Home > divorce, Marriage, Psychology, relationships > Are You Stuck in an Unhealthy Relationship Pattern? Part One

Are You Stuck in an Unhealthy Relationship Pattern? Part One


hamster on a wheelAre you stuck in an unhealthy relationship pattern? Do you repeat the same relationship choices and behaviors that ultimately lead to the same unhappy conclusion: conflict, unmet needs, disappointment and loneliness?

If so, the first thing you need to do in order to break your unhealthy relationship pattern is to consider the kind of romantic partner you typically choose. Do you have a habit of choosing women or men who are:

  • Unavailable
  • Unfaithful
  • Emotionally abusive
  • Physically abusive
  • Totally self-centered
  • Still involved in other relationships
  • Too dependent
  • Jealous or controlling
  • Unable to commit
  • Unable to express and receive love

Do you choose women or men who:

  • Have substance abuse problems
  • Have a lot of emotional problems
  • Get serious too quickly
  • Run hot and cold

Logically, you probably know that you won’t be able to have a loving and enduring relationship with the type of woman or man you’re usually attracted to; while your emotional reasoning and the “thrill of the familiar” pulls you toward the same type of relationship time and again.

Is it possible that you’re stuck in a dead end relationship pattern with the same type of person because you’re recreating earlier relationships from childhood or adolescence? Until you gain awareness regarding your choice of adult romantic partners, you’ll tend to be attracted to a certain kind of person because the way you interact with them and the way they treat you feels familiar, especially if it makes you feel bad.

Why would anyone voluntarily choose to feel bad? Seems crazy, right? But that’s exactly what many of us do; we choose to pursue and have relationships with women and men who make us feel bad. In a way it is crazy, but there’s a kind of warped logic to it.

These people are familiar due to your early childhood and adolescent relationship experiences. Because it’s what you know, you don’t realize that there are other ways to be in a relationship and  other kinds of people who are open to relationships and will value you rather than shut you out, reject you, or, in extreme cases, demean and abuse you.

When you’re stuck in an unhealthy relationship pattern, it’s usually because you’re trying to get a different outcome in your adult relationships than you had with your family and other people who hurt you or didn’t meet your needs often enough when you were a kid. This is why you choose people who are no more capable of meeting your needs and loving you the way you want to be loved than your parents, family, or your first intimate relationship partners were.

Choosing the same kind of person, even when it’s self-destructive, protects you from the realization that perhaps you didn’t have the best parents in the world or that they treated you in ways that weren’t always loving, damaged your sense of worth and affected your ability to give and receive love. It confirms your faulty relationship beliefs by setting you up for the same bad relationship result. It also keeps you from facing residual painful memories and hurt feelings that may be lingering from childhood. Consequently, your faulty beliefs, self-doubts and fears about relationships that lead you to make choices and behave in ways that support your beliefs and fears, which perpetuates the unhealthy pattern.

Next week, I’ll post the second part of this series in which I’ll explain how self-doubt and fears contribute to unhealthy relationship patterns.

by Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD

Private Consultation and Coaching

I provide confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. My practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit Services and Products for professional inquiries.

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Photo credit:

hamster on a wheel by Walala Poncho on flickr.

  1. Juggler
    April 5, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    Hi, I have been going around and around my mind and remembering my youth to try to establish when and why did I get turned on by abusive relationships or abusive women.

    I am an abusive relationship junky, that I know, or else I would have been long gone from this relationship years ago. I pushed away all the nice, sweet and loving women that wanted to have a steady relationship with me and went for the crazy, spoiled rotten, high class, shallow, beautiful ones, pursue them and finally ended up marrying one to my misfortune.

    When I became a teenager I was constantly bullied around, because of my background, family name, birth place, friends or what have you. When I tried to defend myself, I ended up with a bloody nose and black eye. Leaving my home to school was not nice, but being the eldest, I had the obligation to show my siblings that I could take it and wasn´t afraid. But I was. Never told this to anyone specially my parents, who at that time were having the worst part of their marriage and separated for many months, my dad took to drinking and my mom left for a year overseas. We, all 5 of us, were left alone to be looked after our grandmothers and house help. Later on things were solved, my mom came back and my dad stopped drinking. Everything was honky dory. But nobody knew what I had experienced as the eldest, the anxiety of realizing I was 13 and the head of a broken family and also the target of bullies at school.

