Untangling Problematic Relationship Patterns
Social connection and being in relationship with others is both a conflicting and life-enhancing ordeal. As social creatures we all yearn to be understood, held in mind, accepted, and loved for our unique authenticity, including those subtle qualities. Our first experience of relationship is with our primary caregivers (e.g., mother/father, aunt/uncle, siblings, grandparents, legal guardian) or whomever it was that was intimately involved in our social sphere on a daily basis. We learn the ebbs and flows of relationship from these persons and research indicates the quality and tenor of those relationships have lasting effects on our internal working models, or attachment systems, throughout the lifespan. For some, the quality of relationship with our primary caregivers was deficient due to breakdowns of communication, trust, safety and/or consistency due to the psychological wounds of our primary caregivers. It is often revealed through the course of therapy what these harmful internal working models of relationship are, and in the context of a therapy relationship we can work through these chains that bind us in relational suffering.
One example of problematic relationship patterns that persist across the lifespan involve those persons who, at an early age, felt deeply invalidated, persecuted, abandoned, or undervalued. These persons may learn to idealize others in adult life in an attempt to avoid replaying a script learned early on that others will ultimately reject or leave one alone. Unfortunately, this idealization feels attractive and can convince someone who is starved of intimate connection that they “have it all” too soon into the relationship. From here, unspoken expectations that go unmet can calcify into resentments and the person may find themselves entirely out of love, frustrated, and disappointed with someone who initially felt like “Mr./Mrs. Right.” These persons may string together enough relationships like this to perceive the world as hopelessly destined to leave them with unmet needs and/or overpopulated with bad people. Through the course of a psychotherapy relationship a person with such a problematic relationship pattern can work through this experience with a therapist who is trained to recognize, reflect and empathize with the persons patterns. As such, the person can begin the long overdue process of reworking their internal working models and recalibrating their protocols for relationship (Van Nieuwenhove et al., 2018).
Another example of problematic relationship patterns that endure throughout the lifespan include persons who struggle with alexithymia – a marked difficulty in identifying, processing and regulating feelings. Such persons may have learned early on to distance themselves from emotional expression when in relationship to their primary caregivers because their primary caregivers were already inundated with enough stress/emotions. For example, a child with an angry and abusive caregiver may learn to dampen their thoughts/feelings, therein distancing themselves from more nuanced emotions, in the hope of keeping their caregiver peaceful. If such patterns persist, research indicates these persons tend to avoid conflict(s) and approach others in detached, cold manners that limited close social relations and prompt superficiality (Vanheule et al., 2007).
The psychotherapy relationship can be a valuable tool for reworking problematic relationship patterns that bind us in suffering. By permitting ourselves to be honest and open in the context of an authentic relationship designed to empathize, reflect, and journey oneself into a new way of living, we can open doors for a new life. Research indicates such patterns may muscle into the therapy relationship within the first few sessions, allowing client and therapist a chance to notice and reflect on what constellates within the space between two persons early on (Barber et al., 1995). If you would like to rework some of the painful relationship patterns that keep manifesting in your life, please consider consulting with the clinicians at Town Center Psychology. You are not alone!
Barber, J. P., Luborsky, L., Crits-Christoph, P. & Diguer, L. (1995). A comparison of core conflictual relationship themes before psychotherapy and during early sessions. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 63(1), 145-148. http://dx.doi.org.portal.lib.fit.edu/10.1037/0022-006X.63.1.145
Vanheule, S., Desmet, M., Rosseel, Y., Verhaeghe, P. & Meganck, R. (2007). Relationship patterns in alexithymia: A study using the core conflictual relationship theme method. Psychopathology, 40(1), 14-21. https://search-proquest-com.portal.lib.fit.edu/scholarly-journals/relationship-patterns-alexithymia-study-using/docview/233342179/se-2?accountid=27313
Van Nieuwenhove, K., Meganch, R., Cornelis, S. & Desmet, M. (2018). Core conflictual relationship patterns in complex trauma: A single-case study. Psychodynamic Practice, 24(3), 245-260. https://doi.org/10.1080/14753634.2018.1498801