Bad Relationships on Repeat? Break Your Unhealthy Patterns


Criticism.  Sarcasm.  Disrespect.  Repeat.

These are just some of the relationship behaviors that some when reoccurring can leave you wondering, “How did I get here again?”  The relationship may have even started great, you thought he/she was incredible, a nice person, a good match.  But when red flags started to wave you either ignored them or excused them away because you wanted this to be what you hoped it was.

The chemistry is incredible!  They are so doting and attentive!  They are the life of the party!

If you’ve cycled through a lot of painful relationships and this sounds familiar, take heart in knowing you are one of many who with great intentions and hopes of love and finding your person who end up entangled in unhealthy relationships and yet, stick around.  Hope is a powerful elixir and it’s often hard to see that the dream of what you thought they were is actually just that, a dream.

Healthy relationships require a number of pieces to fall into place from both people involved.  A history of secure attachment and emotional safety increase the chances that you have been provided the tools you need.

Here are more behaviors that often characterize unhealthy relationships:

  • betrayal
  • bullying
  • verbal or physical abuse
  • guilt
  • isolation
  • dishonesty
  • control
  • disrespect
  • poor communication
  • gaslighting
  • drama

If you have often felt afraid, sad, lonely or angry in your relationships, it might serve you to explore why.  Be open to reflection on your role in these unhealthy patterns as you surely have one.  If you have stumbled into these relationships and have missed the red flags, become aware of these important indicators that you may be in a situation that is not ideal.  Learn how to spot the red flags:

  • Do you feel like you’re walking on eggshells?
  • Is this person saying derogatory or unkind things to you?
  • Are you losing yourself in the relationship?
  • Do you feel confused or crazy sometimes?
  • Are you regularly aware you aren’t getting your needs met?

Think of a person you know who is generally happy, confident, secure and tends to choose partners well.  Imagine if this person were to meet someone and began seeing some of the red flags you’ve ignored in some of your relationships.  What would they have done?  They probably wouldn’t have stuck around once they determined that despite some of the shiny aspects to this potential mate, they deserved and wanted better in a relationship.

Why would you make different choices than them at the early critical juncture?  It’s complicated and often has to do with your history and what you learned about love, relationships, your value and trust, to name a few.  Family of origin work can be helpful to get more clarity around your part.

A few indicators of your role are conflict avoidance and lack of boundaries.  If you can begin to imagine how what you bring into the relationship might be a perfect fit for some of the unhealthy behaviors listed above, perhaps you can see how this can happen.  And you might be able to better understand why one person may be more likely to stay than another.  Recognizing your own relationship challenges is the first step towards breaking the cycle.

According to Sue Johnson, PhD, in the Time piece, The Science Behind Happy Relationships,

Good relationships aren’t just happier and nicer.  When we know how to heal [relationships] and keep them strong, they make us resilient. All these clichés about how love makes us stronger aren’t just clichés; it’s physiology. Connection with people who love and value us is our only safety net in life.

Keep in mind, unhealthy patterns can come up for anyone, especially in times of high stress.  Couples in which both partners come from a secure upbringing where the were modeled healthy relationships, good communication and learned that they are lovable and have value, tend to have an advantage but even for them, vulnerability and authenticity is not always a straight line.  For the many who have more challenging histories creating obstacles emotionally or in their relationships, there can be incredible positive shifts and change.

To review, these are steps you can take to help you break unhealthy relationship patterns:

  1. Recognize dysfunctional behavior in the other.
  2. Understand why you’re in a cycle of unhealthy relationships by identifying your unhelpful beliefs and coping strategies.
  3. Heal the wounds that led to the story you have about yourself and what you deserve.
  4. With a list of red flags at the ready, practice new relationship skills with healthier people.

If you are ready to move away from unhappy to happy relationships, do it!  A therapist with a focus of family of origin work can be a guide for this process (see Psychology Today Therapist Directory) or you can first try the self-help route by educating yourself.  My e-book, Break Your Unhealthy Relationship Patterns, or the online course version in the sidebar of this article are just a few of the many options available online with some research.

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