    At school a gang of 4 girls, when I was on seventh grade, noticed me. There was this girl I liked so much and had tried to speak with her. To my disgrace I became their target from then on. I feel bad on my stomach just to remember the leader of the gang, all of them were beautiful to me, and I could not believe what was happening. I didn´t know what to do, to run away or stay and take it because at least I had their attention. They bullied me for months until they got tired. I never had the guts to stand up to them. How could this be possible, I was a man and a man could never be aggressive or push a woman around. That I knew from my mom who used me as confident when things were shaky with dad. Also there was the fact that I could not even discuss this with my friends or relatives. Girls pushing a boy around? Either I was a sissy or was making up stories. So I kept my mouth shut.

    And from then on, I never felt good enough for anyone, or for that matter any one good enough for me, unless they were beautiful, abusive, there was a way I could get close save them, turn them into normal loving human beings and finally be happy with the “one”. The One that I had saved from shallowness and bully complex.

    That is how I lost my soul to relationships with borderline abusive women. : Z

  2. Andie
    July 22, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    I have a friend that is in a unhealthy, controlling relationship with a crazy ex/girlfriend. I’ve known him for about 8 months and in that time has left her twice, but she reels him back in again. Ive been doing research trying to figure this out because it just didnt seem normal and now I understand on a deeper level. The only time he comes around is when they are broken up, and then he is gone again. Our last talk he mentioned he needed a friend, and Im there for him 100%.. He pursued me last November 2010 and we went on one date in January 2011. he had mentioned that he had this crazy ex and talked a bit about it. Well, after that first date, which was a huge success I got a text from him saying he was seeing someone and he wished me well. Everyone told me to forget about him and that he was no good, but I knew something was odd, and I knew we had this fantastic connection. Three months later he came around around and he looked so sad. He had gained weight and looked so tired..I asked if he was till seeing someone and if so was it his ex, he told me yes. He doesnt know why he goes back to her, maybe just to give it one more chance. He is interested in me and he asked me to go play pool with him sometime ( first date we played pool). I was excited and happy to see him again. About three weeks later I asked him why he hadnt called,and well, he got back with her again. I asked him if she is controlling him and he said yes. I asked him if she makes him happy, and he said half the time. He told me that he can’t pull someone in to this hell of his( meaning me),and that he has to do this on his own and not by jumping into another relationship. I agreed with him. He confided in me and told me he needs a friend. I of course replied yes. She is jealous will not allow him to talk to any girls, I dont know about his family and friends, but now after doing research Im thinking more than likely she keeps him isolated from most everyone. I do see the pattern that she reels him back in with kind words and lifting his spirit, but then tears him apart and deflates his emotions and confidence.
    When they break up Im assuming it’s him breaking it off with her. Last time he told me that he changed his number twice because of all the insane calls, and she drives by his house constantly and leaves horrible notes on his door.
    I think the world of this guy and I have genuine feelings for him, and I know he does me when she is out of the picture. God blessed me with a quality of putting aside my personal feelings in order to help someone else. He asked for a friend and he has a great one right here wanting to help him.. I dont know for sure where to start, but after finding this website I thought about printing out a couple articles and posts to give to him so he can see he isnt alone in this crazy cycle. He’s such a great guy and he has so many qualities. He is well liked and I know he wants to be happy. I can see a sparkle in his eyes and I feel his happiness when he is happy, but then, I can see the hurt and sadness when she plays her game.

    Andie

  3. Dana
    July 2, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    I am married to a man whose first wife (based on family description and current action) is probably a borderline personality. I have raised the kids from 8 and 10 years old and now they are 20 and just 23 and their mom stopped keeping in touch once we married.
    Now at 20, my son has fallen in love for the first time and from the first sight, he and his girlfriend have become inseperable. They even started wearing wedding bands (she is 18) after knowing each other a few months. They have now been together 5 months.

    My concern is that he is no longer engaging in any of his own interests and his full time occupation has become taking her places and helping her get her needs met. This has resulted in eviction because he didn’t get another job when his employer cut his hours and he no longer goes to the gym-which he loved or is working towards his career aspirations. She seems nice enough in person and I have not heard of any drama. They do not spend time with friends or family without each other.

    My son doesn’t really remember his mother but his early years were filled with drama and unpredictable abandonment and then fierce attention. Is this just a young adult male thing…or should we be paying attention to this more closely.

    When I reflect on what his dad has told me about his relationship with his first wife, this is just how it started out but then when the first child was born, she became jealous, controlling and “crazy” and still behaves in these ways today.

    Any advice? Mind my own business? :-)

    • shrink4men
      July 5, 2009 at 1:14 pm

      Hi Dana,

      Apologies for my delayed reply. This could simply be a case of first “puppy” love. However, based on his early childhood history/abandonment/intrusiveness with a possibly BPD mother, I would pay close attention.

      A good, healthy relationship is one in which you and your partner support and encourage each other to do things that are in your best and mutual interest. Losing his job and apartment and not going to the gym are not healthy choices. Also, if he has stopped hanging out with his friends and/or has lost interest in other things he used to enjoy, I’d view it as a red flag. You need to tread a thin line between telling him what to do (which will only strengthen the bond with his gf) and sitting idly by and ignoring the situation.

      Maybe his father could very gently speak with him about what happened re: his job and apartment in terms of getting back on track in order to do some subtle digging about the relationship. Perhaps other readers can offer some advice, too?

      Kind Regards,
      Dr Tara

  4. dissected frog
    June 24, 2009 at 6:13 am

    I thought I had made it clear why I am defending – not only ‘my’ position, but the position of any or all partners who – by dint of the kind of behaviours described – may be labelled as ‘Ahmadinejad’ personalities.

    My point is – that many people are *quite often serious failures*, as I most surely was – in screaming at my ex, or going too far in what he would almost certainly describe as ’emotional’ and controlling responses. The questions that have to be addressed before any useful results might be achieved, must surely include – what does someone hope to achieve, or gain by their behaviour? Is it deliberately controlling – or is it simply ill judged, or just a *plain dumb* response to difficult circumstances?
    So – while many people, men and women, might identify their partners in your ‘Ahmadinejad’ personality assessment, creative solutions are not best found in such destructive labelling.
    Even for those who may do their utmost to be, deliberately, ‘controlling jerks’, as his family members appeared to me to do.
    When it comes to responding to destructive behaviour, some people become violent, others depressive and traumatised, still yet more by suicide or despair, or all the many ways that people express their feelings of hopelessness. Labelling any of them with destructive labels – I do not feel is a creative way to go.
    You ask about my ex’s new wife.
    First – unlike me, she has the back up of her own strong, extended family structure. An educated mother, an elder brother – (I know my ex took a dislike to his new wife’s mother, who I knew a little as a caring mother for her daughter). I was then, and remain, completely on my own, and I believe you must be aware of how it is almost impossible to establish credibility, against determined prejudice, or attack without support of some kind. Second – she is simply much more ‘his kind of person’ so that no great personality adjustment is necessary in their relationship.

    My personal judgement of the bad situation we shared – which I think must be a common one, therefore also why I reply on your site – was that my ex *had a very definite role to play within his family, to support adult dependencies*. For example – his sister and mother both looked for him for support in their own less than happy relationships. The ‘heads together’ comparisons and criticisms of relationships, was an ongoing family sport that he was expected to continue, but which for me was always distasteful because it was destructive, not creative, criticism.
    My disapproval of that alone, was enough to create an ‘outsider’ role for myself.
    Their own support structure of my ex-partner as confidante, was threatened by anyone who might remove him from their circle, and that could not be tolerated. It was clearly in their interests to support him in any negative feelings he had about me.

    (His own male relatives did not present much, if any, threat, and indeed his brother remains in distant but quite amicable contact).

    While it is true to say that people may behave as if they are ‘controlling jerks’ – I feel it is no help at all, to view them as such. In bad situations – the behaviour that works best, as Ive come to learn after too many years –
    is always quiet, polite, non destructive, calm – but never subservient or aquiescent or appeasing.
    I think it took me too long to learn all of that. And the results are ongoing and still – so sad and painful.
    So I hope to encourage peaceful, non aggressive problem solving.

