Repetition compulsion, or repetitive compulsion, involves repeating physically or emotionally painful situations that happened in the past.

Repetition compulsion is also sometimes called trauma reenactment. The reenactment may take the form of recurring dreams and may affect relationships in various ways. Experts have several theories to explain the factors that may cause this phenomenon.

Older research from 1998 reports on some of these theories from various experts, including Sigmund Freud, who is the father of psychoanalysis. His view is that a person’s inability to discuss or remember past traumatic events might lead them to repeat these traumas compulsively.

One possible strategy for overcoming repetition compulsion is psychoanalysis, which consists of exploring and identifying early trauma that may be responsible for later reenactions.

Read on to learn more about repetition compulsion, including underlying theories about its causes, how it affects relationships, and strategies to overcome this behavior.

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Repetition compulsion refers to an unconscious need to reenact early traumas. A person with this condition repeats these traumas in new situations that might symbolize the initial trauma.

Repetition compulsion can act as a barrier to therapeutic change in a person. Therapy aims to help the person remember the trauma and understand how it is influencing their current behavior.


There are different forms of reenactment, one of which is dreams. According to a 1990 case study, someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might have recurring dreams of the experience or initial trauma, which might cause them to become preoccupied with it.

Research also notes that many people relive past traumas in their present lives. For example, people who experience sexual abuse during childhood are more likely to experience it as an adult.

Additionally, someone who experiences violence in their childhood may be more likely to become a perpetrator of violence in later life. The helplessness they felt as a child might motivate them to take the extreme measure of committing violence to avoid feeling it again. This behavior is a form of reenactment.

Although these examples show the negative effects of repetition compulsion, reenactment can also potentially be positive. An example of an adaptive reenactment might be when a grieving individual repeatedly tells stories about their lost loved one. This enables them to work through their loss and can reduce the pain that typically comes with grieving.

The following are some examples of repetition compulsion patterns of behavior in relationships:

  • Detachment: A person who experiences violent beating as a child may use a technique called detachment as a coping mechanism. This may lead to detachment in later relationships. Detachment refers to a person’s inability to fully engage with their feelings or the feelings of others.
  • Familiarity: People may seek the comfort of familiarity, even if it relates to something negative. For instance, an individual with a distant parent or caregiver may seek a partner who has a distant personality.
  • Self-hatred: Experiencing abuse as a child may lead to feelings of self-hatred and make a person feel as though they deserve mistreatment. As an adult, this may cause them to gravitate toward others who mistreat them.
  • Abandonment: After experiencing abandonment as a child, a person may demonstrate possessiveness and clinginess in relationships later on in life. These behaviors stem from the desire to avoid more abandonment.
  • Triggers of past emotions: Someone whose parents or caregivers neglected them when they were a child may harbor feelings of anger about that situation. As a result, the person may become excessively angry in later life, even in response to a minor incident. For instance, they could become angry when a friend does not return a phone call.
  • Fear-motivated behavior: As an example of this, there have been links between sexual abuse in childhood and prostitution in adulthood. Research cites a specific example in which a woman explained that her involvement in prostitution was an attempt to control the opposite sex after being a victim of abuse earlier in life.

Some possible causes of repetitive compulsion behaviors include:

Rigid defenses

People may have a rigid or inflexible way of defending themselves against experiencing a repetition of their trauma, but having these mechanisms can inadvertently result in the reenactment occurring anyway.

For example, a person who experiences abandonment in their childhood may act possessively in relationships later on in life to avoid the past feelings of loneliness or neglect. However, the person may risk losing their partner if they behave in this way and may end up feeling those emotions anyway.

Affective dysregulation

Affective dysregulation relates to having poorly regulated emotional reactions in response to negative stimuli. For example, people who experience frequent, harsh disapproval from a parent or caregiver may have low self-esteem. They may also be very sensitive to criticism. Consequently, in later relationships, these people may consider criticism harsh, even when it is not, and respond with hostility.

Ego deficits

Ego deficits can refer to a limitation in mental resources. This limitation might manifest as various psychosocial problems in a person.

Long-term abuse may result in psychosocial effects that can include:

  • self-abusive behavior
  • low self-esteem
  • substance use disorders
  • inability to trust
  • difficult interpersonal relationships

For instance, a person with a history of growing up in an abusive environment may feel reluctant to leave an abusive partner later in life. This reluctance may stem from the inability to trust others to provide the necessary help.

Experts propose several theories that may explain this type of behavior. These include:

Freud theory

Some people are unable to talk about or remember a past trauma, so they express it through actions rather than words. Freud states that those who do not remember past trauma may have the drive to repeat the repressed experience in their present life.

Achieving mastery

Mastery in this context may mean that a person with traumatic past experiences is reenacting their trauma as a way to cope and heal. The problem with this theory is that reenactments rarely lead to mastery without treatment. Instead, traumatized people often lead traumatized lives.

Hyperarousal theory

An older 1989 study adds that physiological hyperarousal may play a role in repetition compulsion. This means that a person displays increased responsiveness to stimuli that remind them of the initial trauma. Hyperarousal can lead to a wide range of symptoms, including anxiety, elevation in heart rate, and stress. This type of response can hinder a person’s ability to make rational judgments.

Repetitive compulsion can be very challenging to treat.

However, research from 1998 notes that psychotherapy can be effective. It involves exploring a person’s past traumatic relationships and experiences to identify how and why they are reenacting a trauma. The goal is to help a person understand the unconscious forces that drive them.

Once the individual understands the effect that the past is having on the present, they have the opportunity to integrate the traumatic experience. This may lead to less intense feelings and better judgment. The aim of treatment is to break the pattern of repetition.

Some people may not wish to undergo in-depth psychoanalysis or psychodynamic therapy. For these individuals, other types of talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), may be a more suitable approach.

Learn more about psychodynamic therapy.

Repetition compulsion, or trauma reenactment, may occur due to various painful experiences early in life, such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. An inability to resolve or integrate the past trauma can result in the person reliving the circumstances.

Psychoanalysis and psychotherapy can enable someone to work through the trauma, which can help stop the reenactments.