be unfamiliar, it would feel uncomfortable and she might even feel a need to provoke her partner to reject her so that the comfortable familiarity of the long ago can be resurrected.

Others in their attempts to escape parental influences will seek mates who in all respects offer qualities that were missing in their early lives. However, rather than being directed by their unconscious Parent they are being influenced by their unconscious Child as much as their conscious mind which says: "Enough! I've had it. I won't take it anymore!". In essence they are repelled by those who remind them of their parents. Of course, the factors involved in the formation of relationships are more complex than that as we are not completely at the mercy of our unconscious.

Nevertheless, sometimes people are attracted to individuals who represent their own unconscious Child or Parent, or who have the capability of activating these psychic forces. If they were fortunate to have loving, accepting, supportive families, then the choices they make or the people they attach to, will tend to be positive.


Some people seek a mate who is in some manner like their father or mother in order to strike back at them. Or, they will seek someone who corresponds to their own unconscious Child and treat them accordingly; their unconscious Parent will now mistreat this new victim. That is they will find someone who will tolerate being treated as they were treated when they were a child. In these cases they are not seeking a parent substitute but someone who reminds them of themselves when they were children. This enables them to escape their own sense of inadequacy by employing a substitute. This person takes the place of their own unconscious Child and is treated accordingly. Of course this requires that their mate possesses some flaw or other deficiency (either real or imagined) which can then be attacked.

When Billy reached the age of two his mother went back to work which made him feel very upset and rejected. He was also the youngest and always the smallest of his three brothers and in fact was initially quite small for his age. Whereas his brothers were athletic, he was quite clumsy and they often teased him about this and his small stature. Moreover, his brothers purposefully tried to leave him out of all their activities. His father (who drank much too much) would sometimes join in on the teasing and would sometimes laughingly call Billy disparaging names. However his father also often tried to be help him overcome his incoordination, playing catch with him when he was small, but still sometimes laughing at his son when he would trip, fall down, or if the ball bounced off his little head. Unfortunately, he would also become extremely critical and yell at Billy when he kept making the same mistakes.

Billy did not appreciate his fathers frequent "help" because he wanted to be "big" and to do everything on his own. Moreover, he (i.e. his right brain) could tell by his fathers constant "helpful" criticism, that he was embarrassed by his little clumsy son. Hearing his father's helpful advice and the occasional yelling only made Billy feel worse. His mother's absence only compounded the problem. He felt terribly inadequate, stupid, clumsy, and an embarrassing failure that everyone made fun of or disliked before he had even reached the age of 5.

By high school, however, Billy experienced a growth spurt, and although he never became a true athlete, his performance improved markedly. He also became extremely handsome and good looking. He tried out for baseball and managed to make the team. His first real accomplishment in life, and one he took great pride in. However, before the first game he dumped his motorcycle and broke his right arm in two places. This came as a terrible blow and shattered a lot more than his arm such as the little self-confidence he had achieved. Nevertheless, being so very handsome and sexy in appearance he made the most of his looks by "screwing his brains out."

After graduation he obtained employment as a welder's assistant and soon thereafter met and married Charlene. Although Charlene was stunning to look at and sexy to the extreme, this did not stop his screwing around. Together they made a very stunning couple.

Charlene never met her real father as he abandoned the family soon after she was born. Her mother did not want to keep her baby but was pressured to do so by her own mother and oldest step-sister who were very intolerant, strict and religious. Moreover, she resented the child due to the restrictions having a baby placed on her and because it reminded her of her former husband. Having to work to support herself and the baby, and then having a new husband who resented the child, this mother began leaving Charlene with her own step-sister and sometimes her mother, during the week days and only picked her up on the weekends. Sometimes she left her at her mothers for weeks at a time.

Charlene told me that her earliest memories were sitting in her aunts house not being allowed to do anything and being yelled at if she made the slightest noise or even the smallest mess. Her grandmother was the same way. If she took some toys out to play her grandmother would be there in an instant picking things up and putting them away, commenting on what a messy child she was.

Charlene: "The worst part was when my mother would pick me up on Friday evening. Every Friday it was the same thing, my grandmother or aunt complaining about the "messy," "dirty," "disobedient" child and then my mother glaring at me. When we left the house and walked to the car my mom would start cursing me, shoving me and sometimes she would kick me over and over again on my butt as we walked to the car."

This pattern pretty much repeated itself until she was seven years old when her grandmother died. She then began living with her mother and step father full time.

