Identify Problematic Relationship Patterns & Break the Cycle

“Remember, we all stumble, every one of us. That’s why it’s a comfort to go hand in hand.” – Emily Kimbrough

Valentine’s Day is an opportunity to take an honest, gentle, and loving look at your relationship and reflect on ways that you can strengthen your loving bond. When you take the time to mindfully examine the patterns and themes that emerge within your relationship dynamic, you can begin to make meaningful changes to those patterns that can strengthen your relationship. An honest examination of your own relationship requires that you take an active role, demonstrating willingness to acknowledge the ways in which you contribute to the patterns in your relationship continuing. This also means recognizing where the line between you and partner begins and ends, separating your personal issues from theirs.

Relationships can be a source of support and love, just as they can be a source of stress and heartache. While stress is inevitable from time to time as you travel through life with your partner, you can take proactive steps toward reducing (even eliminating) unnecessary stress and increasing loving support. As human beings, we are all born hardwired to reach out and make meaningful connections with other people. As infants and children, these important relationships were essential for survival. As adults, we still have the same emotional needs for authentic connections with other people, and when these needs go unmet, the result can be intense emotional distress.

There is no magic formula… no “one size fits all” to create the perfect relationship. You are an incredibly unique individual with a rich and varied personal life history, and so is your partner. You each bring with you an incredible amount of unique expectations, values, habits, desires, and needs to your relationship. The trick toward finding your relationship’s personal blend of consistent harmony is in understanding how your relationship dynamic works and how you can both contribute to it working better.

It is often difficult to accurately identify patterns in relationships because we generally have a tendency to look outward to what our partner is doing as we try to make sense of things when they go “wrong.” It is usually much more challenging to take an accurate look in the mirror at how our own expectations, actions, and inactions are contributing to problematic cycles. When we begin to mindfully and accurately notice the role that we play in our relationships, things can begin to change. The only person’s behavior you can truly change is your own. Begin to ask yourself the initial question of,”What can I do differently here?”

Identify & Address Relationship Problems

Try this five-step approach to dealing with relationship problems:

(1) Define the problem.

Take the time to clearly define what the problem actually is before you get carried away with trying to “fix” it. If you are able to work through this process collaboratively with your partner, try to clearly define the problem from each of your perspectives. For example, you may define the problem as “my husband doesn’t pay me enough attention” whereas he may define the problem as “I don’t feel like I get enough space.” The point of this step is have a clear understanding of how each of you view the problem as you work toward a mutually agreeable solution (compromise).

(2) Identify the patterns that are allowing the problem to arise and continue.

There are often important themes to recurrent problems in relationships that can be identified if you take the time to assess what the majority of your relationship problems all have in common. Notice common themes in problems that, on the surface, may initially appear to be unrelated. Consider the following common negative relationship patterns as you begin this step:

  • Assuming you “know” how to make a relationship work.
  • Trying to change your partner.
  • Being critical and blaming.
  • Ignoring your partner’s opinions, wants, or needs.
  • Making comparisons to other people or other relationships.
  • Not dealing with anger and criticism well – being defensive.
  • Being clingy, overly needy, or intrusive.
  • Creating an unfair responsible parent / defiant child dynamic.

(3) Think of ways that you may be contributing to the problem.

Take the time to honestly assess how much this problem is originating in your own behaviors and how much is truly your partner. Remember that you chose your partner for your own personal set of reasons – you are not a passive actor in the relationship. The idea behind this step is to take responsibility for the ways that your actions and inactions are allowing this problem to manifest itself in the first place or to continue.

When you let go of the urge to place blame and take an honest look at how you may be allowing a perpetual problem to continue, there is greater possibility for lasting change to occur. If the relationship problem truly does originate within your partner, be sure that you are not enabling the behavior in any way, and then have a honest discussion with your partner about your expectations for what you need to see change in their actions.

(4) Take action to disrupt the automatic behavior patterns.

Make the conscious choice to actively notice “exceptions” to the problem. Really pay attention to the circumstances when the relationship problem is not occurring and assess what factors in the situation or environment may be contributing to the absence of the problem. Perhaps the problem typically occurs in a lively social setting, yet you notice that you and your partner attended a recent party when the problem did not occur. What was different?

When you notice cues internally (thoughts, sensations, or emotions) or externally (environmental factors or your partner’s overt behaviors) that alert you to the potential for the problem to occur, mindfully intervene in these moments. Let your partner know that you feel familiar signs of the problem on the horizon and that you would like to take steps to deescalate the situation or to avoid the problem in the moment. This step is all about applying mindfulness to the present moment, noticing exceptions, and disrupting potentially problematic behaviors from recurring.

(5) Seek outside help.

Sometimes problems are either too persistent, dangerous, or difficult to handle on your own. Recognize the difference between problems that you and your partner can effectively manage and those times when your best interests as individuals and as a couple may be met by seeking outside help. Relationship counseling can be an excellent avenue to openly discuss relationship patterns, themes, and problems with an unbiased and skilled psychotherapist. Part of your assessment of when to seek outside help will also involve both your and your partner’s levels of commitment and motivation to truly solving the problem.

Once you feel that you have successfully identified the relationship problem, the patterns that allow the problem to continue, and have taken proactive steps toward solving the problem, begin to actively strengthen your loving bond. Even the strongest and most stable of relationships still need attention and nurturance to thrive. Make the choice to commit yourself toward building and maintaining a healthy, loving, and mature relationship with your partner.

Tips on building a harmonious and successful relationship:

  • Make a real commitment to your relationship – both feet in.
  • Accept the other person just as they are – quirks and all.
  • Communicate with openness and honesty – don’t hold back.
  • Take real responsibility for your mistakes.
  • Be open to negotiation and forgiveness.
  • Use conflict as an opportunity to stimulate discussion and allow changes to happen.
  • Give and receive trust, loyalty, and support.
  • Don’t take things too seriously – allow yourselves to have fun and to be playful.

How might your relationship benefit from engaging in an honest appraisal of the patterns, themes, and dynamics that create or maintain problems? When you are ready to take a fearless look at the patterns to the problems in your relationship, you will begin to see what real steps you can take toward building a more stable, healthy, and harmonious bond with your partner. Success builds upon success… celebrate small victories with your partner as you gradually shift out of problematic patterns and move into a new relationship pattern built upon a solid foundation of love, compassion, and emotional maturity.

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Collingwood, J. (2007). Surviving Valentine’s Day and Beyond: Coping with Relationship Stress. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 13, 2012, from

Featured image: A love birds’ kiss by jinterwas / 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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