Have you ever felt that certain patterns keep popping up in your relationships with significant others, family, friends, bosses or coworkers and wondered why? After a relationship breakup or divorce is an ideal time to explore this. Most of us, often without realizing it, follow distinct patterns in our relationships--patterns that may be ingrained in our personalities. It's unrealistic, of course, to aspire to a complete personality overhaul, but what we can do is examine old patterns, learn to be aware of how they're affecting our relationships and begin to alter them.
When a person comes to me for therapy after a breakup or divorce, especially if the relationship was challenging, one of our tasks is to explore the dynamics of not only the relationship in question, but all other significant relationships in the person's life as well--all the way back to parents or other primary caregivers. The dynamics of those relationships offer clues as to why we repeat the same behaviors again and again in our interactions with others.
The widespread belief is that these patterns are largely unconscious, operating in areas of our brains that are not always connected to our awareness. Just as breathing and walking do not require us to think, many of our interactions with and reactions to others happen automatically. The notion that interactions with our primary caregivers throughout our childhoods determine unconscious patterns of security, trust and independence that we carry into adulthood is not new.
Relatively recently, the field of neuroscience exploded with findings about how the brain works, much of which backs up the notion that significant relationships and experiences in our lives can imprint unconscious memories in our brains--memories that can be triggered later in life and lead to certain feelings and behaviors without us even realizing what's going on.
The idea of history repeating itself can be looked at in two ways: patterns that remain constant throughout our lives, and an isolated incident that brings about unexpected feelings or behaviors, seemingly out of the blue.
Take "Jaclyn" for example, a client who came to therapy and discovered that in all of her romantic, professional, social and familial relationships she tended to put her own needs on the back burner. In other words, she was a "people pleaser." As a result, her own needs were not being met on a consistent basis. Her romantic relationships were unhealthy and her sense of self was wavering. She traced this pattern back to her childhood, when her parents were going through a divorce and she felt neglected. The only way she felt she could gain her parents' attention and approval was by pleasing them, and by not rocking the boat in any way. She carried this pattern into adulthood and was finally able to learn that asserting herself in healthy ways didn't push people away. In fact, it made for better relationships and a more secure sense of self.
In the case of isolated incidents, consider "Paul." After his wife received a promotion and began to work longer hours (becoming less physically and emotionally available) Paul found himself acting in ways that were out of character. He began to pull away from his wife. He sat in silence and pouted. He became passive-aggressive, responding to his wife with sarcasm and what he described as "dirty looks."
Paul felt baffled by his behavior. He said, "I've never acted like this in my life!" In fact, he discovered that he had acted like that, when he was in elementary school and his mother returned to work after being a stay-at-home mother since his birth. It was a memory he never thought about, but once he accessed it he recalled feeling abandoned. Too young to understand his feelings, he reacted by ignoring his mother, exaggerating his displeasure, and being mean to her. Years later the memory of that time was activated (unbeknownst to him) and he responded to his wife as if he were a hurt, confused child. After connecting these dots, he was able to learn healthier ways to cope with his wife's transition.
So what does all this mean for you? It means that even though these patterns can seem to run our lives at times, they can be changed. It requires an excavation of sorts--digging around our memories for artifacts of relationships past. From there, we can garner valuable awareness and learn new ways of interacting and reacting.
If you're working through the aftermath of a breakup or divorce and find yourself wondering, why do I keep going for this type of person/acting this way, a good starting place is this: first, think about the romantic relationship that recently ended and answer these questions.
• What was your role in the relationship?
• Were there issues that kept popping up, again and again?
• What were typical interactions with your significant other like, and were you comfortable with them?
• What part did you play in resolving conflicts?
• What are your needs and were they being met on a consistent basis?
• Were you able to meet your significant other's needs?
• Did you feel that any sacrifices you made for the relationship were healthy/balanced?
• How did you tend to communicate? Were you able to speak openly, honestly, directly and without aggression?
After answering those questions, scan the other important relationships in your life and see if anything stands out as a pattern. You might consider enlisting the help of a therapist in sorting this out, especially if you find yourself in psychologically, emotionally or physically abusive relationships.
Again, the good news is that it's possible to become aware of our relationship patterns and commit to learning to alter them, and, as a result, find freedom from history that gets in the way of healthy relationships in our lives.
Mary Darling Montero, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in private practice in Santa Monica, CA. She specializes in relationships, life transitions, trauma, depression and anxiety, and is certified to practice EMDR for trauma resolution. She is a contributing therapy expert for BounceBack.