Charlene: "It was like being transferred from one prison to another. No matter what I did, my mother would be right behind me telling me what a dirty, spoiled little bitch I was, and then would take my things and put them away and then tell me to go to my room. I mean, she wouldn't even let me play. And she would never let me do anything. She would even tell me I was too stupid to clean up my own room and then she would clean it. She would make me stand there while she would even make my bed, all the time cursing. It was almost like she wanted me to be messy so that she could be mad. She was always mad and always yelling and always telling me to do this or that, and then she would immediately interfere and say: "Never mind. I'll do it" and then start cursing under her breath and glaring at me. When she got married for the third time, everything just got worse. Now I wasn't just stupid, messy, and an embarrassment, I had to be invisible.

When Charlene met Billy she was willing to do just about anything to escape her home, so, when he asked her to marry him, she was terribly flattered and immediately accepted. However, although they were a beautiful couple to look at, their marriage began to fall apart almost immediately.

Billy: "She doesn't give a damn about anything, and she doesn't even bother trying to do things right. We get married and right away she says she can't cook. No matter, I say, I'll do the cooking you do the dishes. But then she leaves the dishes all day and when she finally cleans them they are still dirty.

And then the house is always a mess. I come home from work and the place is filthy. And what is she doing? Sitting on her lazy butt watching TV. Everything is half ass. It makes me embarrassed to bring any body around. And now she's packing on weight. We've only been married four months and already she's waddling around like a pig. She doesn't want to work, she doesn't want to go to school, she doesn't want to improve herself, she doesn't want to grow, she doesn't want to do anything."

Charlene: "You knew I couldn't cook before we got married, and you're exaggerating about the house. Sure I'm not the neatest person in the world but you're just using that for an excuse to pick on me. No matter what I do its not right, its not good enough, and he is always telling me how great he is, and how much better and smarter than me he is, and how no good I am at anything. No matter what I say, it's "stupid," or he laughs at me and calls me "ignorant" and a "dumb cunt." I can't even have an opinion. And when I say something about getting a job or going to school he has a fit and starts in on how I'm too stupid to go to school."

Billy. "No. Not too stupid. Too lazy. I brought you home an application and all it did was sit there and finally got thrown away or lost or something. You don't want to grow that's all there is to it, and no matter how much I try to help you just give up or won't even try. You act like a baby. Why don't you grow up?"

Charlene (starting to weep): "Why should I try? All you want to do is pick on me, and then you don't even come home until after midnight. You say you don't come home because it's dirty...but that's not the real reason. You're out screwing around. I know it. You don't even care about me. You like teasing me, putting me down and criticizing me. If you loved me, you'd try to help me..."

When Belinda was growing up, she was the last of 4 children, all of whom were in their late teens or 20s. Her parents were in their late 40s, and both worked. Moreover, she was unplanned and was seen as a burden by her parents who although they never beat or chastised her, tended to ignore her and took little interest in her accomplishments. Her parents also tended to argue and on more than one occasion she could recall her mother's crying as her father stood over her yelling or ordering her around. Belinda would sometimes cry when this happened, or would withdraw to her room and get into bed.

Belinda responded to this not by becoming independent, but by developing a sense of helplessness and dependency through which she attempted to elicit their reactions and love. Her parents, however, did nothing to alter this emerging self concept of helplessness. In the morning her mother would quickly dress her, make her lunch and send her to school. She would then quickly make the child's bed and quickly clean up the room before she went to work. When Belinda tried to help, her mother would smile indulgently and tell her that she was in a hurry and would do it as it was faster if she did it herself. Her father simply ignored her and took no interest in her whatsoever.

Belinda, however, grew to be an exceptionally intelligent and attractive young woman and scored so highly on the SAT and college entrance exams that she was offered several scholarships. Over her mothers misgivings she went away to college. Five years later she managed to graduate with a C average. That she graduated at all was a wonder since she spent most of her time procrastinating and laying in her dorm room daydreaming and depressed. Three years into college she in fact became so distraught that she sought out counseling. Her major complaints were that she felt paralyzed and indecisive and just couldn't seem to get started on any particular task, all of which seemed to overwhelm her. Instead she would withdraw to her bed and lay there depressed.

However, near the end of her 4th year she met a graduate student (Brent) with an intense need to control and who felt intensely attracted to her as well. Essentially he took over her life. He would show up in the morning and make her get up. Later in the evening he would grill and chastise her if she had not done her homework. But most of all, he would continually criticize and belittle her and often made her cry. Sometimes he would even spank her if it turned out she had not done what he had instructed. Although she felt humiliated at times, particularly by his spankings (after which he would usually make her have sex with him), she felt she loved and needed him.

