Many people get out of one bad relationship only to find themselves in another dysfunctional, toxic, or unhealthy relationship.
Even when we work hard to change ourselves and seek out different kinds of friends and lovers, it’s hard to avoid the unconscious pull toward people who draw us into arguments, activate our emotional wounds, and recreate familiar, but unhealthy, relationship roles and behaviors.
If you feel stuck in a cycle of unhealthy relationships, use these six tips to help you end the pattern and start creating healthier, more fulfilling relationships.
1. Recognize dysfunctional, toxic, and harmful behavior. Ideally, we need to recognize unhealthy behaviors (in ourselves and others) before we’re attached, committed, or in love. Yet, often, we miss the early warning signs and don’t realize we’re in a toxic relationship until after we’ve developed strong feelings or intertwined our lives with someone.
And if you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you may not know what a healthy relationship looks like and feels like: You didn’t have good role models. So it’s no wonder that you’re missing the red flags in your adult relationships:
Physical abuse: pushing, hitting, kicking, or otherwise hurting you physically.
Emotional or mental abuse: calling you derogatory names, yelling, blaming, or threatening you; dismissing your feelings or telling you that you’re “crazy," exaggerating, confused, or making things up.
Dishonesty: lying, cheating, stealing, or engaging in other dishonest or illegal behavior; saying contradictory things, or telling stories that don't add up.
Controlling and jealousy: controlling where you go, who you see, what you wear, or your access to money. Insisting on reading your texts or private messages, knowing the password to your phone. Accusing you of cheating.
Avoidance: unwilling to address problems, emotionally unavailable, or retreating physically or emotionally when things get uncomfortable.
Codependency: an unbalanced relationship in which one person over-functions (feels responsible for the other, takes care of him/her, and is extremely responsible and hardworking) while the other under-functions and is emotionally immature and irresponsible.
2. Understand why you’re stuck in a cycle of unhealthy relationships. Logically, of course, it doesn’t make sense to make the same mistakes and repeat the same behaviors when they cause so many problems. But I assure you that you’re not doing this because you’re stupid. Usually, there are underlying traumas, learned behaviors, and unconscious emotions at work.
We repeat things because they’re familiar. So, even if you know a relationship is dysfunctional and not in your best interest, you may pursue it because it feels familiar and you know what to expect.
We also tend to repeat what we learned in childhood. You might repeatedly date women who abandon you like your mother did or you might unconsciously replicate your parents’ high-conflict marriage. Often our beliefs, coping strategies, and relationship patterns stem from our early experiences and they’re deeply entrenched because we form them before we develop critical thinking skills or have had much life experience. It’s as if we’re on autopilot, repeating patterns without intending to.
In addition, you may repeat dysfunctional relationship patterns because you don’t feel worthy of being treated with respect and unconditional love. Again, these beliefs probably originated in childhood, but you’ve been telling yourself their true and unconsciously finding partners who reinforce these beliefs.
3. Heal underlying trauma. Dysfunctional relationships stem from abandonment, rejection, shame, and other painful and traumatic experiences. Until your emotional wounds and unmet needs are resolved, you will continue to seek healing from partners who are unable to give you the love, acceptance, and emotional safety that you need and deserve. Many people find the assistance of a trauma-informed therapist is an essential component of healing.
4. Learn and practice new relationship skills. To change your relationship patterns, you also need to change your own behavior. This might include improving your communication skills, regulating your emotions, setting boundaries, and so forth. Self-help books can be a good place to begin, as well as psycho-educational groups and therapy.
5. Be willing to be alone rather than in a dysfunctional relationship. Many people remain in abusive or unhealthy relationships in part because they don’t want to be alone. However, sometimes, taking time between relationships allows you to prioritize yourself in new ways, learn skills, process your feelings, and gain new insights. Choosing to be single or to have fewer friends doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. In fact, it can reflect healthy self-esteem and knowing that you deserve to be treated well.
6. Treat yourself the way you want to be treated. When we treat ourselves poorly (criticizing ourselves, ignoring our needs, invalidating our feelings, or not standing up for ourselves) we’re telling others that it’s okay to treat us this way. If we want others to treat us well, we have to treat ourselves well, too. We have to value and accept ourselves, take good care of our bodies and emotions, trust ourselves, respect our opinions, and work toward our goals. When we do these things, others will follow.
Making significant changes takes a lot of effort. Realistically, you’re not going to change long-standing patterns in a matter of weeks. Be gentle with yourself as you make small changes. They will eventually help you break the cycle.
See more relationship red flags here.
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