    • shrink4men
      June 24, 2009 at 2:41 pm

      Except that many people are controlling jerks. Whether it’s pathological, as in a personality disorder; or situational, as in a bad relationship dynamic. You may not like the label and prefer to have a kinder, excuse ridden explanation that removes all responsibility for the person’s behavior by chalking it up to circumstances, but many people, particularly people who have been the targets of these behaviors, would disagree.

      It’s incredibly helpful for the targets of such behaviors to understand exactly who and what they’re dealing with. It takes two people to tank a relationship. Your ex made the choice to enter into a relationship with you and played his part in the demise of the marriage. Staying in the relationship and staying locked n the “dance” after things became bad was a choice he made. Perhaps he could’ve been less dependent upon his family, but you also had choices. There’s no way for my readers or me to whether your choices were just “ill-considered” at the time or pathological.

      Unless you’re a saint, it’s extremely difficult to meet extreme verbal aggression, yelling, name calling and accusations with “quiet, polite, non-destructive calm.” From what you’ve written, it doesn’t seem like you were able to do that when you felt under attack by your ex’s family either. Furthermore, you’re still not taking responsibility for your own behavior when you justify it by saying you were blindly acting out in response to your ex’s family’s behavior. That’s a choice you made at the time.

      You could say, Ahmadinejad is only behaving this way because he lost the election, but that doesn’t cut it. He’s acting this way because this is personality structure and he reacts with aggression when opposed. We can keep going in circles on this, but I’m not interested in doing so. If your behaviors truly were situational, I wish you the best in healing from your past relationship and moving onto something healthier.

      Dr Tara

  5. Laura
    June 22, 2009 at 11:39 pm

    Better to dissect the frog rather than kiss it and find a NPD/BPD prince or princess, I suppose…. ;)

    • shrink4men
      June 23, 2009 at 2:10 am

      Good one, Laura!

  6. dissected frog
    June 21, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    All youve written sounds very well observed and carefully noted, however – there are some very serious cracks in most of it.
    I dont know for sure, but Im pretty certain my ex would read every word youve written nodding his head and blowing his nose, damp eyed, touched by your deep understanding of his long term suffering of a sick minded partner.
    All he would forget would include – a view of life that runs on tracks of its own. For every shackle he felt placed on every limb, as you have described them – you ought advise him to consider – what are the shackles he has already locked into place, himself? And ‘locked’ is the operative word.
    I felt deeply, painfully threatened by his family and friends, and would eventually, pull out all the stops to keep them distant. Why? Because of my Mahmoud Ahmadinejad personality? Or because they ‘operated’ as a pack, discussed my sanity, my motives, my family, my social standing, morality, etcec – as judge and jury, swapping opinions, ALL as if I was in a glass jar, on a shelf.
    Used to being independent – I found it absolutely soul destroying – to be considered in such a way, by a kind of closed membership ‘club’.
    Mystified rage, was one response, I did try to keep under control.
    To him, used as he had been, to the endless chatter and exchange of opinions , often destructive ones – about me, & other people outside the ‘club’, to find access to that – attacked, or cut off – must have seemed like a threat to his life.
    He was very needy in ‘sharing’ those povs.
    Ask your man – what restrictions he has made essentials, for his own peace of mind.
    My ex refused to allow any of my home interests of which he disapproved. Interests that had no bad effect on him at all, but of which he seemed suspicious, or which did not appeal to him, or ‘the club’ personally. He smashed them up, but clearly thought he did asolutely no wrong in so doing. ‘A waste of time’
    was his ‘reason’.
    I could go on, but I suspect you would – like him, prefer NOT to hear me.
    I ended it all – in the end, although it was certainly he who had claimed to be the most ill treated. I felt as if I was giving him a good gift. He pretended to the world – that I had thrown him out, unjustly, I just didnt need any more weight to carry. He is happily married now, and should thank me for cutting him loose. But of course he does not.
    Which of us was Ahmadinejad?
    :o(

    • shrink4men
      June 21, 2009 at 4:15 pm

      Interesting perspective. So, basically, you’re saying that every abusive thing you did to your ex-husband, including cutting him off from his friends and family, was justified because:

      1. He chose to shackle himself to you because he was primed to do so because of alleged mistreatment by his family.
      2. You tried to keep your “mystified rage” under control because you were mad that his family and friends didn’t approve of the way your treated you ex-husband.
      3. They disagreed with the way you treated your ex, discussed and challenged your abusive behaviors and made judgments about them. That they’re bad people because they were concerned about their friend/brother/son’s well-being.