Essentially, this graduate student became her surrogate Parent and exercised the control that was a familiar part of her upbringing. However, although her own parents had never belittled, criticized, or even spanked her, in this manner he too served the needs of her unconscious Child as this aspect of her ego felt indeed worthless, unlovable, unimportant and bad. He was able to verify her feelings of being bad or worthless by spanking her, calling her names and controlling her.

Upon graduating Belinda agreed to marry Brent. Unfortunately, her unconscious Child continued to rule even after they had two children. Consequently Brent would come home from school (where he was now an assistant professor) and with shock and dismay would daily criticize her for the messy condition of the house. "Vandals" he would cry "It looks like vandals ransacked this house." At which point she would then begin to clean in a haphazard manner with him standing over her giving directions, threatening to spank her and sometimes making her cry.


In many cases a person's unconscious Child will search out a man or woman who can take over the role of their unconscious Parent. This is what Charlene did. She found in Billy another critical, rejecting Parent.

The converse also occurs. The unconscious Parent will be attracted to someone who is similar to his own unconscious Child and will then abuse or love him in accordance with his unconscious needs. This is what has occurred with Billy. He took on the role of the critical and sometimes absent parent. Now, instead of his Parent criticizing or trying to "help" the "Child Billy," it is now trying to "help" the "Child Charlene" and mistreats her in the manner Billy felt mistreated.

At a conscious level Billy and Charlene have little or nothing in common except that they were both very pretty to look at. The same could be said of Belinda and Brent. However, at an unconscious level they were a perfect match. How did they manage to find each other?


A young woman ("Jennifer") who was raised by an abusive alcoholic father may unconsciously detect (via her right brain) that a certain man at an office party shares certain mannerisms or other qualities which unconsciously remind her of her father or an alcoholic or someone who is potentially abusive. Because this new man has these qualities and has given off these cues and clues, he seems comfortable, familiar and she is able to relate to him and thus feels attracted.

At a conscious level there is no knowledge as to why she is attracted, only that she feels attracted. Jennifer then makes a number of conscious interpretations based on that feeling. Not consciously knowing the real reason she is drawn to this person, she misinterprets the sensations of tension and familiarity as something else: "I like this person. He is interesting and exciting. I feel comfortable interacting with him. I want to see him again."

Three months later much to her dismay Jennifer discovers she is again in a relationship with "a total bastard" and an abusive alcoholic, and then wonders aloud: "Woe is me. Why does this keep happening to me?" If on the other hand, the man she meets is indeed a nice guy who seems kind, sincere, stable, and supportive, her unconscious Child and Parent will find him unfamiliar and she will in turn feel uncomfortable and thus disinterested in him. Consequently, he will be discarded and labeled in some inappropriate fashion ("what a chump, nerd, geek", etc.).

For example, a young attractive lady (with a background almost identical to Jennifer's) goes to a nightclub with her girlfriends. A good looking man walks up and she immediately scans his nice attire, comfortable movements, and the look of confidence on his face. He asks her to dance and by his tone and choice of words coupled with his style and manner of dress she is able to infer that he has a good job, is educated, and seems fairly stable. She wrinkles up her face and sarcastically replies: "What? With you?" As he walks away she turns to her girlfriends and laughs: "What a geek!"

A little while later a rather physically attractive fellow walks up. He has not shaven, is wearing an old shirt opened halfway down his hairy chest to indicate his thick gold colored chain, and is staring at her in a smug manner. He asks her to dance and she accepts. They dance several more times and she gives him her phone number.

Later in the evening her girlfriends ask her about this fellow and she replies: "Oh. he is really a nice guy. He is so easy to talk to and he is really interesting."

"What kind of work does he do?" asks one of her friends.

"Oh, I don't know. I think he said something about being between jobs."

A few weeks later after he has borrowed money, stood her up twice, failed to call her several times as promised, and after an argument slapped her across the face she begins to wonder: "How come I can't ever meet any nice guys?"

Indeed, many people who are rejected or abused or neglected in childhood are attracted to people who are losers, "takers" and who will use and then reject them, who will treat them with contempt and/or constantly belittle them. Their unconscious Child expects to be treated in this manner and the unconscious Parent tells them they deserve nothing better.

Of course, in many cases the individual may finally decide that he had had enough and will end or at least seriously consider ending the relationship. Often, however, one kind word is enough to keep that person tied to such an individual. Hope springs eternal. Or, they will cling to the relationship in the hope that their boy or girlfriend will somehow change.


