Once upon a time or maybe last week, I wrote a post titled, How a Dad Shapes His Daughter’s Romantic Relationships. In response, many of you wrote to me with the same question: “How do we break the unwanted relationship patterns we imprinted early in our lives?” I decided the best way to answer this complex question would be in small pieces over the course of a couple posts. It’s not the perfect solution, but I hope it will start the conversation. In the next six billion posts I will attempt to cover the What, Why, How, and What Now aspects of breaking unwanted relational patterns.
So, let’s get this party started!
We’ll start with “What”. What partners do you pick? What traits have you noticed in your current and past partners that show a displeasing or disturbing pattern? Do you pick partners who are cold and distant? Angry and difficult? Refuse to grow up? Unfaithful? If it helps, write a little bit about each of your past partners. What themes do you see? What kinds of partners do you choose?
Now, I want you to take your understanding one step further. Instead of just noticing patterns in the partners you choose, look for patterns in the ways your relationships unfold. What roles do you end up playing? The caretaker/mother? The pursuer/needy one? The enforcer/nag?
What is the flow of your relationships or what conflicts do you see repeating themselves? What feelings accompany these patterns?
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. I worked with a patient whose relationships always started out great. Then after a period of time, she would start to feel her partner pull away. She told me, “This makes me scared that he’s losing interest in me, so I try harder to do everything possible to make him happy. Sometimes it works and sometimes it makes him more distant. When I try to ask him about it, he gets irritated and says I’m too insecure and that makes me feel horrible, which then makes me mad and then he’s mad that I’m mad…”
Here’s a way to see the relationship pattern:
1. You perceive him pulling away –> you feel fear
2. You try harder –> sometimes rewarded (feel happy), sometimes shamed
3. You feel ashamed –> you feel mad
4. You express anger (directly or indirectly) –> He get’s mad
5. The relationship ends
Now it’s your turn. Work to recognize and write a pattern you see in your relationships.
In a relationship, especially a long term one, we can sink into these relational patterns that are so ingrained, we hardly notice their existence. It can be helpful to look for these patterns in other past relationships – not just romantic ones, but relationships with friends, coworkers, and family. What are the patterns in all your relationships that stand out to you? Who do you choose, what roles do you end up playing and how do these relationships progress?
The key to this first step is awareness. If you can recognize the “What” in your relationships – your patterns of partner choice, relationship dynamics, and the feelings they create – you can work to change them with intention. I know I make it sound easy, and we both know it’s not. Usually awareness alone is not enough to create change. We will also need to work and practice how to actually make change. That will come in later steps.
Of course, there is also a “Why,” which is related to your history. In the next post, I will talk about attachment and parenting patterns and how they may affect your relationship choices now – the “Why” behind this post’s “What”. I hope you will continue to join the conversation!
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Last reviewed: 9 Jul 2013