      You’re also saying he should “thank you” for cutting him loose because he’s happily married to a non-abusive woman now. So, basically, even though you abused him during the entire length of your relationship, he owes his current happiness to you. That’s like saying, “he only feels better now because I stopped hitting his head with a hammer everyday. He owes me a debt of gratitude.”

      In the beginning of your comment you mention that there are cracks in my writing. Actually, everything you’ve written proves my points perfectly. I guess learning how to dissect a frog in 10th grade actually did prove useful.

      Dr Tara

      • dissected frog
        June 23, 2009 at 9:25 pm

        It is interesting to consider your reply, thank you, but alas – I think it may be built out of a misunderstanding…
        You wrote :-

        “He chose to shackle himself to you because he was primed to do so because of alleged mistreatment by his family.”

        I did not write that – but somehow you have read that into my words. Unless – which is unlikely – you consider *all* committment to be a kind of ‘shackle’?

        And neither did I write ….
        “They disagreed with the way you treated your ex, discussed and challenged your abusive behaviors and made judgments about them”.

        I would have been more than glad to ‘discuss’, creatively, any behaviour of his, and mine – that might have brought about peaceful coexistence, but those were never the topics of debate.

        Certainly, discussion, of the kind many people DO have with caring relatives or counsellors in similar situations, could surely have helped a little. However, no one *ever* asked about what you describe as ‘abusive behaviours’ and they were not challenged. The criticisms were destructive and personal, and not at all relevent to our relationship. They simply served as support for his own sense of personal misfortune in finding himself with me as partner. Im sure you have heard of ‘mobbing’ as a group activity – used to attempt to reject a specific, unwanted member of that group?
        I have no wish to convince you that I was desirable as a member of that group or any other. It is more than possible that I was then, and remain, unappealing.
        I simply question your conclusions about how to judge, and resolve the very difficult issues involved. ie – When people are desperately unhappy in a relationship, it is very rarely all the fault of one partner.

        That you are prepared to take an aggressive stance against me, with respect, seems to me to be unprofessional. (even though I am quite ready to accept that my response to my partners behaviours – fit well with some of those you describe,)

        There are so many people who find themselves unable to deal with these kinds of destructive relationship situations, and many end tragically, with emotional or physical damage.

        *Any* aggressive response, which people under stress may offer, is very rarely useful, and may be very dangerous. I consider myself fortunate to have, eventually, talked to a counsellor who explained to me the dangers.
        My own experiences demonstrated that too well., and I suggest that you, and all readers of your website, try to avoid agression, also.
        As for my ex – does he owe his present happiness to me? Obviously, not entirely!
        However – I know what I did that was surely useful on his behalf – was to tolerate, and fight back, against the dislike & rejection of his family and friends – long enough for them to get bored with the game, and to give it up entirely.
        At last, after many years, although he never felt any more affection for me, – he became seperate from them, was able to face life on his own, without looking to them for their mob support, and had a personality of his own. And yes, I do think that contributed to his current good relationship.
        I hope so.

        • shrink4men
          June 23, 2009 at 10:09 pm

          If the relationship and you ex’s family are as you describe, that’s a shame and, clearly, the material on this site does not apply to you. Which begs the question, why are you defending your position here?

          Yes, some individuals’ families are controlling jerks and it’s a problem. You never stated exactly why they disliked and rejected you or if they now reject/judge/gossip about his new wife with whom he is happy and if not, what makes her acceptable to them.

  7. J
    June 20, 2009 at 9:14 pm

    Are relationships with borderline girls more stable if the guy is an older parental figure say 45 to her 30? Do age gaps matter? Also would you recommend amateur dramatics for a borderline/histrionic? Or would she just get frustrated & devalue it in the long term?

  8. Laura
    June 18, 2009 at 2:21 am

    Why don’t they teach this stuff in high school?!

    • shrink4men
      June 18, 2009 at 2:49 am

      Because it would break the one unspoken rule of American high school: Don’t teach the kids anything practical that they can use later in life.

      Instead we learned how to dissect a frog and that’s something I haven’t needed to know about or do ever since.

  1. December 17, 2010 at 6:31 pm
  2. December 2, 2010 at 10:53 am

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