Why do some people stay with lovers who mistreat them? Usually it is because the painful familiarity of the past is being recreated and they are continually attempting to obtain the love and affection that was not only denied, but which deep down they do not believe they deserve. Hence, the cruel partner gives them the opportunity to finally possibly win the parental love they were denied; that is, if they keep trying (or so they unconsciously believe).

However, knowing (unconsciously) that they do not really deserve love, they are reluctant to end this relationship because they believe that they do not deserve and cannot get anything better. Their unconscious Parent tells them, "you deserve rejection and abuse." Their unconscious Child tells them, "I am not OK. I deserve rejection and abuse. I am lucky this person even puts up with me."

In addition, some individuals, as we've seen, seek the comfortable familiarity of the past in their relationships because in part they are trying to rewrite the family script, to finally achieve what they were always denied so that he or she may then live happily ever after. If daddy was an alcoholic who was never loving, she will find a man who is an alcoholic and make him love her.

When we cannot recreate or discover the emotional atmosphere we knew as children, the result is sometimes a feeling of strangeness which is to be avoided. Rather, what we sometimes seek is familiarity, including all the restrictions and deprivations which may have been experienced.

The feelings and emotional reactions that characterized our childhood are never over and done with, as they have the potential to linger forever. The struggles of childhood all to often become the struggles of adulthood, but in a disguised form because they are unconsciously mediated. Fortunately, if there is sufficient willingness to engage in perhaps some painful self-scrutiny, these forces can be diminished and controlled.

Nevertheless, since these experiences during childhood serve as the foundation upon which our adult lives are built, we sometimes seek to maintain our lives in a manner which is the best fit for that foundation, like searching for the right key to open a lock. Best, however, should not be construed as necessarily "good".


In part, it is the unconscious Parent and Child that attempts to impose this road leading to the familiar, either treating us or our mate in a manner that was observed and experienced during childhood. They also recreate certain feelings which plagued us when we were young. The unconscious Child invites our partners (or even strangers) to treat us as we were treated by our parents, siblings, or other authority figures, sometimes seeking approval, conflict, rejection or abuse. Many times, in fact, the unconscious Child attempts to elicit the unconscious Parent who resides in the spouse by provoking him or her.

In general, although conflicts between partners often seem to occur completely at a conscious level they can in fact occur at an unconscious level as well. Indeed, in regard to simmering and long standing conflicts, the actual battles may be taken place completely within the unconscious of each partner. Although they may be consciously searching for reasons as to why they are upset, and may confabulate a variety of explanations to justify the fight, the true origins of the conflict may be completely unconscious and not even have anything to do with the partner. In this regard, when relationships become wars, the battles can be between each partners Child (Child-Child), one's spouses Child and the other's Parent (Child-Parent), or between their Parent's (Parent-Parent) all of which is fought upon the battle field of our Conscious and Unconscious mind.

When one considers the number of factors involved, it is little wonder that many relationships are troubled to varying degrees. When two people interact, they are interacting on a conscious as well as unconscious level. In addition, each partner brings his and her own Parent and Child into the relationship. In this regard, the marriage bed could be considered to be filled by 6 or more ego/personalities; two Children, two Parents, and two Adult Ego personalities which we have referred to as the Self. Of course, we would not even be in bed if not for the limbic system and the IDfant mental system.

Moreover, when we form a relationship with the opposite sex and "fall in love" this usually means that the needs (be they positive or negative) of the unconscious Child and Parent are being at least partially met so that longings from the past may be fulfilled to some degree. This can result in considerable conflict as each ego/personality may have its own agenda thus causing disturbances intrapsychically as well as interpersonally.


When interactions are taking place on an unconscious as well as conscious level, one aspect of the mind may espouse certain needs and desires, whereas a different region of the mind and brain may have needs which are in all respects completely opposite. The conscious Self may be looking for love and acceptance, whereas the unconscious Child and Parent are looking for abuse or the opportunity to behave in an abusive manner. This in turn creates difficulties not only in regard to internal homeostasis and balance, but can disrupt communication between separate individuals as well.

If Bob says " I want a woman who can hold down a job and be responsible," whereas his unconscious Child is fearful of rejection, then Gail who holds a job and is capable of independence, will be perceived as a potential source of rejection. This is because his unconscious Child may need someone who is very dependent, whereas his unconscious Parent may espouse the necessity of independence. As such Gail and Bob will probably have countless arguments all of which are based on unconscious conflicts and a failure to communicate properly on an unconscious level. However, this will probably not be apparent to either partner. She is not going to know what to believe when he states that he wants "such and such." Moreover, he is going to be unhappy no matter what she does.

