Identifying Relationship Patterns

| By Shannon Todd |

Relationships are difficult. It is no surprise that we can love someone and despise them at the same time. In addition, when we commit to someone, we are constantly challenged emotionally, and all of our ‘raw spots’ and insecurities seem to be exposed. The fact is, we must be vulnerable with others to have a deeper connection. This is risky, and some wonder if it would be easier to be alone than to go through such emotional pain. There is no perfect relationship and it takes hard work to not only be the best partner you can be, but to nurture your relationship so it gets better over time.

Shannon Todd, MA, LMFT

As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I help people learn how to have healthy relationships with themselves first. When thinking about relationships, we often define it as a type of connection that occurs between two or more people. I think it’s important to become more aware of the relationship we have with ourselves, which is the most important relationship in our lives.

When we think of a healthy relationship, we think of characteristics such as spending quality time together, doing things both people enjoy, supporting one another, and never engaging in anything that would harm the other person. I encourage people to have a relationship with themselves using these same standards. For example, in a healthy relationship, you wouldn’t call your friend hurtful names or point out all their faults. You would remind them of all their great qualities and tell them not to listen to other people’s negative remarks. If you can engage with yourself in this same manner, you begin to exude a sense of confidence and self-respect that attracts others who will most likely treat you similarly.

There are many reasons people come for therapy and I always look at their presenting problem in terms of their relationships with others (Family Systems Theory). Some people are content with avoiding relationships with others so they don’t have to rely on them for anything. They isolate themselves from others in hopes to avoid the emotional pain that happens when you care for someone else. These folks have often felt let down and disappointed in the past and have decided they are not going to get hurt again. The fact is, we need other people to thrive and even survive. Having close connections with others is vital to every aspect of our health and this not only is about connection, but also the quality of our connections.

This is one reason couples seek therapy, to enhance their relationship to its fullest even if they already have a strong foundation. In contrast, I also see couples who are caught in a negative dance based on both peoples learned patterns of behaviors. When we feel threatened by the people who are closest to us, we naturally protect ourselves – by becoming aggressive, running away, or by shutting down (fight/flight/freeze). I see these defense mechanisms used a lot in and I use Emotion-Focused Therapy developed by Sue Johnson to assist couples with having a closer relationship.

Let’s take a closer look at how this works. A couple (we will call them Sally and John) came to see me because Sally felt like John was not helping her as much as she would like with their children and household tasks. John felt like Sally was constantly nagging him and she didn’t respect the time he had to put into his job. They both worked fulltime and because of both partners not getting their needs met, the challenging pattern between them consisted of Sally yelling and reminding John of all the things he didn’t do that day to John withdrawing and finding interest in other tasks. As time went on, things got worse to the point of Sally withdrawing from John due to feeling like there was no use in trying anymore. They were about to give up on their relationship when they came into my office for the first time.

Sally and John learned to identify the patterns that were keeping them stuck by focusing on their own behaviors (defense mechanisms) and feelings. They learned more effective ways to communicate, and could share their most vulnerable needs and fears with each other without feeling guilty or unworthy. They became experts on identifying when their challenging pattern was most likely to occur so they could team up to respond differently. Without going through this difficult process, I am not sure if Sally and John would still be together. They not only saved their marriage but also learned how to have a relationship that is safe and nurturing.

I not only see couples but also individuals who are struggling with relationships to some extent. For example, I had an adult client who was having difficulty with dating. His childhood with overly critical parents engendered his roles of “people pleaser” and “perfectionist.” Because this pattern of behavior was ingrained in his brain (neural pathways) since childhood, it began to play out in his adult relationships. He expressed that he would often put his girlfriend’s needs ahead of his own and often felt taken advantage of. He desired a partner who was an equal and who would put as much time and effort in him as he did with others.

Once he learned to identify his behaviors that kept him stuck, he learned to be assertive and ask for what he needs and wants. This felt strange at first, and he had to put a lot of effort into going against his normal pattern of behavior. He began to feel less guilty for asking for what he wanted and could put more energy into himself rather than trying to please everyone else.

Because relationship patterns are powerful, and ingrained in our neural pathways, people who identify these patterns as problems often seek therapy to learn different, more positive ways of interacting. The key is to not get down on yourself for having and repeating these strong behavior patterns. Behaviors serve a purpose and finding out the reasons for them (i.e. for protection or safety, to make the environment less chaotic, or to distract from other people’s behaviors) helps you feel less guilty and more positive about yourself so you can move forward.

I know from my own path to wellness, as well as from helping hundreds of people professionally, that relationships are difficult and changing our negative patterns sometimes seems impossible, leaving us doing the same behaviors over and over again. As a result, we might feel disappointed in ourselves, leaving us to wonder if it is even possible for change to occur. Sometimes, the biggest things standing in our way are fear of failure, feelings of hopelessness, and not knowing what to do to make things better. I believe that all people, especially you, deserve to feel joy and happiness again. As one client put it, “This is hard stuff!” I didn’t have to ask him if it was worth it when he walked out of my office hand and hand with his wife.

Shannon Todd is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Asheville, NC in private practice who specializes in relationships. She has over twelve years of experience working with people to enhance their relationships and increase satisfaction with their lives. She currently sees adult individuals, teens ages 11-19, families, and couples. Please visit her website at for more information or call (828)367-8603. She does not take insurance.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker