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How To Break Toxic Relationship Patterns

Give yourself a chance for change

by Carolyn Yates

Does this sound familiar? Sometimes you argue, and then you argue more. And then you keep arguing, until it’s like you have always been here in this stupid argument, which began before time and will end as the world is consumed in the fires of climate change—or in never speaking ever again. Whichever comes first.

Or maybe it’s not arguing. Maybe it’s putting a partner’s or best friend’s or one-night stand’s needs and wants above your own without even thinking about it. Maybe it’s making assumptions. Maybe it’s refusing to recognize when someone else might be right. Maybe it’s refusing to recognize when you might be right. 

Maybe it’s just that everything feels bad right now. How did it even get like this? 

This, of course, is a toxic relationship, and most of us have found ourselves in them at one time or another. Before figuring out how to move forward, you have to differentiate between an unproductive pattern and abuse. Abuse involves power and control, and if you think you’re experiencing it, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is a good resource. But if what you're experiencing is more akin to an unproductive pattern, the kind that involves the same disagreements over and over with no satisfactory resolution, then you might be in a bad relationship pattern. People in any kind of longer-term relationship tend to “argue about the same things over and over again, and if they don’t get resolved they go to their own corners and try to let time make things easier,” says Beth Strong, a holistic psychotherapist who practices in Denver, Colorado. "People do soften over time, but issues eventually start to feel unresolvable.” If you’re feeling like you’ll never escape a frustrating, unproductive pattern, here’s where to start. 

First, Look at How the Pattern Started

It can be helpful to start by looking at your own behavior in your relationships, suggests Melissa Lopez, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who practices in Pasadena, California. What role do you usually play across all types of relationships, and what patterns do you see? “Without awareness and acceptance that something is a maladaptive pattern, it is impossible to move forward,” she says. 

Teasing out what’s behind patterns—especially when they’re your own—involves some personal investigation. Looking to the early relationships you saw in your family, whatever that family was, can reveal how you might relate to others now. "A lot of our core learning regarding how to navigate relating to others occurs in our families, what do we observe, how are needs communicated, how are needs met,” says Lopez. If expressing yourself as a child only led to disappointment or rejection, you might avoid communicating now because you don’t want those feelings again. If someone in your early life was manipulative and you learned to doubt them, it’s likely that you’ll doubt other people, too. "In other words, our initial models for engaging with each other can often lead to coping mechanisms, adaptive or maladaptive, that we use to engage with others in an attempt to avoid what we experienced with our initial models of engagement."

Social factors can show up in relationships. Misogyny impacts how men engage with women, white supremacy impacts how white people engage with people of color, and transphobia impacts how cis people engage with trans people, as do so many other—and often intersecting—oppressions. "Power dynamics exist in society, and those create patterns that influence and impact the patterns we play out in our personal relationships,” says Lopez.

Own Your Own Role 

Once you’ve identified the pattern, be accountable for your part in living it. "Accountability is a process of not just apologizing but owning your role in the dynamic and then changing your behavior,” says Lopez. Ask yourself, what could I do differently? The more you take responsibility for your own role in your relationships, the more likely you are to recognize and make necessary changes. "If someone is stuck in the idea that they have done nothing wrong in how they relate to people in their lives, it is unlikely that person will be able to enact any change to better a relationship. Creating new patterns in how we engage requires us to be able to hold that we might have patterns that are unhealthy in how we relate to others, that we make mistakes, and that we need to find new manners of engaging,” she says.

Slow Down the Conversation

In looking for new ways to engage, one thing that can help is slowing down the conversation and speaking in longform. "As people get to know each other, they start to use efficient communication, where they assume they know what the other is about to say, what the other is thinking, what the other is feeling, because they’ve heard it before,” says Strong. Instead, focus on clearly conveying your whole emotional message and trying to hear the whole of the other person’s without perceiving it as an attack. 

For example, “You never kiss me hello anymore” can feel like aggressive, but “it doesn’t feel special when we first see each other anymore, and that makes me sad,” can lead to a discussion of missing each other, whether there’s distancing going on, whether the distancing is on purpose, and why. "There’s more room when we slow down a conversation to share feelings that are easier to hear,” says Strong.

Set Aside Time to Talk on Purpose

Important conversations are best when they’re intentional and contained. “It takes time to have a hard and delicate and tricky conversation. What’s helpful is to say: There’s something weighing on me, I really want to have a kind and respectful conversation about it, and it would be great if we could take 20 or 30 minutes [to talk about it]. Could you tell me what would be a good time for you?” says Strong. Then, talk about it intentionally and without distractions. 

Separating the discussion from the arguments or actions that led to it is key. “It’s hard to do that kind of negotiating if we’re upset and we feel attacked again, and so the idea is to take those delicate conversations away from the times when things were really inflamed,” she says.

See This as a Chance for Change

The best thing about knowing you have a problem is the chance to fix it. “We all struggle, we all sometimes don’t have the best manners in relating to each other, using the struggles we face within the context of relationships can help us discover parts of ourselves that need healing and growth that we were not aware of,” says Lopez. "Being open to identifying unhealthy patterns can help us address issues around family wounds, traumas, societal oppressions that need to be unpacked and dismantled that have influenced how we relate to others. Doing so can help us become better friends, partners, and people."