Which aspect of his mind should a potential spouse believe? This depends on his or her own abilities to accurately perceive, interpret, and respond to unconscious and right brain cues. If a person relies solely on left hemisphere modes of interacting, then he will fail to pick up cues or understand what is being communicated by his partner's right hemisphere, unconscious Child or Parent. In fact, if he remains in a left brain mode, then he may fail to attend to cues emanating from within his own right brain as well.

For example, if Fred predominantly relies on his left brain (and his Parent and Child are largely submerged), whereas Tammy often interacts in the mode of her Child and predominantly communicates in a right hemisphere mode, then both are going to have difficulty interacting and communicating successfully. They are not going to understand one another and will often be in conflict.



Communication breakdown can also occur even when both partners interact predominantly within a right hemisphere mode and in accordance with unconscious needs. This may take the form of one individual communicating in the mode of the Child, and the other in the mode of the Parent.

For example, Tammy having baked Fred's favorite dish sits across from him expectantly waiting for some strokes in the form of acknowledgements and compliments. He takes a bite, grimaces slightly and takes a sip of water.

Tammy (CHILD): You don't like it do you? There's something wrong with it, right?

Fred (PARENT): You know I like lots of salt. You didn't put any salt in it. What's the matter with you?

Although there are a number of ways in which the above transaction could be interpreted the result is a conflict. The conflict is between Parent and Child. But this conflict, at least in the case of Tammy and Fred not only represents communication breakdown but unconscious game playing. That is, for this couple the above is a ritual and each partner has a role that has been dictated by unconscious needs and past experience. What might really be communicated is this:

Tammy (CHILD) You don't like me. There's something wrong with me. Why can't you love and appreciate me?

Fred (PARENT) Because you're stupid and this irritates me as you reflect poorly on me as a wife.

Another way in which the above could be translated is a follows:

Tammy (CHILD). I'm worthless and stupid and I need you to tell me that no matter how hard I try to please you I'm still not good enough. For that reason I purposefully (unconsciously) didn't put enough salt in the food because I know this will provoke you.

Fred (PARENT). I married you because of your poor self-concept and your need to be victimized and the fact that you remind me of myself when I was a child when my parents criticized me regarding my shortcomings. Now my parents can criticize you instead.

In this regard, although seemingly a source of conflict, we can now see that Tammy and Fred are in fact responding to one another's unconscious needs. Although unpleasant, the conflict nevertheless satisfies these bad and destructive needs. If the initial discussion was indeed about the food and there were no hidden agendas or unconscious needs to be fulfilled, then Tammy and Fred would have interacted as Adults.

Tammy. How is everything?

Fred. Good. But it needs a little salt.

Tammy. (reaching for the salt shaker) Here you go.

Fred. Thanks. I'll get it.


Does Tammy need to be victimized? The answer, unfortunately is yes. Does she deserve to be victimized? Absolutely not! What you want and what you deserve or need are not always the same thing.

Consciously she hates what is happening. Unconsciously she is merely attempting to maintain the familiar; once abused, always abused.

Just because someone needs and desires something does not mean that it is necessarily good for them. In Tammy's case, what we would like to believe is that she really needs love, affection, appreciation and emotional support so that she can develop her self-image and improve her feelings of self-worth. Consciously this is exactly what she is after and this is what she truly deserves.

Tammy, however, was always told that she was stupid and ugly by her older brothers and sisters. Her mother and father who both worked, never had time for her due to their own busy schedules. Moreover, because mother was so busy, rather than give little Tammy the encouragement to do and accomplish things on her own, she would impatiently intervene with an admonishment "You're not doing that right."

In consequence, Tammy's Child learned that she was helpless, inadequate, of little importance, and not worthy of love and positive attention. This is how she was raised and what she was familiar with. It is a natural human and animal characteristic to seek out what is familiar and to resurrect that familiar comfort of the long ago.

Hence, Tammy, in marrying Fred, found a man who would recreate the familiar of her own childhood so that her Child and her internalized Parent would be comfortable. He, in effect takes the place of her Parent and satisfies the bad needs of her unconscious Child. If she had married a man who was nice and loving, her Parent would have protested that she was not worthy and her Child would have complained that she was not being treated in the manner with which she was most familiar. Indeed, she would never marry such a man, because any man not corresponding to her own unconscious Parent would have been avoided. She would not be able to relate to him.


In many bad relationships, one partner will try to control or will continually mistreat and criticize the other partner for supposed shortcomings when in fact he is merely reliving and expressing some hurtful aspect of his own childhood. This was part of the dynamics of Brent and Belinda, Billy and Charlene, and Tammy and Fred's relationships. All were attempting to maintain the familiar of the long ago and all were attempting to fulfill bad needs.

