“The giving of love is an education in itself.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

We all have patterns in relationships… what types of partners we choose at different points in our lives, where we usually meet these partners, and how the relationship progresses.  While each relationship is different in many ways, it is important to recognize that you are the common factor amongst all of your relationships.  You can begin to mindfully notice your own patterns in relationships to gain a better understanding of yourself, yourself in relation to someone you love, and how to avoid past relationship blunders in your current or future relationship(s).

To begin the process of exploring your relationship patterns, take out a sheet of blank paper and divide it up into at least three columns (more than that if there are more important relationships you would like to reflect upon). If you have not been in at least three serious relationships, keep the three columns nevertheless and imagine a person you have met in the past who you would have liked to have had as a partner.

Place the name of each important past partner at the top of each column on your paper.  Read through the following nine questions and answer each question as it relates to each past relationship.  When you are finished look across the rows and begin to identify common themes or patterns.  Also notice what is different, how you have changed, or how your current relationship looks in comparison to relationships from the past.

The idea is not to judge relationships as “good” or “bad” but simply to become more mindfully aware of your past tendencies in romantic relationships.  When you become more aware of any common themes or patterns, you can become more alert to its recurrence in the present moment.  This awareness allows you greater opportunities to make new and better choices as you move forward, if you so choose.  Recognize that no matter what your patterns have been, nothing is set in stone.  You have the opportunity to translate this self-knowledge into creating the type of relationship that you value in this present moment.

(1) Where and how did you meet?

Notice if you have met most of your past partners at work, at school, or through mutual friends.  If you are currently single, noticing where you have met your past partners can give you a sense of the general environment that has proven most conducive to meeting your past partners.  Perhaps you met all of your past boyfriends/girlfriends at school and you are now out in the working world.  Or maybe you met your past partners at bars or clubs, and those relationships tended to be chaotic or problematic.  The idea is simply to notice your patterns and decide if you would like to begin to build new ones.

(2) Who initiated the relationship, and how?

This might involve noticing who initiated contact, who showed interest in exploring a relationship, etc.  When you begin to notice your own tendencies – perhaps as more aggressive or more passive – you can begin to make decisions about how you would like to continue or alter that pattern in the future.

(3) What was your first impression of him/her?

What qualities stood out to you when you first met?  What qualities do you think you may have chosen (consciously or otherwise) to overlook?  The things that we tend to pick up on and notice about other people usually say a great deal about ourselves, if only we will pay attention.  Notice any common themes or patterns that emerge regarding these first impressions.  Did they generally turn out to be somewhat accurate as you got to know the person better?

(4) What feature or quality first attracted you?

Our initial attraction to another person says a great deal about ourselves as well.  Do you find yourself generally attracted to physical qualities, personality traits, or common factors that you share?  As you reflect upon what first attracted you to your past partners, take a moment to notice how this quality manifests itself (or not) within you.

Do you tend to be attracted to others who have strengths that you do not believe you have yourself?  Or do you find yourself attracted to others that remind you of yourself in some way?  There is no “right” or “wrong” answer… the idea is simply to increase awareness and self-knowledge.

(5) What was the best part of the relationship?

It is part of adopting a mature and realistic stance on relationships to recognize that giddy euphoric love is not something you can (or perhaps, even should) come to expect day in and day out of your relationship.  As you reflect on your own relationship patterns, notice what times or attributes of your past relationships you experienced as the “best” times.  What do these times all have in common (or not)?

For some people, they may experience a somewhat unrealistic nostalgia as they reminisce on the early “good old days” of past relationships, only to feel that they got stale over time.  For others, the “best” times of their relationships may have been once they had been together long enough to really know one another through and through.  What feelings do you associate with the “best” times?  What is the significance or deeper meaning of those times?

(6) What didn’t you like about him/her in the relationship?

The things that we need and want in life change as we grow and the years pass.  It is quite likely that if you were to meet one of your past boyfriends or girlfriends today, you would never consider having a relationship with them (and vice versa!).  This is okay.  The idea is to recognize the ways in which we grow and change and be honest with ourselves about qualities that we truly need and want from others.

It is quite possible that the very thing(s) you disliked about past partners is precisely what you are seeking in a current partner.  For example, maybe you used to be afraid of stability and moved away from potential partners who tried to offer this to you, yet who you are today feels peaceful and happy with stability.  Notice how your own likes and dislikes have changed over time and how they shape your current relationship wants and needs.  With each quality that you have disliked about past partners, take a moment to pause and ask yourself, “In what way am I ——?”  These dislikes may help you identify and accept your “shadow self.”

(7) How long did the good part last?

If the good old days really only lasted for, well, a few days, then it is worth asking yourself now how “good” it really was for you.  In contrast, if you experience the best parts of relationships as being the times when you both feel truly committed to one another, then it is possible that these times may have lasted much longer.  Again, the idea is simply to notice any potential patterns and be honest with yourself about what those patterns may mean.

(8) Who ended it and how?

Do you find yourself to always be the one who gets left behind or the one who typically ends relationships?  Ask yourself if you see any patterns here and if you feel comfortable with those patterns continuing.  Do you notice a pattern to leave relationships when you begin to feel yourself becoming vulnerable, when things feel too committed, or when you feel restless?

Or perhaps do you notice that your past partners have ended relationships at times when things seemed “good” to you or when you finally felt that you could relax in the relationship?  Notice what themes emerge from how your past relationships have ended and recognize that if you dislike those patterns, you can begin to take steps in this present moment to prevent them from happening in the future.

(9) Would you be willing to resume the relationship if you had the chance?

Ask yourself honestly if you feel that your past relationships are just that… in the past.  As you reflect upon those relationships, do you feel that you have a clear sense of how they began, progressed, and ended, or do you feel an uneasy sense of lack of closure or resolution?

It is helpful for most people to feel that they can “make sense” of what happened in past relationships so that they can calmly leave them in the past.  It is worth considering that most relationships end for good reasons and that opening up or renewing relationships with past partners is often a risky or ill-fated decision (although it can work for some people).

Rather than engage in reminiscing about the past, why not take the knowledge you can glean from the past and put it to good use?  If you are currently in an important romantic relationship, ask yourself how you can use this knowledge of your past relationships in a way that can benefit your current relationship.  Don’t allow reflecting upon the past to take you away from this present moment… the past is over.

You can make the choice in this moment to begin to build new relationship patterns and use your increased self-awareness in productive ways.  How can you take this self-knowledge and begin to create a healthy and mindful pattern in your current or future relationship(s)?  Your future patterns are up to you and are built upon the choices you make now.

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Alman, I. (2011, November 8). Examining old relationship patterns [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sex-sociability/201111/examining-old-relationship-patterns

Featured image: Julie Fronmueller Quilt by Steve Snodgrass / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


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