As children we learn ways of relating – from parents, siblings, anyone who’s important in our lives. And then, over and over again, we replay those patterns.
People who had such experiences as children have learned some unhealthy relationship patterns.
They may have experienced betrayal by someone who used or abused them sexually. Or adults responsible for caring for them may have betrayed them by turning on them in fits of rage, or repeatedly and harshly criticizing them in ways that made them feel bad and ashamed.
For such experiences to happen, their needs had to be neglected or ignored by those who might have protected them, or might have helped them stop what was going on, or helped them deal with what happened.
Many patterns involve roles of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’
Often people who have been harmed by others’ unwanted or abusive sexual, physical and/or emotional behavior also experienced physical and/or emotional neglect. Also, they have probably witnessed very unhealthy ways of relating between parents, siblings, their mother and her boyfriends, etc.
Roles People Play
One of the most helpful ways of understanding the unhealthy relationship patterns that can result from unwanted or abusive childhood experiences is in terms of roles that we play.
Victim and Perpetrator
Unhealthy relationship patterns often revolve around the roles of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator.’
There are many versions of these roles, and they can be quite subtle. You may let yourself get ‘walked all over’ by others. Or you might treat other people as objects to be ‘used’ to achieve your own goals.
Even people who never think of themselves as ‘victims’ often respond as if others were trying to make them victims – and end up victimizing others, in small and sometimes large ways, all the while feeling like it’s ‘just self defense.’
For example, when parents and caregivers are abusive, they almost always believe (even if they don’t think about it) that their actions are justifiable responses to being victims of a child’s ‘disobedience,’ ‘disrespect,’ etc. (A very extreme and disturbing example is in this video of a man beating his daughter; if you can stomach it and get that far, you’ll see how he feels like the victim, as he repeatedly yells that his daughter has ‘disrespected’ him).
Or a parent may feel like a victim in way that they believe entitles them to, for example, use a child for sexual gratification (‘my wife won’t have sex with me’).
We can free ourselves from these roles
But there are plenty of less extreme examples. Whenever we feel like someone ‘deserved’ a nasty or attacking comment we just made, we’ve rapidly and automatically gone from feeling like a victim of that person to victimizing them in the perpetrator role.
The point here is not to condemn ourselves (or anyone else), just to recognize how common these roles are, even in those small little dramas and battles of everyday life.
Replaying the ‘bystander’ role can be very destructive too. For example, you may look the other way as someone you know exploits or abuses another person (or group of people, for example customers or employees at the ‘bottom’ of an organization). You may do nothing to protect a child from abuse or neglect that you know or strongly suspect is happening.
It’s so easy to fall into the roles of victim, perpetrator and bystander, and to flip back and forth between them, all without even realizing it.
Other Common Roles and Repetitions
There are so many ways that people can find themselves repeating painful relationship patterns from childhood – if they pay attention and reflect on their relationships.
Some people keep neglecting their own needs and taking care of others in ways that lead them to feel resentful and neglected by others.
Some try to control others with guilt or shame.
Some hide their emotional needs from others, then feel ignored and abandoned. Others make extreme emotional demands, or alternate between being needy and distant.
Also, many unhealthy relationship patterns are rooted in a lack of trust – that anyone can really care, anyone can really understand them, be honest, etc. This lack of trust is usually rooted in childhood relationships with parents or other important adults who were untrustworthy.
It could be with a second wife or husband, a tenth girlfriend or boyfriend, or a twentieth boss. When we’re really honest with ourselves, we see that we’ve mostly been having the same basic relationship conflicts over the years.
And when we truly investigate, we find that those conflicts are almost always rooted in early childhood relationship patterns in which we felt vulnerable and got hurt.
Change Is Possible, Therapy Can Really Help
Fortunately, it really is possible to understand and overcome such deeply ingrained patterns.
Any safe and healthy relationship will give you opportunities to overcome the ways you repeat unhealthy relationship patterns.
It is possible to understand and overcome such patterns.
But for many people, it’s going to require some extra help, not just from a patient and loving partner, but from someone who’s job includes providing such help, that is, a therapist or counselor.
In fact, one of the most healing things about a good therapy relationship is the following process:
- Developing a safe and trusting relationship, which allows you, with the therapist’s help, to…
- Observe yourself repeating old unhealthy relationship patterns, with people in your life and with the therapist, which gives you the chance to…
- Explore the related memories, feelings, and beliefs about yourself, others and relationships, which finally enables you to…
- Discover and practice (and keep practicing) new and much healthier ways of relating, especially when your ‘buttons get pushed.’
This is one of the main purposes of a therapy relationship, especially when the therapist includes ‘interpersonal’ or ‘psychodynamic’ approaches, or the Internal Family Systems Model.
Many people have found that they can overcome old patterns much more quickly, and experience a lot less conflict and pain at work and at home, when they make use of therapy (with a good therapist who is a good match for them, see Counseling and Therapy).
Finally, please keep in mind that a variety of harmful childhood experiences can contribute to relationship challenges and troubles. These include not only unwanted or abusive sexual experiences or physical abuse, but also harsh disciplining by parents, harsh criticisms or emotional abuse, death of a parent or other close person, and other experiences of neglect or betrayal by important people in one’s life.
But again, no matter what you’ve been through, change is always possible, even if requires some serious help, hard work, and time.