What Causes Unhealthy Relationship Choices and Patterns, Part 1, discusses unhealthy beliefs about the self and relationships that impact the kind of partner one chooses and, subsequently, the quality of relationships one has. These beliefs are often the root cause of destructive relationship choices and patterns engaged in by codependents, narcissists and borderlines.
The faulty beliefs develop during childhood in dysfunctional families of origin. These beliefs are how kids make sense of a toxic parent’s unloving, neglectful, abusive, inconsistent and/or unpredictable behaviors. As such, they help children navigate a confusing family system with rigid or changeable rules and unstable caregivers.
To state the obvious, dysfunctional families aren’t normal. On the one hand, the maladaptive beliefs and coping mechanisms a child develops are adaptive within the context of a dysfunctional family. However, when these unhealthy constructs and defenses carry over into adulthood, they’re highly problematic for several reasons:
- Faulty beliefs about your relationship role and relationships lead to unhealthy relationship partner choices.
- Subsequent unhealthy partner choices confirm your faulty beliefs, so they become self-reinforcing.
- The faulty belief system disqualifies healthier potential partners because they don’t conform to the dysfunctional beliefs.
- Even if a healthier adult manages to get their foot in the proverbial door, maladaptive relationship beliefs, behaviors and coping mechanisms don’t work with healthier adults.
“Normal” has become a loaded word in today’s extremely individualistic and , in many cases, narcissistic culture. So what do I mean by normal?
What is normal?
My definition of normal doesn’t mean some hybrid of Father Knows Best and Pleasantville before it was colorized. Normal is good, not homogeneous vanilla soft serve ice cream cones. It means not personality disordered. Codependency isn’t normal either, but, unlike the personality disordered, they typically possess the prerequisite characteristics of normalcy.
What do I mean that codependents aren’t normal? To quote Patrick Carnes, PhD, “Loyalty to that which does not work, or worse, to a person who is toxic, exploitative or destructive to you, is a form of insanity.” Suffering abuse and confusing it with love is no more normal than narcissism, sociopathy or borderline personalities.
Normal means you have integrity, empathy, self-awareness and the ability to hold yourself accountable. Normalcy means possessing humility, healthy self-love and the capacity to feel remorse and apologize when you’ve hurt someone. If you’re normal, you’re emotionally mature, emotionally stable, have a sense of fair play and the ability to consider other people’s wants, needs, feelings and rights and not just your own.
You can dye your hair purple, have multiple facial piercings (why you’d want to is an entirely different matter!), crochet jumpsuits for your pet hedgehog and parade it in Hyde Park or whatever floats your boat and still be normal by my definition. Perhaps not “the norm” (i.e., usual, typical, standard), but normal.
We can be odd or different and still be normal as defined above. For example, sometimes after a rough week, I pour myself a Scotch, blast Donna Summer’s On the Radio and have a disco dance party in the living room with my dogs. Some people would definitely consider that eccentric (a polite word for weird), but I’m not hurting anyone and the dogs don’t seem to mind as long as their preemptively bribed with a Himalayan yak milk bone.
What is normal in dysfunctional families is abnormal to healthier people.
Emotionally healthy (i.e., normal) people tend to have relationships with other emotionally healthy people. Why? Because they have healthier functional beliefs about themselves, others and relationships. Therefore, they tend to attract and be attracted to individuals who treat them with similar kindness, consideration and respect.
Alternately, a healthier individual’s belief system doesn’t make allowances for people who would abuse and take advantage of them. This is where adult children of toxic parents differ. If you’re codependent, your belief system likely rationalizes, justifies, minimizes and ignores all manner of egregiously inconsiderate, cruel, selfish, hypocritical and one-sided behaviors in a partner (and parent!) Due to your family of origin, dysfunctional and toxic is your normal.
Good enough parents help children to feel secure, self-worth, important (to them), loved (not perfect) and provide them with predictable, consistent boundaries and rules. They’re better able tolerate the child’s transition from idealization to devaluation (i.e., seeing mom and dad as perfect to the adolescent disillusionment and disdain). This fails to occur when parents can’t tolerate being devalued and/or a child maturing into their own person.
Immature not good enough parents experience this as abandonment, rejection and betrayal and punish the child. In such cases, a child develops a false self instead of an authentic self. The false self protects the child (and later, the adult) from disappointment and loss. It also stymies the child’s continued emotional growth and ability to relate to others in healthy, genuine ways. So, they become inauthentic beings incapable of authentic relationships. This is true of both codependents and the personality disordered.
The false self of the codependent is the good boy/good girl, nice guy/nice girl, people pleaser, knight in shining armor, rescuer, fixer, cool guy/cool girl, etc. Codependents try to obtain love and maintain relationships by behaving selflessly, care-taking others and having no boundaries. It’s also how you try foster a dependency to avoid abandonment because it’s what you learned to do in childhood!
