Some say that the definition of insanity is doing the same and expecting new results. If that’s the case, I guess we’re all nuts in some way.
When it comes to intimate relationships, we each gesture with a certain dance. Look at any couple in conflict and observe just how sincerely different each person sees the conflict. Same song, different dancers. But this doesn’t just apply to people who are already coupled up. Those who jump from relationship to relationship are repeating a pattern too. Even those who withdraw from interpersonal relationships entirely – they too are repeating. After all, even no communication is a type of communication.
Perhaps nowhere else in life do we repeat the same patterns and believe “this time it will be different” the way that we do in relationships. When a business plan isn’t working, we revise it. When a study habit is ineffective, we seek tutoring. We think rationally and do better next time. In relationships though, something deeper is at play. Still, we tell ourselves that we will change. This time we will take things slower. This time we will listen to our gut. This time we will be more honest. This time we will be loyal. This time we won’t ignore obvious red flags. This time…
Ah, if it only were so simple. How many times have we even deliberately pursued someone or something “different,” only to surprisingly find ourselves in the same old song and dance again? Why does this happen? How did it come to be? Is there some other way to live and love with more wisdom?
Everyone from researchers of infants and neuroscience to psychoanalysts and anthropologists have devoted themselves to understanding how we develop our selves in relation to others. There are different theories and some of the terminology is different, but generally, scholars of relational patterns agree on the same principles. Here, I will provide an oversimplification of very complex ideas, but I also believe that the dosage of this information is usable to most readers who don’t intend to pursue a decade of schooling to become a psychotherapist.
First, the context which we’re born into matters a great deal. Things such as geographical location, cultural background, religious affiliation, family history (including previous family traumas), and the era in which we’re born into, all predetermine certain expectations – spoken or unspoken – about our role in the world before we’re even born. All of these factors and more will influence our personality and relationships in some way. Can you imagine how different your life would be if you were born on the opposite side of the earth 1,000 years ago?
Some researchers say we also come biologically pre-wired in ways that will influence our temperament – the core part of our personality. For example, children whose mothers had difficulty coping with anxiety and depression before and during their pregnancy may biologically predispose their offspring to similar challenges in dealing effectively with emotions. Basically, some combination of environmental and biological factors are already preparing our personality.
Then you were born. Congratulations.
The early years of life are particularly critical. When you cried at night, did someone come? When you were hungry, were you fed? How responsive were your caretakers to your needs? When you started to crawl and explore your surroundings, were your parents attuned to your needs? When you were learning to use the bathroom for yourself, were your parents patient? Did they demand perfection? When you gained more independence and looked back to see if your parents were still there, were they? When you inevitably showed you were an imperfect human being, had your own feelings and needs, and tried to carve your own path, were you still accepted and loved?
Here’s where things get a little more complicated…
More than just the facts of what happened, when it happened, and who was there, your private emotional experience of these and other events was likely (and frequently) very different from what actually happened. The reason for this is because we experience random and independent emotions that don’t always match up with others, and we cannot help but make meaning out of these experiences about who we are and what relationships mean. This is unconscious, completely out of our awareness and out of our control. It’s simply a part of being alive.
Here are some examples…
Let’s say your father regularly fed you at what seemed like the appropriate time, but you were often hungry long before he did or you weren’t hungry at all and felt forced to eat. If this was a particularly distressing experience, you may have developed some mistrust of how well others can respond to your needs. Going hungry for some time may have lead you to feeling like others simply can’t give you what you need. Being fed too soon could have lead you to feeling like others are intrusive and put their needs before your own.
Let’s consider another example. Your mother might have felt she was standing by close enough when you were beginning to crawl and explore the world on your own, but your impression of the situation when you turned back and saw her looking away left you feeling scared. You may have interpreted this as meaning it’s not safe to travel too far from your caretakers, or that becoming independent means being abandoned and left with no relationship. This experience, especially when felt repeatedly over time, can make its way into your intimate relationships as you get older.
Because our minds are not yet capable of abstract reasoning at such an early age, unconscious meanings of relationships are attached to our emotions and bodily sensations without much or any thought at all. This suggests that certain parts of how we experience our selves and others are rooted in a sensitive period of life that we may have no memory of at all, and yet these experiences make up the foundation for who we become and how we relate to others. Psychoanalysts often use the image of an iceberg to demonstrate just how much of our mind is outside of our awareness. You only see a very small part of the iceberg above the surface, but beneath is a mass of ice unknown to our eyes.