All the turmoil and strains of the long ago can now be relived as each partner takes on a familiar role. One partner thus assumes the role of the Parent and the other will become the bad Child. The Parent will now help the mate to become a better person so that the "helper" can get that love which he was so long denied. This requires the "good spouse" (or Parent) to expend a considerable amount of energy keeping the "bad spouse" in line by forever correcting him, controlling him, or giving him "constructive criticism" so that someday he can "get his act together" and "make something of himself" and cease to be a hopeless disappointment.

However, the nature of these particular types of relationships requires that one spouse remain forever inadequate. The "good," "helpful," "critical" spouse does not really want the mate to change. If the unconscious Parent did not have this victim to mistreat, it might turn the attack back on him.

Consciously both mates may want their relationship to change for the better. However, unconsciously there are also forces at work which will do their utmost to maintain the familiar of the long ago.

As I do with many couples, I saw Billy and Charlene together and separately. Billy voiced the same concerns and disappointment alone as he did when they were together. I discussed the possibility of Charlene's going to college and he seemed all for it. When I brought up the field of nursing, which she had expressed a keen interest in, Billy spontaneously began to comment about how much nurses make and how it might bother other guys that their wives made more than them, but how it wouldn't bother him at all. We spent the rest of that session trying to nudge him to see what was really going on.

Over the next several sessions with Charlene, as we worked through some of the self-imposed restraints that were holding her back, she finally told me she had made up her mind and was going to enroll at a local community college and get her degree in nursing. She seemed extremely pleased with herself and was obviously quite happy and excited at the prospect of what lay ahead.

The very next session I saw Billy and Charlene together. Immediately the topic of Charlene going to school came up.

Billy: Yeah. I really think it's great she is going to go to school. But, you know, we both kind of thought that maybe going straight into a full time program might be too much for her right off the bat. I mean, she's got housework and stuff, and someday we'd like to have kids. Anyway, I thought maybe she ought to just take a course or two to begin with. Something she's really interested in.

Charlene: "Billy thought that since I've been saying for years that I would like to learn how to draw that maybe I should take a drawing class."

Dr. J: Is that what you're going to do?

Billy: Either that or a cooking class.

Billy then proceeded to thank me for the help I had provided and indicated that since things were going so well they had decided to terminate any future sessions. I made them both promise me she would actually take one of the classes. Billy looked at me doubtfully.

In effect, although truly not conscious of his unconscious intentions, Billy nevertheless, required that Charlene always remain inadequate and was threatened by the possibility that she might make something of herself, and worse, make more money than him and thus make him the more inadequate member of their partnership. So, he simply seemingly sabotaged her chances for success by talking her into doing something possibly irrelevant and maybe even getting her pregnant so that school would become at best a remote and far off possibility. Unconsciously he never wanted her to succeed as he needed someone who his unconscious Parent could criticize and belittle.

This is characteristic of many similar relationships. One partner has a vested interest in the other's "not changing," since it would be unfamiliar and intolerable. Fortunately, sometimes both partners can be persuaded to accept change within limits which in turn fluctuates with their insight and degree of self-acceptance.

Charlene too obviously had a say in all this and in fact seemingly sabotaged herself. Essentially her unconscious Child informed her that being a nurse was a role she could never play and her unconscious Parent conspired with Billy to see to it that success would never be hers. Being too successful, even trying to take too much control over her own life was very threatening. Being unfamiliar it was easy to reject.

Fortunately, although she never became a nurse, but as Billy was not opposed she took the cooking and several drawing and art classes which it turned out, she was quite good at. Think she is happier? You bet. Feeling more confident of her abilities and as she met many new and supportive friends in school, she began to not only feel better about herself, but to keep the house cleaner. Even Billy was pleased, although, accordingly to Charlene, he often made fun of her paintings. The praise at school, however, made his comments meaningless.

Of course, not all people involved in relationships such as these require that their spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend remain inadequate or losers. Many truly want their mate to change for the better, and in Charlene and Billy's case they were both able to accept changes, but within limits.

On the other hand, many relationships and marriages are entirely based on interactions where one spouse is identified as the "sick", "helpless" and even "hopeless" half of the partnership, whereas the other spouse takes on the role of provider and caretaker. Not infrequently, they will try to maintain this status at all costs.


When disappointment is constantly experienced, when desires are thwarted and needs go unmet, when faced with rejection or when made to feel powerless by seemingly unreasoning authority figures, children sometimes react with extreme anger and resentment toward all those who are in a position to exert control over the child's environment.

