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How Do Relationship Patterns Shape Our Expectations and Responses?


Our youngest is just over a year old and can officially be classified as an inconsistent or “bad” sleeper (if there is such a thing in the baby world). Tips, tricks and thoughtful advice have been tried every which way. Twice. The outcome? Some nights she’s a sleeping rockstar and others call for large amounts of coffee in the morning. Her cycle of getting into a consistent sleep/wake pattern for several days and then suddenly changing has resulted in a interesting phenomenon. Phantom cries. My husband and I will be in bed, trying to sleep, and one of us will suddenly hear her crying. A look on the baby monitor shows that she is perfectly sound asleep but still we lie there hearing those muffled cries. After doing some digging, it appears that phantom cries are actually very common, which doesn’t help us to get anymore sleep but does settle our fears that sleep deprivation is causing significant damage to our minds.

As I tried to sleep last night with the not-actually-happening crying sounds of our daughter, it hit me that these lingering cries are much like reoccurring feelings we may have from difficult situations. We’ve all heard sayings about wounds healing while scars remain, but maybe it goes even deeper. Take the crying for example. For several nights in a row our daughter would wake at a particular time, say 10:30pm. We come to expect it, to count on it and to plan for it. Then one night, she keeps sleeping. 10:30pm comes and goes without a peep. Except of course from our own minds. Maybe the phantom crying is actually just our bodies response to a pattern we’ve grown accustom to.

The Patterns that Secure Us

When we get into a pattern with a person or in a particular relationship, we settle into it. Even if the pattern is unhealthy, conflict ridden or causes undo stress, we work with it. We grow our lives around it, we prepare for it and it becomes a part of us. If that pattern were to suddenly stop or change, even if that is what we say we want, it can be uncomfortable. Just the act of preparing for a situation and anticipating a reaction that never comes can cause stress.

Maybe that is one reason why divorce, separation, breakups and ex / step / current relationships are so difficult at times of change. Or how we justify not changing when we need to. We get used to a pattern, no matter how unhealthy or dysfunctional, and it becomes a safety net around us. While we don’t like it, we can anticipate it and that gives us a sense of control.

That really is the cornerstone of most difficult relationships, isn’t it? Our need for order and safety spirals into a fight for control in a time when we feel nothing but total chaos.

Let’s look at a few examples of how this can play out…

  • In many ending relationships, arguments and fights become the only way to feel emotionally connected to each other. All other forms of intimacy have washed away and what remains are disagreements and heated exchanges. The ability to make the other mad or upset shows that they still care and that they are still invested. Fast forward through a separation or divorce and suddenly that too is gone. While you originally wanted nothing more than the fighting to stop, once it’s gone you suddenly feel alone. That connection, even though it was unhealthy for you, is now only a memory.
  • Outside of a romantic relationship, you can have a connection in your life that constantly lives in a cycle of conflict or instability. Maybe you’ve noticed a pattern to it, or perhaps you haven’t, but the conflict you still expect. You count on it occurring and mentally or emotionally plan for it. If you suddenly realize that it’s been awhile since the last argument, your stress level can increase…“any day now”…“what’s the next argument going to be about?”…“how bad will it be this time?”. Then it finally comes, and while not enjoyable, a sense of relief follows because you know you now have some breathing room until the next round hits. Or, maybe the next argument never surfaces. Perhaps the other person has made some personal changes or maybe you’ve changed the pattern without realizing it, but whatever the reason, the cycle has ended. That should be a time to rejoice and to move forward in a healthy way with this relationship without the anxiety that once engulfed you. But instead there is often first a time of stress or over thinking each interaction or encounter while waiting for the reaction you were expecting.


Expectations are what we base our days on and what we rest our emotions in. We grow accustom to certain interactions, responses and cycles that set our expectations for the future. But basing our actions on what we expect and not what is actually occurring can create a habit of unhealthy attachments, inappropriate reactions and higher levels of stress or anxiety. Breaking these thought processes and habits takes time and can result in strong emotional and physical responses. Even the best changes, like when our daughter suddenly decides to sleep through the night, can leave you feeling initially uncomfortable, uneasy or unprepared.

So what can we do?

First, take a deep breath and do your best to relax. Take an objective look at the situation and remind yourself of the good that can come with change.

Next, stop your assumptions. The person is suddenly not reacting in the negative way you’ve expected? Accept it and keep an open mind that maybe they are working on positive changes for themselves. A different response doesn’t automatically mean that they are plotting something sinister.

Now, accept a change in expectations. Holding on to an old cycle or habit is not only unhealthy, but will keep you rooted in the past. All relationships and connections change with time. Accepting the changes can bring out the best in each situation.

And lastly, take care of yourself. Remind yourself that change is a process that takes time and be kind to yourself when working through difficult emotions.

How Do Relationship Patterns Shape Our Expectations and Responses?

Amy Bellows, PhD

Amy Bellows holds a PhD in Psychology and has had the opportunity to work in various settings including leading adolescent group therapy sessions, working with victims of sexual assault, helping woman inmates adjust to post-prison life, conducting parenting education classes and assisting with drug and alcohol dependency treatment plans. The unique challenges and opportunities that come along with being a part of a step-family is a special interest of hers. Amy is currently working in the corporate environment with a interest in group dynamics and change management. You can find her on her website, or on Twitter @AmyBellowsPhD.

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APA Reference
Bellows, A. (2016). How Do Relationship Patterns Shape Our Expectations and Responses?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 11, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Jan 2016
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