Have you ever felt like the same things keep happening to you in your relationships? Do you have trouble making, or maintaining relaxed, consistent connection with friends, romantic partners, or other loved ones? It’s possible that what feels like a pattern in your relationships really is one, because we tend to see similarities and seek out similar relationships to those we have had in the past, particularly if we have been disappointed in our earliest relationships. If you keep getting stuck in what feels like the same old patterns with people that leave you ultimately feeling disappointed all over again, there is a way out of this cycle.
Children are born dependent upon others and undeveloped, including in the ability to understand and function in relationships with others. The first and most significant influence on our social development comes from our primary caregivers as children. As we grow up, we internalize the way we are treated by our caregivers, as well as the way that our caregivers interact with each other and the world, creating a mental model. This mental model informs us, largely unconsciously, about who we are and how other people are likely to interact with us. Our mental model, although based in a real experience, can be projected onto future relationships, making the present look like the past, even when the present is in reality quite different. For example, if we received a lot of criticism growing up, we may feel criticized at every turn by those we are close to, when in reality we are being given reasonable feedback. Minor mistakes, misunderstandings, or limited availability may seem like fundamental rejection or betrayal.
Sometimes, we may find ourselves drawn to choosing people in our lives who are similar to our mental model, or interacting with people in ways that would influence them to conform to these models. If we have been hurt or disappointed in the past, why would we want to go through this again? On the surface, it doesn’t seem to make sense, however, if we look below the surface, people often repeat painful patterns in their relationships because they had to adapt relationally to a difficult situation and they are not aware of it. In other words, children will do just about anything to try and get as much safety and connection as they can from their caregivers, even if to do so means to act in ways that carry significant costs and are maladaptive in adulthood. People carry what they learned about relating as children into their relationships as adults.
Changing the ways that we relate as an adult is difficult because these adaptations are usually not totally conscious and there is often pain involved in recognizing and letting go of these strategies. The cost of not changing them, however, is continued dissatisfaction and disconnect in one’s relationships. As a therapist, I consider it an important part of my role to help people to identify these patterns in their lives, as they are often major contributors to whatever challenges brought them into therapy in the first place. Psychotherapy can be very effective for doing this kind of work not only because it provides a safe space to explore difficult relational experiences in the past and present, but also because therapy is a relationship and the patterns that one tends to bring to other relationships often are played out with the therapist, where they can be mutually explored curiosity, and compassion. As we become aware of our relational patterns, understand their function and roots, and learn to tolerate the difficult emotions, we start to free ourselves of these patterns; establishing relationships that are more secure, authentic, and pleasurable.