The Messy Art of Relationships (Part 2)

So why do so many people struggle with romantic and interpersonal relationships? Unsuccessful relationships are often rooted in unhealthy emotional and behavioral patterns that are established early in life, which get carried over into adulthood. But what can we do to change these patterns?

One thing we can do is take the time to examine ourselves, honestly and openly, so that we can identify and acknowledge our own issues. Doctors Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko call these patterns “lifetraps” or “schemas”. In their book “Reinventing Your Life”, they identify several common lifetraps into which people tend to fall. For example, children who are overly criticized or constantly made to feel guilty about their behaviors often develop the “defectiveness” lifetrap, which results in feelings of never being “good enough”. As adults, these individuals can tend to select hyper-critical or emotionally abusive romantic partners who reinforce their feelings of worthlessness.

Other children who are raised by overbearing and overprotective parents may develop the “dependence” lifetrap, which leaves them feeling anxious, incompetent, and inadequate, leading to a pattern of gravitating toward extremely controlling or abusive partners.  The “abandonment” lifetrap is another common pattern, which can stem from emotional deprivation or neglect from the primary caregiver, usually the mother, resulting in what John Bowlby referred to as “attachment” problems (more on this in future blogs). Adults who experience the abandonment lifetrap can have underlying, irrational fears about being abandoned that can undermine their romantic relationships, causing conflict to arise, creating distance from their partners, and becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

These are only a few examples of some of the common relationship patterns that can develop, and this is a very simplistic explanation of what can be extremely complex issues. It often takes some time and work to unravel these issues, many of which overlap and interact in ways that are sometimes difficult to identify. Nevertheless, if you are experiencing habitual problems in your relationships, a good first step is to simply stop dating, take some to reflect on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and spend some time alone, since being in a relationship complicates the process of objective self-examination. And as I will discuss in a future blog post, being in a relationship, whether dating or married, is not necessarily a sign of health. In the meantime, however, I’ll continue talking in the next post about what we can do to help change these unhealthy patterns.