One way of reacting is through rebellion. Another is by withdrawing and giving up. However, sometimes a child (or an adult) will rebel by turning their back on those who are important to him. In effect he is rejecting something he really wanted or considered highly desirable; e.g. a hug, a toy advertised ad nauseum on television, etc. Adults sometimes act in the same childish manner and will act as if they don't want what they in fact intensely desire; e.g. forgiveness, love, a date with an attractive person, a high paying job or promotion, etc.

"I will reject you before you reject me," or "I didn't want it anyway," "who needs it!" becomes their motto in life. They do this to protect themselves from further hurt and rejection. If they pretend something or someone means nothing to them, then it loses its power to make them feel badly. Of course, one must feel badly in the first place otherwise he would not go to these extremes of self-protection.

Indeed, it is natural for a child to mistake disappointment for catastrophe and to strike out in anger and rage and even destroy that which was desired simply because something is wrong or missing. Ultimately these kinds of behaviors are self-destructive and self-negating. The Child "blows up over anything," and even trivial incidents lead to fights, arguments, and tantrums. This is sometimes referred to as "cutting off one's own nose to spite one's own face." However, a person who cuts off his own nose, also feels he has nothing to lose and that he deserves to be punished. In this case, it is self-inflicted. Unfortunately, much of the pain generated by the unconscious Child and Parent is exactly that; inflicted on the entire self and the right and left half of the brain.


More often than not it is the Internalized Parent who exerts these self-negating influences. Unconsciously the person feels he genuinely does not deserve to have his desires or needs met. He is convinced that given the chance others will reject him or thwart his desires so as to punish him for some blemish in his personality, job performance, or being. When a person feels this way he not only expect rejection but is always on the lookout for it and is always prepared to deal with it, even if inappropriately. When this occurs the Child often becomes activated and disrupts his life through its unconscious influences.

Due to these unconsciously occurring turmoils a person may inadvertently insult or put off someone whom he would like to get to know and be friends or lovers with and thus alienate them; or in the early stages of a promising relationship fly off the handle at some real or imagined slight and destroy all future possibilities of closeness by running the person off --only to deeply regret what he has done, or worse, be completely in the dark as to why another relationship ended badly. The unconscious Parent may mistreat others as well as him and the Child may be acting childish.

In its more subtle manifestations he may blush or feel ill at ease if someone gives him a compliment, may feel unhappy or depressed about some event which he has been looking forward to, distrust those who offer friendship, feel embittered or deeply annoyed if someone makes light of a gift or a compliment, or may simply behave in a self-protective arrogant manner so that no one will ever be able to get close enough to hurt him.

By his very manner he may so alienate others that he inevitably becomes hurt in return. Nevertheless, when others become alienated this only reinforces the arrogant behavior which increasingly serves as a protective wall.

Essentially these individuals are impelled by unconscious forces which tell them: "You do not deserve to be treated good." "Things should not go well for you." "No one can love you." "You are no good." Of course, if you are "no good" you have nothing to lose by behaving badly. A vicious circle is created.


Tommy was a very strong willed little boy. He tended to rule over his mother but feared his very controlling, domineering father. His father, being in the military was at home infrequently and on a very inconsistent basis for the first 3 years of Tommy's life. Due to his father's frequent absences, Tommy was at best semi-obedient and frequently relied on himself, and at an early age began to feel a degree of self-mastery and sense of independence. This was amplified even further since his mother was a rather weak willed woman who took some delight in indulging her son.

When Tommy reached age 4 his father was discharged. He was not pleased by his son's willful disobedience and began to exert control, order his son about and administer punishment on a daily basis in a militaristic fashion. Tommy did not easily acquiesce to this new pattern and became resistant. Subsequently he was frequently beat into submission when he refused his fathers demands. For the next 13 years he and his father were in frequent conflict.

For most of his young life he felt humiliated by and extremely inferior to his powerful father. His father's incessant bullying manner made Tommy feel considerable self-doubt and even a tinge of self hate as he felt he had less and less control over his life.

As he grew older, his father often seemed to arbitrarily make unreasonable demands or simply refused to allow him to engage in some activity "because I said so." The intensity of his anger and feelings of resentment increased dramatically. He had now long concluded that this Parental figure was "not OK." However, he also felt very badly about himself not only for being treated in this fashion, but for taking it in the first place. Nursing his hatred his major solace was the thought, "Just wait until I'm big."