Dysfunctional relationship problem-solving techniques of codependents.
In reality, the relationship solutions employed by many codependents aren’t problem-solving techniques. They’re problem-creating and problem-sustaining techniques. In other words, they solve nothing. They either maintain the unhealthy status quo or make things incrementally worse.
Everyone has preferred problem-solving techniques we default to when things go awry in our relationships. If they’re healthy and effective — great! Or, they may be “effective” in the sense that they keep an unhealthy relationship on life support indefinitely. We can call that successful, I guess. That is, if your goal is to preserve the relationship no matter the cost. Even so, that kind of reasoning is its own kind of crazy.
Dysfunctional problem-solving techniques contribute to unhealthy relationship patterns. Again, these kinds of beliefs and behaviors don’t work with healthier people. So, if you want to level up at some point, you need to identify your unhealthy default behaviors and begin developing more functional ones. If you do so within a dysfunctional relationship with, e.g., a narcissistic or borderline partner, you can anticipate that they’ll blow a gasket.
You may be unaware of how you typically respond when things go wrong. Because they’re learned in childhood, they’re often reflexive, i.e., not well thought out. These are usually techniques that worked in the past, but keep you from having the kind of relationship your rational adult mind would like to have as opposed to the relationship your emotional child self understands.
For example, do you:
- Hang on no matter bad it gets?
- Focus on your partner’s positive qualities and try to remember “the good times” (i.e., moments in which there’s been an absence of abuse) as things get worse and worse? In other words, you discount the negative and exaggerate the positive.
- Be more patient and loving while you receive nothing and/or are abused in return?
- Focus on how good the sex is (or tell yourself, “at least I get to have sex”) and ignore the problems?
- Ignore the problems until you’re forced to deal with them?
- Find workarounds that don’t involve your partner rather than addressing the problems directly with your partner?
- Give it your all and remain hopeful despite all evidence to the contrary?
- Fix your partner’s problems in the hopes that they’ll eventually give you some TLC?
- Try to be forgiving and understanding despite your partner hurting you repeatedly without acknowledgment or remorse?
- Avoid confrontations at all cost?
- Deny there are any problems?
- Defend your partner’s behavior to others?
- Keep your partner’s behavior secret from your family and friends?
- Make excuses for your partner?
- Give up on the relationship before trying to fix anything?
- Run away and hide rather than sharing your thoughts, feelings and fears?
This list isn’t exhaustive. Can you think of some of other unhealthy problem-solving techniques you’ve employed or currently employ in your relationships? Some of these techniques may still be effective in specific situations from time to time; however, it’s better to use them judiciously because they’re probably doing you more harm than good.
Why don’t these relationship strategies work?
Many of these strategies are a form of “magical thinking.” By relying on them, you avoid dealing with the reality of the situation. As a result, you never fully develop a good healthy mutual dialogue about difficulties. Although, if you’re involved with an adult toddler, that’s unlikely attainable.
These behaviors are primarily avoidance techniques. Ultimately, they undermine your chances of a satisfying relationship because they ignore your needs and right to be treated well. Do you consistently take the blame for everything in your relationship to avoid confrontation, fearing it will lead to a break-up? If so, please consider the quality of the relationship and whether your partner actually values you.
“Why does this keep happening to me?!?!?!”
The fear of opening yourself up, being taken advantage of or rejected also add to unhealthy dissatisfying relationship choices and patterns. When you doubt yourself or are afraid of being hurt, you may approach relationships in an unproductive manner. Consequently, it guarantees the outcome you most fear.
For example, Joe meets Sally. Sally possesses a healthy sense of self and has boundaries. Joe doesn’t have very good self-esteem, but likes to see himself as “the hero.” Most of the women he’s dated initially came on very strong and aggressively pursued him. After which, they became cold, demanding, distant and took advantage of him.
There’s something about Sally he likes, but she doesn’t fit the pattern of the women he typically becomes involved with. She doesn’t compliment him excessively, text him 20 times a day to flatter him/ask for his help and try to make plans with him multiple times a week. Joe interprets this as a lack of interest.
He fears if he pursues Sally, she’ll reject him and break his heart. When Sally contacts him to see if he’d like to get together, he pushes her away and acts distant. Even though Sally likes Joe, she interprets his rebuffs as a lack of interest, lets it go and moves on. When you push a healthy person who has boundaries away, they’ll usually go away and move on with their lives.
Joe further misinterprets the situation. He confuses Sally respecting his lack of interest (i.e., how most sane people respond to standoff-ish-ness) and not chasing after him as more proof of her lack of interest. Instead of pushing past his insecurities and self-imposed limitations, he hooks up with a borderline he meets on Tinder (keep swiping right for finger herpes!) She drowns him in flattery and “won’t you save me, you big strong man” manipulations. Then gets back together with her ex-husband with whom she was never “technically” divorced.