Some researchers look to attachment theory to categorize how we enact relationship patterns. Attachment theory is an increasingly popular body of knowledge being used today in the self-help industry to explore how we behave in relationships. Attachment theory grew out of the research of Mary Ainsworth and a theorist named John Bowlby. Together, their work described how infant-mother relationships determine relationship style.
According to attachment theory, a person can have a secure attachment style or insecure attachment style. Secure attachment styles suggest a way of behaving and interacting that demonstrates an ability to feel consistently safe in a relationship. Even though no relationship is without distress, the securely attached individual is able to weather the storms of a relationship, knowing that ‘we’ are still ‘we’. Insecure attachment styles, on the other hand, may be characterized by relationship avoidance, high levels of anxiety that cause impairment, ambivalence or disorganization in relationships (there are several insecure attachment ‘styles’).
Something interesting that attachment researchers have noted in working with mothers and infants is that attachment styles can be determined by observing how the mother responds to the infant’s distress, as well as her own. In other words, mothers who have difficulty in regulating their own levels of distress may be less likely to regulate their infant’s distress. This intuitively makes sense. After all, how can someone teach you how to speak Spanish if all they know is French? If a child has the emotional experience that their anxiety cannot be tolerated by the parent (because the parent cannot tolerate anxiety in general), this can result in the infant believing that their feelings are overwhelming to others. This forms an impression that can remain throughout the child’s development.
As we continue to develop through childhood and practice our attachment style, our brains neurons strengthen in clusters based on our experiences, especially repeated ones, until we eventually respond to certain situations automatically. In his book Mindsight (2009), author Daniel Siegel describes how our brains develop preferences for experiences over time by using the phrase: “neurons that fire together wire together.” This is why when you learn to play piano you have to exert more effort in the beginning, because the wiring hasn’t formed yet. After a while though, your brain just knows what to do.
Research on the influence of trauma on the brain suggests that repeated interpersonal betrayal can lead to hyperactivity of the amygalda – a small almond-shaped part of the brain that is responsible for emotion, especially anger. Thus, trauma survivors may over-anticipate interpersonal threat because ‘being ready’ is adaptive to survival. And while being vigilant to potential threat is the brain’s way of protecting someone, you can imagine how being in this state regularly might impact a person’s day-to-day experience, including relationships.
The older we get, the more the story we unconsciously tell ourselves becomes solidified. We deepen our relational patterns, emotional responses, and the ways we make meaning of our experiences by continuing to notice those life experiences we have which reinforce what feels familiar. If you have developed an internal monologue that goes something like, “no one notices my need to be recognized and loved,” then emotional experiences that resemble that silent monologue feel more ‘true’ than experiences which do not. Even social psychologists talk about how we are more likely to believe information that is already consistent with our opinion…even when we are shown that information is not true. In fact, when we are shown our beliefs are logically proven to be false, we may polarize and believe more strongly in them.
The thing about the brain is that it doesn’t care if something is true or false, good or bad, right or wrong… it just cares about what is familiar! This is believed to be one reason why we continue to repeat relationship patterns throughout our life, even in spite of our conscious will not to. Our relationship patterns contain the biological, emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal threads that make up the fabric of our developmental history.
Another reason (and perhaps a more powerful reason) why we repeat relationship patterns is because the majority of the ingredients that make up our relationship patterns are completely outside of our conscious awareness. Even when we can identify behavioral patterns – the most obvious ingredients of a relationship pattern since they are observable – there is still a whole iceberg beneath the surface. That iceberg, which contains all the emotional triggers and developmental experiences they are connected to, are what make doing something different so difficult even when we know what our issues are. As I often say, knowing and feeling are not the same, and people are motivated not by logic but by emotion.
Many therapists believe that romantic relationships are the most fertile grounds for repeating our relationship patterns, because we seek to replicate and work through the relationships we had with our early caretakers. When you meet someone and you just ‘know’ that they’re a match for you, it is probably a clue that you are picking up on some part of their personality that will resonate with what you look for unconsciously in a partner. Some therapists even say that when relationships are successful, it’s because there is a mutual healing of childhood wounds. We are able to defeat that which we repeat. When relationships experience high conflict or fall apart, it’s because we are defeated by what has been repeated.
When we repeat relationship patterns, we are both doing what feels to be most right to us (because it is), and we are also engaging with unresolved wounds in an unconscious attempt to gain mastery over them. We affirm our identity. We confirm our place in the world. We validate our experiences. We seek recognition. We remind ourselves of what it means to be alive. We hope “this time it will be different.” Same song, different dancers.
In my next blog post, I will offer a Part 2 where I explicitly discuss the process of becoming aware of your relationship patterns, and what you might be able to do over time to live and love with more wisdom.