Unhealthy Relationship Patterns

Relationship Patterns. Psychology Fanatic article header image

Relationships, with all the promised joy and hopeful futures, can baffle our senses. Bringing another person into our protected world adds a new dimension to life. Intimate connection quickly revert to learned reactions. We relate to each other through patterns. She does this, he responds like that. Certainly there are variables, but basic structures remain amazingly stable. Patterns make relationships predictable—and comfortable. Not all patterns are equal. Some patterns of interaction hurt, dredging up past trauma into current relationships. We must catch these hurtful patterns and replace them with something more helpful.

Predictions and Security

We boost security by accurately predicting the future, knowing what to expect avoids unsettling surprises. By preparing for the inevitable, the inevitable loses power, alleviating anxiety. Oh, only if life was perfectly predictable; unfortunately, life is not. We just don’t know, so we wildly guess—and worry.

​The building blocks creating the future are complex and deep. We’ve heard failure to plan is planning to fail. Yes, absolutely! We must gather our wisdom, leaning on experience, seek guidance and then wildly guess what tomorrow will bring. But there is a caveat to future focusing—we live in the present. An unhealthy infatuation with the future, fixating on looming unknowns diverts precious energy from healthy actions—in the present.

Fears of Future Abandonment

Our infatuation with the future can disrupt healthy functioning, exhausting energies by anticipating, finding, dodging and resolving problems that will never occur. When anxiety over the future accompanies relationships, we destroy spontaneity and enjoyment; constantly seeking something that we cannot find. We suspiciously watch, interpreting small signs as predictors of nasty futures. Every deviation arouses powerful emotions. The unknown future hovers over our present, darkening hopes, dampening security and ruining joy.

See Fear of Abandonment for more on this topic

Prediction and Planning

Planning is essential, we need some attentive thought given to potential problems, inviting opportunity by living right in the present. We live in a complex world. To compete, we must make considerable sacrifices, foregoing immediate pleasures to attract kinder futures. Our time-traveling mind prepares by budgeting expenses, skipping the slice of cake and responding to waning connection with loved ones.

Our incredible evolving brain adapts to the complexity of life through predictions and creative planning. We don’t wait for the emergency to act. We improve our diets before the heart attack, tighten our budget before a missed payment, and reignite love before divorce. Present moment impulses can destroy—sometimes immediately; sometimes accumulatively. Relationships teeter on the edge of fantastic and devastating—in a moment we can destroy years of joys. We refrain from throbbing drives of debauchery with mindful choice, rather than instinctual reaction, we must stop, think and choose. In dialectic behavior therapy this process of choice is called acting from our wise mind.

Long healthy relationships slowly develop, beginning from those first flirtatious looks. Prince (princess) charming isn’t going to save us from burdens of the past.  We carry emotional baggage. Previous confusing or painful relationships follow us into the present. The scars of being wronged, abandoned or abused awaken anxieties in the present; fears of another bout of pain accompany closeness.

“The scars of being wronged, abandoned or abused awaken anxieties in the present; fears of another bout of pain accompany new attempts at closeness.”

~T. Franklin Murphy

Past Adaptations Interfering with the Present

​Our response to natural adaptations to the past may interfere with intimacy, creating debilitating anxiety where trust should live. We must identify the interfering demons, work on them, and understand their destructive influences. The difficult road to recovery will not be cheated by finding the perfect person. Without conscientious attention, the repeated misunderstandings and mishaps of normal relationships will erode the foundations of positive feelings destroying the hopes and dreams of love.

We unconsciously absorb our environments. Defense mechanisms sneak into our repertoire of responses. Quietly and destructively they work their ill will on our relationships. We also inherit patterns from our parents. Guy and Kathlyn Hendricks wrote a common relationship trap is that we replay our “parents’ dysfunctional relationship patterns in your own close relationships” (2009, Kindle location 504).

Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley support this theory in their research on childhood environment’s impact on later life troubles. they wrote “as the result of early emotional learning, we tend to replicate familiar relationship patterns and confirm the view we formed early of how relationships work” (2014, Kindle location 3,340).

Inability to Process Imperfections

Commitment, trustworthiness, sensitivity, generosity, affection, consideration, loyalty, and responsibility are crucial to 

relationship success–intimacy. We’re imperfect, our partners are imperfect. No one has perfected any of these qualities. They require continued attention and work. But panicking at the discovery of partner imperfection invades the sweetness of connection.

“According to experts, even happy couples aren’t immune to negative relationship patterns. But if you can catch it early enough and do something about it, you can prevent those bad relationship patterns from hurting your relationship.” 

~Kristine Fellizar | Bustle

When pasts interfere, the fear of loss is so great that the besieged soul critically examines every behavior for indication of the impending disaster. Partner’s imperfections naturally alarm and become the focus. But identifying and harping on flaws doesn’t alleviate the fears. The damaging blows injures rather than heals. Relationships need kindness not forceful manipulations.

We need to step back and look inward, identifying our fears that generate the anxiety. Self-examination can be excruciating to the sensitive.

Harmful Relationship Patterns of Interaction

Patterns don’t fit into neat little titles. Lists just provide a framework for reflection. Our individual patterns differ and evolve. With those qualifications, I provide this list as a guideline to begin your enlightened reflective journey into your personal unhealthy relationship patterns.