Once he became an adult his resentment never dissipated, and although he was able to go through college and land several good jobs, he was often in conflict with his bosses and supervisors. He was seen as having a chip on his shoulder and in consequence was frequently fired or he quit. For him, every supervisor represented his unconscious Parent, and when someone told him "You must...." or "You will..." his own unconscious Child automatically responded "I'll do what I want. No one can tell me what to do!" "I'm big now." In a sense, his strong willed Child, how having the conscious adult Self as an unknowing ally, in effect not only fought with but was able to win battles fought against the hated Parent.

However, the Parent was not defeated. It began to focus on others as well and in this manner his unconscious Parent and Child almost became allies. The Child hated being pushed around and resented it, and the Parent began to act like a bully with others.

Because he was so angry and resentful he often made others nervous or even threatened when around him. Strangers, acquaintances, business associates, secretaries seemed to treat him with disrespect or in a sullen irritated manner. "Everyone seems to have it in for me!" he complained. "And I don't even have to do anything. I just walk into a room and bang, I'm getting these bad vibes. Even the cashier at the burger king gets an attitude when I walk up."

He was in effect "rubbing them the wrong way" not so much by what he said or what he did but through his arrogant manner, the way he said and did things, including his tone of voice, facial expression, and gestures. Essentially he was non-verbally behaving in a very threatening, intimidating manner. He communicated his intense anger (via the right brain and limbic system) without him having to say a thing.

When he walked into a Burger King and made his order, he half (unconsciously) expected that it would be goofed up (thwarted by his Parent). This expectation was also displayed (via the right brain) by his body language, his tone of voice, and the intensity and anger in his expression. Often the girl or boy behind the counter would unconsciously respond to these cues. That is, their right brain would respond to the messages being sent by his right brain. In consequence, they would feel intimidated and anxious which in turn made them perform their duties haphazardly.

In other cases, he was perceived as if he were looking down and being critical of those who served him or who were merely doing their job. In this respect he would sometimes inadvertently activate the unconscious Child and/or Parent residing in these other people and they would then lash out at him. That is, by his actions, tone of voice, movement, he would end up reminding the person trying to help him (that is, unconsciously) of their own critical Parent. The unconscious Parent residing in the unconscious mental system of their right brain would then respond with conscious/unconscious resentment that Tommy (or anyone) would treat them in this fashion. Hence due to the unconscious confusions occurring within the right half of the brain these people would often unconsciously (and thus unintentionally) retaliate by being difficult, making him wait, goofing up his order, ignoring him, or making some inappropriate comment.



The right brain is the repository for early feelings and emotions, including the impressions and feelings of the Parent and Child. It also controls vocal-emotional functioning, the perception and expression of body language, facial gestures and other forms of non-verbal communication and comprehension. The right brain listens to how someone says something, not necessarily what they say.

Tommy would often behave in a confrontational manner when entering a store or dealing with a service representative. However, this being unconsciously mediated, although he was aware of his demeanor, consciously he did not intend on being rude. Nevertheless, his manner, body language, facial expression, and tone of voice in effect was a challenge as well as a display of contempt. Essentially his tone of voice was saying "fuck you!" and those who were supposed to assist him with a purchase or problem would respond in kind.

Essentially Tom, saw his father in every person who had the power to thwart his desires or who exercised some form of authority or control over his environment. Be it a cashier in a department store or the manager of his office, each posed a challenge to his unconscious Child who would then be triggered. Being no longer small but "big" his Child ego/personality could now display all its anger, irritations and resentments in all its childish fury with little or no fear of ever being beat or bullied again. Essentially, all such individuals allowed him the opportunity to finally beat the Parent who tried so hard to control his life and who made him feel so inferior when he was small.

However, he was forced to go to war again and again since that battle fought so long ago was never won. It was continually being fought between Parent and Child inside his own head. Essentially Tom was at war with himself and all innocent bystanders were merely drawn into the battle.


The problems plaguing Tom, Tammy and Fred, Charlene and Billy and others might be easier to overcome if each partner would recognize that in addition to the surface level of the personality that comprises himself and his partner, there is also an unconscious Child and Parent which must be dealt with. Recognizing that there are both conscious and unconscious needs and feelings might serves to minimize fights, denials and accusations, and would certainly improve the quality of communication.

Moreover, if it could also be recognized that the Parent and Child are permanent fixtures which can be modified, understood, thwarted, and improved, via the assistance of the conscious aspect of the Ego, more effort could be devoted to mutual acceptance and understanding and less to fruitless conflicts.

Until this occurs, however, there will be a repetition of the same mistakes, the same poor choices, the same abuse, and similar arguments over and over again.

Copyright: 2006, 2000, 2010, 2018 - Rhawn Joseph, Ph.D.