The road to healthier relationships
By Dr Erlend Slettevold (Clinical Psychologist)
Ever felt like you keep falling into the same types of difficult relationships over and over again? We have all had many different experiences of relationships in our lives and it is likely that we have found at least some of them difficult from time to time. Relationship difficulties can happen with parents and care givers, friends and family, and romantic partners. When this happens over and over, it is sometimes talked about as unhelpful ‘relationship patterns’.
We form our relationship patterns while growing up, and whatever they look like they are likely to have been helpful to us during that time. If the way we learned to relate to others when we were younger is causing things to be difficult for us later in life, we may find it helpful to try new, more helpful, ways of relating to others.
For most of us it can be really hard to learn new ways of relating to others. This is probably because we have had so much practice at what we are already doing, and because it has worked for us in the past! For example, some people who have only really felt like people care about them when they are happy, may find it difficult to tell others when something is difficult for them. This could be because they fear that others will abandon them if they get upset or because they feel like others will not like them if they show how they really feel. However, they may find, if they try new ways of acting in a relationship, for example by letting someone know how they feel, that the other person may understand and offer support. They may even find that this leads to a closer relationship where they can both support each other!
That is not to say that trying something new in a relationship is successful every time. Sometimes we may have to try and fail a few times before we can figure out what is more helpful to us and the people we relate to. Sounds a bit scary? It can be, but we can do it in a gradual way, and at a pace we are comfortable with to make it a bit easier. One way of changing the unhelpful relationship patterns we fall into is to follow these three steps:
1. Make sense of your current relationships. You can do this by having a think about how you feel in the relationships you have now. Some people may realise that they feel criticised a lot and that they find this difficult. Others may feel like they keep getting abandoned or betrayed which makes it all feel like an ongoing struggle to please others to make them stay in the relationship with them. Whatever it is that keeps repeating itself in your relationships it can be helpful to simply become more aware of what it is that keeps happening and how it makes you feel.
2. Notice when unhelpful patterns happen. Once you are aware of the difficult patterns you keep finding yourself in, it can be I good idea to notice when it happens in your life. You may for example have realised that you have often have felt criticised in your relationships. Then you may notice situations in your day-today life when you feel this way and which people you are with at the time. At this point you may also start to notice how you act when this happens. You may for example notice that when you feel criticised, you become angry and want to criticise back. You may also find that you do the opposite, and take the criticism to heart without standing up for yourself, even when you feel like it has been unfair.
3. Try acting differently. Having an idea of when and how difficult things happen in our relationships can make it a bit easier to figure out what kinds of changes can be helpful to make. At this point, you may want to think about some of the things you have noticed in the previous steps and look for a way you can make a change. Many would say that it’s the other person in the relationship who needs to change. The problem with thinking this way is that we can’t force other people to change, whereas we can change our own behaviours.
What sometimes happens when we start changing our own behaviour in relationships is that the other person starts changing their behaviour as well. For example, if you feel criticised by the other person and tend to respond to this by criticising back, you may want to try and see what happens if you instead take a moment to tell the other person how they just made you feel. This may lead to a healthier conversations or it may not, but either way you will have learned something new that can guide you to making a positive change in the relationship.
Changing relationship patterns can take a long time and it is not easy to persist in trying, but by doing this in small steps and hanging in there for a while, it is likely that you will start seeing positive changes taking place, which will help motivate you to continue to improve your relationships!
If you found this article helpful and would like to learn more about how to make changes in your relationships, check out Elizabeth McGormick’s “Change for the better: Self-help through practical psychotherapy”. This book provides a more detailed step-by-step approach to changing your relationship patterns and includes lots of good exercises that can help you along the way.