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Can I Break Problematic Relationship Patterns?

Jessica Pontis, LCSW 

           As we move from winter into spring, we experience change, almost as if the sunlight and blossoms inspire an emotional renaissance.  With this change in season let us take the time to do some spring cleaning, to look at ourselves and our relationships and determine what patterns we would like to change.  An honest examination of our own relationships requires mindful purpose and meaningful action, as well as a gentleness that comes with reflection.  Looking at our relationships with others that may have problematic patterns requires a delicate balance of recognizing where our part ends, and the other person’s part begins.  It’s critical to learn to separate our own areas concern from another’s, and where we can hold ourselves accountable for our own change.  In this post we will utilize a multistep approach for addressing concerning relationship patterns. 

Step 1: What is the problem?

           To make real change we first must identify what the problem is before we can make any attempt to correct them.  This requires the process of rigorously and honestly asking ourselves and our partners, friends, or family members “what is causing unhappiness in this relationship?”  Each party needs to bring their own clear definition of what they believe the problem to be.  For example, you may define the problem as “My mom calls me and complains to me about my dad whenever they have a fight, and it feels inappropriate.”  From the mother’s perspective, the problem could be defined as, “My child doesn’t want to be there for me when I’m hurting.”  Both perspectives are real as the client experiences them, but only after each party defines their understanding of the issue can each person work towards a mutually agreeable solution.  

Step 2: What allows the pattern to continue?

           More often than not, there are recurrent themes that accompany the recurring problem.  Sometimes these themes may not seem causally related to the problem but allow yourself to dig into what the bulk of all the problems in the concerning relationship have in common.  Some common negative relationship patterns could include:

–          Trying to change the other person.

–          Immediately assigning blame to yourself, or the other person, without considering other possibilities or explanations.

–          Comparing your relationship to others’ relationships or a similar nature.

–          Ignoring the other person’s wants, needs, and opinions.

–          Codependent behaviors or sacrificing too much of your own needs to satisfy the other person.  

Step 3: How am I contributing to this problem?

           One of the most challenging parts of breaking problematic patterns is looking honestly into how we contribute to them.  During this step it is important not for breed guilt or shame and remember that we behave in ways that we feel keep us safe, even if they ultimately do not serve us in the ways we hope they would.  Remember that you are not passive in a relationship, you choose to engage for your own personal reasons.  Challenge yourself to take responsibility for the ways in which your own actions or behaviors allow this pattern to manifest in the first place in a gentle and self-forgiving way. 

Step 4: Can I disrupt the automatic patterns?

           Where do you find yourself allowing “exceptions” to the problem?  This could include saying something like, “I know I asked my mom to respect my time and not call me multiple times during work, but it’s easier to take the call then to deal with it later.”  Pay attention to these thoughts that make exceptions for the concerning pattern and challenge yourself to stick with the boundary that has been discussed and agreed upon.  Hold yourself and others accountable for maintaining the compromise that has been determined feels most satisfying.  This can be hard, as a lot of the behaviors that feed relationship patterns lead to instant gratification in some way, but in the long run respecting the goals and holding each other accountable will lead to beneficial change and the disruption of concerning patterns. 

Step 5: Should I connect with additional help?

           Sometimes patterns are too persistent, difficult, or tricky to try and handle on your own.  Recognize the difference between problems and trust your gut if it’s telling you to connect with professional assistance if disrupting the pattern seems too challenging.  If each party has successfully identified and defined the issue and that problem seems a bit too big to tackle, considering connecting with a counselor or therapist who can act as a mediator and advocate for the ultimate goals of change.  If you feel that you would like to engage with someone to walk with you on this journey reach out to one of the licensed counselors in Chicago at Symmetry Counseling. You can reach out to us online, or call us at (312) 578-9990 to set up an appointment.    

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