The psychology of relationships: stepping out of dysfunctional patterns and into a happier love life
In my practice, I see many people who time and again change relationships without ever changing the partner. Their new partner may have a new name, a new face, a new cultural background, but when it comes down to the relationship, they are exactly the same as all of their former partners.
We often notice, what we call a repetitive pattern of dysfunctional relationships, which is quite obvious to the outside observer, but may take time to be noticed by the client.
Whenever a relationship ends and a new one begins, the client is convinced that with this new person they won’t make the same mistakes, that things will be different, and that the end result will be different.
'Few things in life are as connected with our upbringing as the relationships we establish as adults'
Nonetheless, it hardly ever is. And when it becomes obvious to the client how destructive their relationship patterns are, it still may take them a while to be able to refuse engaging in a new relationship with the same pattern, or to abandon the current relationship they are in, regardless of how toxic it is. Why is that?
Few things in life are as connected with our upbringing as the relationships we establish as adults. It is the type of relationship that we established with our primary caretakers that will determine how we will bond with future partners.
For example, our needs were answered to while growing up? Did we feel that we could rely on our parents to respond to us upon being called? Did we feel that they were always there for us? Did they make us feel safe? Did we feel that being loved by them was conditioned to certain types of behaviors or personality traits? In other words, what kind of attachment could we establish with them?
We will also model how relationships are supposed to work: we will learn how to treat a woman by seeing how dad treating mom – and that will either be an example of what to do or what not to do.
That relationship will determine how much our opinions, thoughts and needs matter and, hence, it will tell us how much we should expect to be esteemed by others. They will also determine what we will bring into relationships and what we will expect to receive from others. It will determine what will be our insecurities, how safe we will feel, how possessive (or jealous) we will be, what is our place in any relationship, what kind of actions we will need from others to feel loved, and what resources will we use to demonstrate love.
'Love should be about acceptance instead of shaping. We are who we are, which will be good for some people and bad for others, and we should be with those who need what we have to offer'
It is a very large and encompassing package that comes with us into every new relationship we start, and that (along with our partner’s needs and wants) can be determinant of the success or failure of the endeavour.
Now, let’s consider that all parties involved come into relationships with their own baggage. In the midst of it all, you two have to mix and match and see how – if at all – to make it work. Unconsciously, what usually happens is that we arrive at any new relationship with a partial idea of who the other person is and, based on that, we unconsciously build upon the rest of their personality (or try to change it) to meet our needs.
Here comes in the idea that says, “love is hard work”. Yes, it is true, it is. But should it be? Most of us are constantly trying to shape the other person into something that they are not so that they can meet our needs, and vice-versa. Soon enough, we are trying to make a Frankenstein out of a person who never asked to be changed in the first place, who we started going out with claiming to love, and who should only be with someone whose qualities and needs are a good match for them. Then, both of us become unhappy and often we can’t even pinpoint where the honeymoon period has ended.
Love should be about acceptance instead of shaping. We are who we are, which will be good for some people and bad for others, and we should be with those who need what we have to offer.
But we shouldn’t be trying to shape each other to meet each other’s needs, because when we do that, we are never truly relating to the other person, which is rude and unfair. We are not having a real relationship, but a mirrored one, where one is trying to become a better person by “incorporating” the good parts of the other into oneself (maybe that will make me feel complete?).
Furthermore, we should never look at the other person as someone who will come to complete us, our lives or what is lacking in us. If we are lacking in anything, we should work on that before trying to be a pair with someone, because a real relationship is made of two wholes, not two halves. A much more fruitful endeavor when a relationship doesn’t work out would then be to look at oneself and ask: what is it that I need in a relationship? What do I bring to others? Are these needs reasonable and pertinent to relationships? Why do I have these needs and why do I bring this to my partners?
Hardly ever do we ask ourselves these questions. Why is that? Because to do that, we will end up having to investigate deeper issues related with those primary relationships, who served us as models and who created the patterns we currently repeat. That is hard work, that is painful, and that requires a critical look over our upbringing and the behavior of our parents (or primary caretakers).
'At some point, we must get to know ourselves, we must heal and work on self-acceptance'
That may involve questioning their behavior toward us, their love for us (or lack thereof), the way we were raised, and what that meant to us. All of that can promote truthful and lasting changes in ourselves, our personalities, thus in our relationships, but all of that also requires critical thinking, maybe some grieving and even removing our parental figures from the pedestal we usually put them on. All of which is hard, very hard.
Let me just clarify that none of these behaviors are within our field of awareness, at least not most of the time. Which is why I am writing about it. There are a lot of people that go through life unaware of this and, when made aware, most still prefer to avoid dealing with these deeper issues rather than facing them and truly becoming ready for a happy and healthy relationship.
Preferring to believe in karma, destiny, luck or anything that removes any responsibility or power from their hands. They decide there is nothing they can do about it but to continue to try. And this is not true.
The process of self-awareness and self-knowledge in the area of relationships is a hard one, but so necessary and worth it! Plus, we have to remember that the same relationship matrix that we bring from our relationship with our parents will be carried on to the relationship with our children. And whichever good or bad we received from them will be passed on to our offspring, who will pass on to theirs, and so on and so on. Is this what we want?
At some point, we must get to know ourselves, we must heal and work on self-acceptance, on becoming an integer instead of acting as if we were fractions waiting to be completed. We are not. We are more powerful than that. We just have to become aware of that and be brave enough to swim through those sometimes dark waters, because there is a clean lake waiting for us on the other side. We just have to do the work.
Marcia is a Brazilian Psychologist based in the US who specializes in Personal and Professional Coaching, and PTSD Counselling. She writes for different publications in numerous countries about the impact of child-hearing on addiction, personal fulfillment and mental health, and how that can foster or hinder self-realization. Her work is focused on empowerment and personal achievement.