In the introduction to this post, I mentioned that a major problem with psychoanalytic formulations concerning the origins of personality dysfunction is that they presume that problematic interactions with parents and other family-of-origin members are only powerful in shaping personality functioning with young children.
Sometimes the situation would escalate to incredible extremes, with parents figuratively sticking their heads in the oven threatening suicide in response to the patient’s meager attempt at self actualization, or doing what they want and not what the parents seem to want.
In a sense, rage and panic are both communicated to and conditioned within the offspring of such parents. According to attachment researcher Mary Main, if parenting generates multiple, contradictory models of attachment, this creates a sense of insecurity in the offspring.
Extinction of fear responses has also been found to be context specific. If a fear response is extinguished in one context, it may come right back if an animal is moved to a somewhat different environment. If the new environment is similar to another one such as the early family environment, fearful patterns of behavior learned early in life but inappropriate for the new environment may therefore be seen.
In turn, these reinforced schemata become more likely to be activated in the patient's current social interactions. This leads to reenactment and recapitulation of these patterns in other relationships. This is the basis of what Freud referred to as the repetition compulsion.
Parental behavior has such a powerful effect in triggering old schemata that it does not have to occur with any great degree of frequency in order for its effects to continue. In adults, the reinforcement of schemata occurs in a manner analogous to the learning theory paradigm of a variable intermittent reinforcement schedule. That is, the powerful parental behavior may be witnessed infrequently but unpredictably, leading the patient to continue to react rigidly in ways consistent with old role-relationship expectations.