Updated: Oct 21, 2019
Have you ever asked yourself “why does it always end the same way for me?” or wondered why your friend keeps picking the same sort of people? These are what psychologists refer to as patterns. Often clients come to therapy with patterns, whether it be in relationships or just choices that they make, in the way they keep repeating the same way of approaching relationships or choices which will have the same outcomes.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, the things that we see in our childhood often lay the foundation for how we relate to others. This could be watching how Mum, Dad, or caregiver related to others, or how they spoke about other people. This could also be how we felt in our own families. These experiences will often create a template for how we believe we should be treated by others. Sometimes these positive/negative templates seem so normal that we don’t know any other way of treating others or being treated, and sometimes we become so unaware of their existence that we carry them throughout our lives.
Trust is something that we develop over time. For some people trust comes easily “I will trust her until she shows me otherwise” but for others, it is something that evolves over time: “I don’t trust people straight away, I need to get to know them first”. The way we approach trust in relationships can have its origins in how we experienced trust as a child: “I remember Dad said to me that he would take me to the show, but he did not turn up”. Children won’t usually judge all adults by one or two isolated events, but rather, when this becomes a pattern, for instance “Mum always makes promises she never keeps”. Through this, children may learn that words have little value. Sometimes it can be an external influence, maybe at school, who has a profound impact: “every time I tell someone something, they tell others about what I have just said”. Over time, we develop ways of viewing others, either positively or negatively.
Why do the partners I pick always end up being the same?
As we get older the templates that we develop in childhood come into play within our adult relationships, both romantic relationships and friendships. Unconsciously we often develop a “type” based on what we know from our early lives. For example, it may be going for the more edgy type of person in relationships, the person who may initially be very exciting because they seem to not worry about the consequences of their behaviours. Over time, this can evolve within the relationship: “I like that about her, but as we got more serious, the risky things she did made me feel unsafe”.
We will often seek out either romantic relationships or friendships because having a relationship with them fulfils something in us. For example, becoming involved with someone that needs to be cared for. For some, looking after others fulfils a need in them. Over time, relationships like this can come at a personal cost. For some, these themes in a relationship may result in feeling used or worn down. The foundations on which this relationship was built, caring for them, no longer works for you, and over time you try and avoid that person until eventually you stop calling them and they stop calling you.
Some people deal with relationships that are sub-optimal by putting up so many barriers that they inadvertently push others away. This too can become a way in which a pattern is repeated, one that sometimes results in loneliness. You are probably thinking at this point – it does not make sense, that if you are wanting for others to treat you better, you push them away. For some people this is like a test, “if I push you away and you bounce back, then you are going to stick around”. In a way this way of coping also protects us from further hurt “they didn’t fight for me, so I knew they weren’t good for me”.
Why do I keep repeating the same mistakes?
Although all of the above may strike something in us, we often ignore the warning signs that we are about to embark on the same type of relationship. Sometimes we find it difficult to tune into the part of us that is screaming “I think this is going to end exactly like it did with my ex-girlfriend”. Instead we continue to push forward and turn down the volume on what is happening in our mind. I’m sure that we have all had those experiences of looking back and saying “in hindsight I knew something was a bit wrong”. To quote Oprah “when people show you who they are, believe them”.
How can I change these patterns?
Change is often difficult for most people, particularly when you consider changing what you have always known about yourself. The first step should be gaining an understanding of what keeps occurring. This awareness and acknowledgement allow us to understand what has been working and what hasn’t, and possibly the reasons why they have/haven’t. Secondly, try and gain an understanding of where this comes from. Is it something innate in me or is it because of what I have experienced in my past? Lastly, acknowledge to yourself that change is not going to be easy. It is going to take a lot of effort on your part to change what you have always known and how you have always been.
About the Author:
Susan Tobiassen is a psychologist whose work is focussed on assisting clients to gain a greater understanding of their past, and how this influences their current difficulties.