This post looks at the phenomenon of “trauma repetition”or “repetition compulsion”, i.e., the tendency to recreate past traumas in the present. I will use the character Christian Grey from the novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” as an example of this phenomenon. Many people expose themselves, seemingly compulsively, to situations that are reminiscent of past traumas. A classic example is a woman who was abused as a child by an alcoholic father who then marries an alcoholic man who abuses her.
In the story “Fifty Shades of Grey”, Christian, the protagonist, was born to a crack addict, prostitute mother with whom he lived until he was four when he was adopted. As of the first movie (I admit I have not read the book), we know he was badly treated as a young child (for example, he has cigarette burns on his chest from this era), but we don’t know the full extent of the abuse or neglect he suffered. We do, however, know that when he was fifteen he became involved with an older woman (his mother’s friend) in which he was the submissive (the partner that gives control to another in a Bondage Discipline Sado-Masochism (BDSM) sexual relationship).
In this much touted story, Christian, a twenty-seven year-old Dominant (the partner in a BDSM relationship who takes the active or controlling role over that of the submissive partner), pursues the character Anastasia Steele, a twenty-two year-old innocent, to be his submissive. Christian is an alpha male. He is highly aggressive and controlling in his pursuit of Anastasia. Many have claimed that he displays the characteristics and behaviors of a emotional and/or sexual abuser. Others claim that he is honest and forthright about his intentions and desires all along. This blog post is not about this controversy. Rather, it is about why, given his traumatic history, he would be drawn to being a Dominant in a BDSM relationship.
As a child, Christian was betrayed by the women in his life several times over. He was betrayed by his biological mother who mistreated him and then gave him up for adoption. He was then betrayed by his adoptive mother who permitted her friend and contemporary to have sex with her fifteen-year-old son. And, he was betrayed by the friend, an adult who was engaging in sexual relations with him as a minor. This is sexual abuse.
With this traumatic attachment history with women, it is not surprising that Christian would want all of the power and control in his relationship with Anastasia. By the same token, it is also not surprising that he would be drawn to the role of the Dominant in a the context of a highly structured BDSM relationship. Having power and control means less likelihood of being hurt, i.e., re-traumatized. However, in another sense Christian is re-enacting his abusive past in the way that he has sex with Anastasia (albeit with the roles reversed) by making the sex (and the relationship) all about power and control. He victimizes her in ways that are reminiscent of how he was once victimized.
Trauma can be repeated on emotional, physiological and behavioral levels, sometimes simultaneously. Re-enactment of victimization and the power imbalances associated therewith such as through BDSM play wherein someone who has been abused historically plays the role of the victimizer (Dominant) is an example of the repetition of trauma. It is common for a traumatized person to compulsively seek out the familiarity of unhealthy relationships suffered in their family of origin or with an abuser and to seek to gain mastery over a set of circumstances in the present that resemble past traumatic circumstances. Christian is nothing if not masterful in his role as the Dominant. The irony is that for all his mastery he still loses Anastasia because she does not want him to inflict pain on her in the ways that he wants to inflict it. She wants a “normal” relationship. He is trapped in the circumscribed and familiar realm of BDSM wherein power relations are negotiated and defined. She is not.
If Christian was not a fictional character, I would suggest counselling. Counselling can help with repetition compulsion in several ways. Firstly, it can give a person insight into their own behavior. Often people people who are trapped in these cycles are not even aware that they are compulsively drawn to repeat the past. Secondly, it would give Christian an opportunity to grieve the losses of his past in a safe setting so that he might not be so controlled by them going forward. Finally, counselling has the potential to be reparative to the extent it provides Christian with a wholesome and secure attachment relationship from which he could take the risk to explore new facets of himself.