After Joe stops reeling from having been borderlined, he gets back together with an old ex for the third time because, maybe he’ll finally get her to love him the way he wants to make up for all the times in the past she didn’t. They have a history and maybe, just maybe it’ll work this time. [Snort!]
In reality, the ex yanks Joe’s chain whenever she’s in between relationships or has some new self-created calamity. Joe, bless his heart, thinks this means she’s never gotten over him. He doesn’t see that she just uses him as an ego boost and as relationship filler during dating gaps. Things inevitably fizzle out with the ex yet again. Why? Because neither of them have changed. Joe sits alone, morose and self-pityingly asking himself, “Why does this keep happening to me?”
Do you see how Joe royally screwed himself in this example?
Sally neither love bombed nor aggressively pursued Joe. Why? Because healthy adults don’t love bomb. They also don’t chase after other adults. Adults chase after toddlers who run out into the street. With scissors. And toddlers chase after their parents when they see their parents aren’t chasing after them.
Joe let his old faulty beliefs about himself, others and relationships rob him of the opportunity of having a healthier relationship. Instead of going outside of his dysfunctional comfort zone, he reverted back to what’s familiar to him. Familiar, but tragic. He won’t find personal well-being and reciprocal relationship satisfaction unless he adopts new beliefs, attitudes and behaviors. In other words, until he gets out of his own way.
Self-sabotaging relationship behaviors of codependents.
Do you engage in any of these self-defeating behaviors when you feel vulnerable, afraid, insecure or “not enough?” Or when you worry that a potential partner may reject you, or that a relationship is ending? At these times, do you:
- Try to “rescue” or “save” your partners (from themselves) hoping that they’ll appreciate and love you for it?
- Put more into your relationships than you get out of them?
- Pursue partners who push you away?
- Hide your feelings and needs for fear you’ll be ridiculed or rejected?
- Push people away who try to get close to you?
- Feel like you can’t live without you partner and, thus, tolerate abuse?
- Get dependent and clingy when a partner asks for space?
- Become cold and distant when your partner does something you don’t like rather than talking to them about it?
- Feel angry or resentful when your partner doesn’t respond or behave the way you want?
- Simmer in resentment if you don’t get your way after “doing so much” for your partner?
- Say nothing when you feel like you’re being ignored or disrespected?
- Censor yourself and freeze up when a partner asks what you’re feeling and thinking?
- Jump in and fix things for others without being asked (i.e., enabling)?
- Feel uncomfortable with people who don’t need you and push them away and/or disqualify them as friends or relationship partners?
Do you recognize any of these behaviors in yourself or in present or past partners? Have the majority of your adult relationships been characterized by similar faulty beliefs, fears and self-defeating behaviors? If so, what are you willing to do about it? Which of your old behaviors are you willing to give up? What new attitudes and actions are you willing to try, no matter how initially uncomfortable it may feel?
Many people want to be different. They want their lives and relationships to be different, but are unwilling to do anything differently. Do you see the problem in this? 2 + 2 will always = 4 in a base 10 system. If you want different outcomes, you must change the equation variables.
Yes, we have no bananas today. But we’re all stocked up on wingnuts!
You’ll never have satisfying intimate relationships if you continue to couple with women or men who are incapable of reciprocal, mutual relationships. Instead, you’ll just keep repeating the same pattern, lamenting, “Why does this keep happening to me?” You’ll spare yourself a lot of pain and disappointment once you challenge your beliefs and fears and begin to make different choices.
For example, let’s say you want some bananas. Instead of going to the supermarket, you go to the hardware store. No bananas. You go back to the hardware store everyday for a year. Still no bananas. Amazingly, each time you ask Mr. Ace Hardware for bananas, you’re surprised he doesn’t have bananas.
It’s okay to want bananas. However, you’re not going to find them at the hardware store. In fact, you’ll drive yourself bananas if you keep trying to do so. Perhaps this example seems absurd, but so is choosing the same kind of person with the same kinds of issues over and over again, hoping for a different outcome.
If you want healthier relationships, you’ll need to identify the old faulty beliefs and understand how they’ve shaped your relationship choices. Next, identify healthier, more functional beliefs about yourself, others and relationships. If you’re drawing a blank, think of what the opposites would be to your old beliefs and work backwards.
Our beliefs are reinforced by our actions and what we tell ourselves. So, while you’re at it, identify healthier self-statements and daily life practices you can do to help shift out of those old paradigms. Think small. For example, making your bed each morning. Getting yourself some new socks and underwear. Anything you can do for yourself that says, “I matter.”
In Part 3, I’ll examine how self-defeating attitudes contribute to unhealthy relationship patterns, so please check back.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for professional inquiries or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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