Have you ever felt as though you’re just dating the same person over and over again? Have you looked back after another breakup and found yourself beating yourself up for not seeing all the same signs, and for making all the same mistakes? Or perhaps a pattern keeps playing out within one relationship, and you tell yourself you’re just going around in circles?
It can be so frustrating to notice patterns like these, especially when they’ve caused considerable pain in the past. This is a place I know well, and there’s one perspective which I’ve found really helpful. I’d like to share that perspective here, and talk a bit about the difference between circles and spirals, falling into holes and finding the power to climb back out again.
Before we get into it, there’s some nuance to be aware of here. I was once in a relationship with someone who would justify his harmful behaviour in part by implying that it was great that I was able to practice saying ‘no,’ and that I could show how strong I was. That he was facilitating my growth in some way. Coming from an abuser, this is clearly a harmful narrative and I can see it now for what it was, though I couldn’t at the time.
So I want to clarify that choosing to view destructive, difficult experiences in terms of what benefits they may have doesn’t mean justifying or rationalising what happened. It doesn’t mean excusing bad behaviour. It means being able to hold a greater amount of complexity; being able to hold the both/and of, “no, it shouldn’t have happened and I can use this experience now in ways that support my own power and agency.”
As an adult I’ve been in two relationships that have been emotionally manipulative and/or abusive, one of which included sexual assault, and several with people who had substance addictions. As a teenager I was groomed by a teacher and experienced sexual harassment by strangers. These experiences are not uncommon; most of the women and AFAB (assigned female at birth) folks in my life, and some of the men, share stories of assault and abuse of some kind.
And you know what? While there’s power in giving these experiences a name, it can feel as though that power is robbed and I’m right back at square one as soon as I find myself in a similar situation again. I don’t know about you, but I tell myself that I should know better this time. That I shouldn’t make ‘the same’ mistake again. That the point of doing all the work I do is to have healthier relationships.
A more compassionate, patient part of myself knows that this journey is not linear; we do not process, get over it, and move on. It comes around and changes, shifts, and transforms, we feel it in different ways, and it shows us different things each time. And still, when the pain or anger of it reappears after some time, or when we find ourselves in a new relationship that feels harmful in familiar ways, it can be easy to feel like we’re stuck in a cycle, endlessly looping.
Well, what if that circle was actually a spiral?
We come back around and re-experience some of that old hurt, perhaps, but in a slightly different way. It has changed a bit and so have we, and we can allow it to change us. We can allow it to show us what’s important to us, and how to better stay in alignment with ourselves.
As Carl Jung said,
“The spiral in psychology means that when you make a spiral you always come over the same point where you have been before, but never really the same, it is above or below, inside, outside, so it means growth.”
This process of personal development, healing, growing, whatever you want to call it – it’s not a place we one day arrive at, fully realised and grown and whole. It’s all the grittiness that happens along the way; all the relationships that we tell ourselves have ‘failed,’ all the times we pick ourselves up after a painful, shitty experience and come back to what’s really important to us.
And so just as we move around in a spiral, those painful experiences that resemble the past might be inevitable. But each time, we’re meeting them as a different person, in a different context. The challenge and the difficulty shows us different parts of ourselves, and we have different resources and tools to work with it. We can see the core theme again, from a slightly different vantage point, and perhaps with a little more patience and awareness.
If you’re stuck in the middle of beating yourself up for going around in circles in some area of your life, try it for yourself. In what ways is this situation different from what’s gone before? Even if the differences seem tiny, they are there.
Not so long ago I got myself into a hole telling myself that I was incapable of having healthy relationships because they are always the same (happens to me too). Thankfully, I also realised just how much more support I had in my life this time around – and how much easier that made it to recognise that the relationship was not serving me, and to end it. What a huge difference! That’s a spiral – not a loop.
I also realised that I could allow the relationship to show me what was important to me, and what I wanted to cultivate more of in my own life. That’s also huge! It’s meant I’ve been picking up my guitar more often, giving time to important friendships, and investing in training.
Yours may not feel big or dramatic. But perhaps you spotted that things weren’t ok more quickly this time. Perhaps you were able to reach out to a friend, when you weren’t before. Perhaps you found a therapist, took a course, or read a book that gave you a new perspective. Perhaps you advocated for your needs a little more, cared for yourself more consistently, or held your boundaries more often. Without dismissing the pain and hurt, and without justifying unkind or abusive behaviour, let’s also acknowledge the ways that all of our experiences change us, and the gifts we can find there. Those are things worth celebrating, and there’s power to be found in doing so.
Are you on your journey towards having happier, healthier relationships? If you'd like to be supported by regular emails with more useful guides like this one, drop your email address below. No spam, unsubscribe any time.