To repeat or not to repeat?

Jul 8, 2020

Have you ever noticed that the same circumstances show up in your life over and over again?

Do you seem to repeat the same dysfunctional relationship patterns – even though they will leave you frustrated and hurt?

Why does a woman with an emotionally distant mother repeat the same pattern with her own children?

And why are people who grew up in violent families more likely to repeat these patterns as abusers or victims of abuse.

Why do we repeat destructive relationship patterns?

There are many different factors that contribute to our tendency to repeat negative behavioural patterns.

We repeat what’s familiar.

What I call “better the devil you know”. Even though we know it’s dysfunctional, we repeat behaviours because they feel familiar and we know what to expect from them.

We think we deserve to suffer.

Traumatised children are often told that they are bad and deserve to be abused. They may be told they are the reason dad drinks or the family has so many problems. Even if we aren’t directly blamed, we internalise our family’s shame and blame ourselves. Our self-esteem is eroded, so we believe that we deserve emotional pain, abuse, failed relationships, and shame in adulthood.

We repeat what we learned as children.

The beliefs, coping skills, and behaviour patterns that we learned as children become deeply entrenched because we learned them when we were vulnerable, and our brains weren’t fully developed. After years of using them, they are hard to change.

We repeat what was traumatising in an unconscious effort to gain control over it.

If you felt unloved, rejected or powerless as a child, you may recreate experiences and relationships where you feel similarly in an unconscious effort to change the outcome, to heal yourself by gaining the acceptance or love of someone or to feel in control. But, instead, we tend to choose partners and friends who treat us as our parents did and we continue to play our part as we always have and recreate the same outcome – not a different one.


We repeat what we don’t repair

Sadly, dysfunctional relationship patterns are learned and passed from one generation to the next. And we will probably repeat them until we heal the underlying trauma and feel worthy and lovable of being treated with respect and kindness.

Even when you know something is “wrong” or unhealthy, it’s hard to change; it’s always easier to keep doing what you’ve always done than to learn and apply new skills. This is especially true in stressful situations. When your nervous system is overwhelmed, your emotions feel out of control, and your body is flooded with adrenaline, it’s extremely challenging to behave in a different way. This is in part due to our neurobiology.

What fires together, wires together

You may have heard of the phenomena “what fires together, wires together”. This refers to the way neurons in your brain create stronger, more efficient, and more familiar pathways the more you think about or do something. We’ve all experienced this when we practice a skill. For example, the more you practice shooting a football, the easier it becomes to score. The brain also creates connections between our feelings and specific situations, people, or places. For example, the smell of lemon may take you back to your Grandma’s house if her zealous use of the washing powder created a neural pathway or strong association in your mind between her and the lemon smell. Likewise, we repeat maladaptive patterns (of thinking and behaving) because these pathways are the strongest.

Neural Pathways

If you were abused or neglected as a child, the neural pathways for those relationship patterns were strengthened and your brain becomes accustomed to them. So, you’re likely to seek out relationships with a similar pattern without even realising it.

Children need to feel safe. They need parents who are attentive and responsive to their needs. And children need predictability. In dysfunctional families, these things are often lacking. And as a result, children are often tense, anxious, and afraid; they don’t feel safe. We cope by trying to control other people and situations – so we can regain a sense of safety.

When we recreate dysfunctional relationship patterns from our past, we’re unconsciously trying to re-do these experiences, so we can feel in control, so we can fix what we couldn’t fix as children. We think (again, this is mostly unconscious) that this time if we can be lovable or perfect, we won’t make the same mistakes – and thus avoid the abuse or rejection that we suffered as children.

Breaking dysfunctional relationship patterns

We can break old patterns, but the more you’ve done something, felt something, or thought about something, the stronger those neural connections are – and the harder they are to break.

When we talk about “rewiring your brain” we really mean forming new neural connections so that new thoughts and behaviours become the norm. When you choose to respond differently or think differently, you’re creating new neural pathways and with repetition, they will become the preferred and comfortable ways of acting and thinking.

Here are some ways to begin changing your old relationship patterns:

1. Become more aware of the relationship patterns in your family of origin. These were the models for all your future relationships. You might find it helpful to read about relationship dynamics, write or journal about your childhood experiences, or talk with a counsellor who can help you gain greater awareness of your family’s unspoken roles and rules.

2. Reflect on your own behaviour. It’s also important to be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours and understand the part you play in your dysfunctional relationships. Ultimately, you’re responsible for your own actions and learning healthier ways to solve problems, get your needs met, and cope with stress.

3. Heal the underlying trauma wounds. Dysfunctional relationships stem from abandonment, rejection, shame, and other painful and traumatic experiences. You need to learn to feel worthy and lovable to find healthy, stable, loving relationships. Until your emotional wounds and unmet needs are resolved, you will continue to seek healing from partners who are unable to make you feel loved or lovable. Many people find the assistance of a trauma-informed therapist is an essential component of healing.

4. Learn and practice new skills. To change our relationship patterns, we also must change our behaviour. This might include learning more effective communication skills, how to better regulate our emotions, and consistently practicing self-care.

5. Be kind to yourself. Making significant changes takes a lot out of you. Realistically, you’re not going to change long-standing patterns in a matter of weeks or months. So, be gentle with yourself as you slowly make changes, learn new skills, seek new insights, and learn and grow.

Change is possible! You can click here to learn more about how counselling can help you create new, healthy relationship dynamics.

If you feel your relationship may abusive please contact Refuge

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