Dependence is proper. Interdependent relationships establish webs of trust, creating security, and expanded ability for growth. However, over-dependence forsakes self autonomy and personal responsibility. 

Over dependent partners expect their lover to provide happiness. These expectations are suffocating and disappointing.

“Your relationship ought to be one of the top priorities in your life. Of course, your relationship should not be your whole life.”

~Berit Brogaard D.M.Sci., Ph.D | Psychology Today

Overly dependent partners slowly structure a life completely around their partner. The relationship unrealistically becomes their only source of emotional, physical, and monetary support. The complete vulnerability dangerously creates insecurity.

On the opposite end of the dependence spectrum is extreme independence. The overly independent wiggle free from commitments, violate compromises, and live as if they are single. Relationship patterns of dependency and engulfment always harm closeness.

“​If you always demand that things be your way, you are restricting your partner’s freedom in an unreasonable way. Compromising is the key to relationship success.”

~Berit Brogaard D.M.Sci., Ph.D | Psychology Today


Successful relationships require some interdependence, compromise, and shared experiences.

See Good Dependence; Bad Dependence for more on this topic

Constant judgements of insufficiency destroy a partner’s confidence. The critical judgments quickly lead to disconnection. Naturally, when openness is rewarded with ridicule, protections quickly come to the rescue. Patterns of sharing, ridicule, and hurt quickly morph into a more destructive pattern of withholding, loneliness, and resentment.

We need repeated affirmation that sufficiently remind we are satisfying our partners needs. When criticisms interfere with this need, relationships slowly erode and die. Often fears get in the way of open communication. Instead of asking for what we want, we disguise it. Asking doesn’t always lead to receiving, nor should it. Partners should maintain the autonomy to say, “no.” Unhealthy relationship communication patterns destroy intimacy.

Asking exposes our vulnerability. We put our needs out on the table of intimacy. Unscrupulous partners may use these vulnerabilities for their nasty manipulations. The misuse of exposed vulnerabilities is why we adopt hidden agendas. Protective when in an imbalanced relationship but maladaptive for healthy intimacy.

A partner that always rejects requests, or a partner that constantly asks for too much are not violating open communication patterns. Their unhealthy relationship patterns exhibit too much independence or dependence.

Hidden agendas lie at the heart of deceptive communication. Carefully veiled aggressions, sly remarks to illicit guilt, or feigned ignorance of purposeful violations of boundaries all qualify as hidden agendas. Patterns used for clandestine maneuvers to fulfill wants and needs drive a wedge between partners.

Self Exploration  of Maladaptive Relationship Patterns

Exploring personal adaptations (the learned responses) that contribute to relationship dissatisfaction is unpleasant. We prefer to be the innocent victim suffering from an evil partner. Our tragic story centers on the soothing belief that our partner transformed into a monster while we courageously remained loyal and loving. We excuse our indiscretions as reasonable responses to THEIR lapses. The injustice of subjectivity reigns; our biases—self promoting—excuse personal indiscretions while magnifying a partner’s transgressions into heinous sins.

Blaming a partner’s behaviors as internal badness and excusing or ignoring our behaviors dooms the relationship to the unjust dungeon of subjectivity. Our partner will never be good enough and we will never change.

We must continually tinker with balance between efforts to improve and the serenity of present enjoyment—but we push to the edge and then pull back. The momentary relationship displeasures don’t give license to nit-pick, forcing partners to change. More important than coerced partner adjustments is capitalizing on enjoyments a partnership brings.

​Many relationships need less fixing, more acceptance and quiet basking in the pleasure of acceptance, appreciation, and attention. We must focus on positives in the relationship; when we do, the relationship improves (usually). As the home environment improves, trust strengthens, alternative others lose appeal and a secure home base is established, allowing for deeper exploring of personal imperfections—the behaviors that encourage growth. The growth in turn improves interactions, strengthening relationship patterns of closeness and enjoyment.

Establishing New Relationship Patterns

With effort and time, new patterns replace the old destructive ones. We feel confidence, not because the relationship has improved but because we became connected with previous dark recesses of our lives, noted imperfections, and worked with them. We learned from the process how to be genuine, softening the fears of abandonment. Our communications, freed from ego protecting defenses, are not laced with jabs but lavishly decorated with open curiosity. In honest openness—intimacy, we dismantle protective guards, accept vulnerably and communicate relaxed, knowing we are loved.

Idealistic? Perhaps. The transformation from normal lifeless connection to abounding warmth of protecting love is a process. Each step opens a few new doors, offering a little more than before. For Rome, we know, was built with care by skilled people over many years. Intimacy is much more intricate and beautiful.

Set-backs will challenge resolves. Positive changes will suffer slips and tumbles. The improvements stutter and start, settle and drift; they don’t ascend linearly but with bumps and drops. But when we measure progress from a wider perspective (years instead of weeks), we see growth. We find pleasure where once was pain. The idealistic intimacy begins to form into a reality without the nasty interfering thorns of fear.

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Hendricks, Guy; Hendricks, Kathlyn (2009). Conscious Loving: The Journey to Co-Commitment. Bantam; Reprint edition.

Karr-Morse, Robin; Wiley, Meredith S. (2014). Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence. Atlantic Monthly Press; First Edition.

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