Why do some people end up in one codependent relationship after another?
Why does a woman with an emotionally distant mother repeat the same pattern with her own children?
Why do so many adult children of alcoholics marry alcoholics?
And why are people who grew up in violent families more likely to repeat these patterns – as abusers or victims of abuse?
On the surface, this doesn’t make any sense. No one who grew up in a dysfunctional family or has been traumatized wants to repeat these patterns.
Why do we repeat destructive patterns?
There are several different factors that contribute to our tendency to repeat destructive behavioral patterns.
- We repeat what’s familiar. Even though we know it’s dysfunctional and not working well for us, we repeat behaviors because they feel familiar and we know what to expect from them. This is what I call “the devil you know” and we often choose it over the unknown simply because it’s known to us.
- We repeat what we learned as children. The beliefs, coping skills, and behavior patterns that we learned in childhood become deeply entrenched because we learned them when we were vulnerable, and our brains weren’t fully developed. And after years of using them, they are hard to change.
- We repeat what was traumatizing in an unconscious effort to gain mastery over it. If you felt rejected, unloved, or powerless as a child, you may recreate experiences and relationships where you feel similarly in an unconscious effort to change the outcome – to heal yourself by gaining the acceptance or love of someone or to feel in control. But, instead, we tend to choose partners and friends who treat us as our parents did and we continue to play our part as we always have and recreate the same outcome – not a different one.
- We think we deserve to suffer. Traumatized children are often told that they are bad and deserve to be abused or they are the reason dad drinks or the family has so many problems. And even if we aren’t directly blamed, we internalize our family’s shame and blame ourselves. Our self-esteem is eroded, so we believe that we deserve emotional pain, abuse, failed relationships, and shame in adulthood.
We repeat what we don’t repair
Unfortunately, dysfunctional relationship patterns are learned and passed from one generation to the next. And we will probably repeat them until we heal the underlying trauma and feel lovable and worthy of being treated with respect and kindness.
We repeat dysfunctional relationship dynamics because they’re familiar. Even when you know something is “wrong” or unhealthy, it’s hard to change; it’s always easier to keep doing what you’ve always done than to learn and apply new skills. This is especially true in stressful situations. When your nervous system is overwhelmed, your emotions feel out of control, and your body is flooded with adrenaline, it’s extremely challenging to behave in a different way. This is in part due to our neurobiology.
What fires together, wires together
You may have heard of the phenomena “what fires together, wires together”. This refers to the way neurons in your brain create stronger, more efficient, and more familiar pathways the more you think about or do something. We’ve all experienced this when we practice a skill. For example, the more you practice shooting a basketball, the easier it becomes to score. The brain also creates connections between our feelings and specific situations, people, or places. For example, the smell of lemon Pledge might transport you back to your Grandma’s house if her zealous use of the cleaner created a neural pathway or strong association in your mind between her and Pledge. Likewise, we repeat maladaptive patterns (of thinking and behaving) because these pathways are the strongest.
If you were abused or neglected as a child, the neural pathways for those relationship patterns were strengthened and your brain becomes accustomed to them. So, you’re likely to seek out relationships with a similar pattern without even realizing it.
Children need to feel safe. They need parents who are attentive and responsive to their needs. And children need predictability. In dysfunctional families, these things are often lacking. And as a result, children are often tense, anxious, and afraid; they don’t feel safe. We cope by trying to control other people and situations – so we can regain a sense of safety.
When we recreate dysfunctional relationship patterns from our past, we’re unconsciously trying to re-do these experiences, so we can feel in control, so we can fix what we couldn’t fix as children. We think (again, this is mostly unconscious) that this time if we can be lovable or perfect, we won’t make the same mistakes – and thus avoid the abuse or rejection that we suffered as children.
Breaking old patterns
We can break old patterns, but the more you’ve done something, felt something or thought about something, the stronger those neural connections are – and the harder they are to break. When we talk about “rewiring your brain” we really mean forming new neural connections so that new thoughts and behaviors become the norm. When you choose to respond differently or think differently, you’re creating new neural pathways and with repetition, they will become the preferred and comfortable ways of acting and thinking.
Here are some ways to begin changing your old patterns:
- Become more aware of the relationship patterns in your family of origin. These were the models for all your future relationships. You might find it helpful to read about relationship dynamics, write or journal about your childhood experiences, or talk with a therapist who can help you gain greater awareness of your family’s unspoken rules and roles.
- Reflect on your own behavior. It’s also important to be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and understand the part you play in your dysfunctional relationships. Ultimately, you’re responsible for your own actions and learning healthier ways to solve problems, get your needs met, and cope with stress.
- Heal the underlying trauma wounds. Dysfunctional relationships stem from abandonment, rejection, shame, and other painful and traumatic experiences. You need to learn to feel worthy and lovable in order to find healthy, stable, loving relationships. Until your emotional wounds and unmet needs are resolved, you will continue to seek healing from partners who are unable to make you feel loved or lovable. Many people find the assistance of a trauma-informed therapist is an essential component of healing. There are quite a few different therapeutic approaches that can be helpful. You can read about some of them here.
- Learn and practice new skills. To change our relationship patterns, we also must change our behavior. This might include learning more effective communication skills, how to better regulate our emotions, and consistently practicing self-care.
- Be kind to yourself. Making significant changes takes a lot out of you. Realistically, you’re not going to change long-standing patterns in a matter of weeks or months. So, be gentle with yourself as you slowly make changes, learn new skills, seek new insights, and learn and grow.
No matter where you are on your journey to healing and creating new relationship patterns, there is hope. Change is possible!