Break free from unhealthy relationship patterns » myShrink

Break free from unhealthy relationship patterns

From the outside, we can often see how people repeat patterns over and over again. But what’s so easy to see in someone else can be darned tricky when it comes to ourselves.

Jacqueline is my friend. Maybe you know someone like her. The "bad boy complex" is taking her down yet again. Her last relationship ended after just one year. Her two previous relationships hadn't fared much better, each lasting about two years.

It was the last one that compelled Jacqueline to consider therapy. It was a last ditch effort - she had gotten hooked in pretty deep this time.

Needless to say, her dating buddy was ambivalent, on and off again about his marriage. In the end, he decided to return to his wife. Jacqueline was devastated.


If asked, Jacqueline would say that the issue isn't about her commitment to relationships…rather, as she sees it, the problem is she usually attracts guys who are unavailable. Not surprisingly, they can't go the distance, and never do.

But Jacqueline also frankly admits that she has met men who deeply loved her and were emotionally available…problem is, she didn't feel attracted to them.

In fact, she actually felt repulsed by them.

Feeling stuck in negative repetitive patterns?

We all have blind spots for our own stuff. That's how come we easily get mired in repetitive patterns.

Remember the movie Ground Hog Day? Think of the Bill Murray character who makes the same mistakes day after day until he gets it right, until he fundamentally changes his attitude and feelings about himself and the people he meets.

That's kinda like what we all do in life. Unfortunately, for most of us, it lasts longer than two hours to get it right. In fact, it might even take a lifetime. And, along the way, there's bound to be a lot of heartache.

Many people do recognize their problem behaviours. So, they might ask themselves, "Why go to therapy? I already know what my problem is. I don't need to pay someone to tell me I had bad toilet training."

Understanding how good therapy works is key. You see, while it certainly can help expose the blind spots, it's much more than that. Therapy interrupts and re-fashions those patterned responses that underlie them.

The mistake many folks make is assuming that we have to "think" or "will" the changes we want.

To some degree, we all harbour the illusion that our behaviours are driven by the top level "thinking" brain, the neocortex.

In fact, most of our behaviours and all our habitual responses emerge from primitive "survival brain", and thus are quite outside conscious awareness. These structures in the oldest recesses of the brain largely ignore our well-intentioned demands that we "stop feeling this way" or "get over it".

To effectively shift these bottom-up patterns requires something more than an ordinary intellectual understanding. And, definitely more than the "just do it" type of attitude.

You can't "will" the pattern away for the same reason you just can't make yourself fall in love with someone. That's why therapy is so powerful - it changes those negative repetitive patterns.

Therapy is leaps and bounds ahead of
reading self-help books!

Engaging in therapy is about changing the brain so the new preferred pattern becomes automatic - not something you have to think about or consciously work at.

At its most fundamental level, therapy can be described as "brain plasticity in action", where developing neuropathways replace the old and new behaviours take root as a result of your therapeutic experience.

Here's how repeating patterns crop up in relationships:

  • Avoiding emotional or physical intimacy.
  • Clinging or the "urge to merge".
  • Settling for "emotional crumbs".
  • Feeling suffocated or "desperate" for a connection.

Emotionally, these patterns show up as feeling:

  • Overly defensive and/or quick to anger.
  • Overwhelmed and out of control.
  • Easily prone to feeling abandoned.
  • Feeling taken for granted.

Getting stuck in the same ol' same ol'

Julie was determined to get married right from the get-go. It was her goal. She figured that this would secure her emotional future. She hated the idea of being alone.

When she met Peter, she loved that he was so strong and sure of himself. It made her feel whole to be around him.

For Peter, however, marriage wasn't about avoiding being alone. In fact, he never felt he really needed anyone. But Peter liked the fact that Julie was in touch with her emotions. In her presence, he felt alive.

Julie wasn't naive enough to think that everything would be roses after getting married--and it wasn't. But what really surprised her was the sinking realization that she felt more alone now then she ever could have imagined.

When Julie confessed her feelings to Peter, he was completely taken aback. "She's so emotional" he would find himself saying. He just didn't get the "problem" she was having. To Peter, everything was "fine".

Upon a closer look in therapy however, Peter readily admitted that he wasn't feeling much of anything these days. Everything was kinda blah.

What started out full of hope has left Julie and Peter in their respective historical patterns of dis-connection.

Infants teach us
about relationships

Analysis of countless hours of video tapes of mother-infant interactions complied over several years have revealed some interesting conclusions: Repeating patterns in adult relationships are reflective of our early imprinting.

The foundation of how we relate to ourselves and others can be found in how we were cared for and the way our mothers (and fathers) "attuned" to us as we were growing up.

You see, most of the human brain develops after birth. We've learned that the nervous system is far more fragile than was previously thought. Not only is it malleable and open to learning, it is also incredibly sensitive to signs of safety and connection, especially to danger and abandonment.

How infants experience life (getting fed regularly, playtimes with mom and dad, etc.) determines the nature of patterned responses that get laid down.

Now, if my upbringing was inconsistent (i.e. my parents were poorly attuned to my needs), I will expect and tolerate receiving less love and connection than those around me.

And, because this pattern is laid down so early, it feels as if this is who I really am, as if it's the way it will always be. This is my "normal".

But if my early care was intrusive (i.e. mom and dad were overly attentive), I will likely feel suffocated in intimate connections. Chances are it will be difficult for me to sense my own needs and I may find that I crave a lot of space to be content, let alone happy, in relationships.


You can't heal what you can't feel

Therapy allows these negative repetitive patterns to emerge and be dealt within a safe environment. You see, feelings are collections of sensations and sensations are the language of the nervous system - they show up in the body.

While these repetitive patterns are literally wired in the brain and expressed in the body, unless they're shouting at us we often don't recognize them. And, when we finally do, we tend to miss the boat by making a cognitive interpretation, even though it's a body pattern that's repeating!

For example, Jacqueline is well aware of her pattern of loving unavailable partners. She intellectually believes that if she hangs in there someone will eventually choose her.

Yet, she also feels repulsed by partners who offer the possibility of intimacy. After all, she reasons "good boys are boring". While we can only speculate about her early years, it's probable that her parental emotional connection was experienced more as a suffocating loss of self than a deep, comforting attunement.

Relationship patterns with your therapist

You see, when you're experiencing a patterned response in your relationship with your therapist, conditions are created for physical change in the brain. Bringing awareness into the present moment stimulates the brain to make new neuropathic connections. As the brain changes, old patterned ways gradually give way to more adaptive, "mature" responses.

Facing yourself is the only way to change your life. And, therapy makes that a realized possibility.

Perhaps a moral of our story is this:

Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. "Pooh!" he whispered. "Yes, Piglet?" "Nothing," said Piglet, taking Pooh's paw.

"I just wanted to be sure of you." ~A.A. Milne

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