Toxic relationship patterns: photo of a poisonous snake

Identify and break free from toxic relationship patterns

Navigating relationships isn’t always a walk in the park. We’ve all grappled with the complexities of love, leaving us scratching our heads wondering “What went wrong?”

While all relationships are unique, just as we as individuals are unique, there are some common toxic relationship patterns that can be observed in struggling relationships. These behavior patterns make true loving impossible.

There’s hope, however: It is not the person showing a certain pattern of behavior that makes impossible a thriving relationship – it’s the behavior itself.

Recognizing toxic relationship patterns will help you break the pattern

If you’re able to recognize the toxic relationship pattern and identify its hidden message, you may be able to break the pattern.

You may recognize some of these toxic patterns as following you along the way. That doesn’t come as a surprise. Behavioral patterns we display often become deeply engrained habits that are hard to shake, and there’s a great likelihood that the way you act in one relationship is relatively similar to the way you act in another relationship.

Likewise, because you have a set of love stories that influence your choice of partner, you may end up with a string of partners that are similar to each other in terms of their personality and behavior.

Let’s have a look at some of the toxic relationship patterns that partners in struggling relationships often display (and what you can do to get out of these patterns). Do you recognize yourself or your (ex-)partner?

The Controller: “You’re so incompetent, I have to take over!”

A partner who’s controlling

  • threatens punitive action
  • uses bribery to get his/her way
  • punishes with physical/mental abuse
  • belittles a partner’s actions, opinions, and feelings
  • makes negative judgments
  • expects to have his/her way

The Controller’s hidden message is:

“I’m afraid that if I don’t keep you in line, you might do something to hurt me. If I don’t control you, I might lose you.”

Try this:

If you’re the controller:

  1. Make yourself aware that your way of controlling your partner and making sure things go your way will ultimately lead to a breakdown of trust and respect.
  2. Ask yourself: Is always getting your way really worth the cost? Consider: winning by intimidation is not winning at all, particularly in relationships.
  3. Are there situations where you could reasonably give in or have a discussion with your partner?
  4. Where is your fear of losing your partner coming from, and what needs to happen so that this fear is alleviated?

If you’re the controlled:

  1. Are you allowing your relationship dynamic to continue by behaving in a submissive way?
  2. Do you maybe even agree that your partner is justified in belittling you?
  3. What are some ways in which you can effectively express your own viewpoint in conversations?
  4. Are there strategies to reassure your partner that you’ll be supportive, even you share the power in your relationship?

The Saintly Fraud: “I’m fine but there’s something wrong with you”

A partner who is a Saintly Fraud uses double standards and:

  • believes he/she has legitimate reasons for their behavior, but judges that the partner’s behavior is caused by character flaws (in psychology, this is called the actor-observer effect)
  • is full of excuses
  • behaves in a condescending or superior way
  • assumes the worst of people
  • often feels victimized by the actions of others
  • always has external justifications to explain his/her behavior
  • can’t accept criticism.

The Saintly Fraud’s hidden message is:

“The conflicts in our relationship aren’t really my fault.”

Try this:

  1. Ask yourself whether you are not caught in a vicious circle, where each of you blames the other for starting it.  Break the vicious circle.
  2. Talk to your partner and discover whether you are not both feeling the same way.
  3. Resolve to admit your own faults and not always blame your partner for whatever goes wrong.
  4. Watch your own behavior.  Is your behavior really always reactive, or are you sometimes starting the circle of blame and recrimination?  Once the circle starts, of course, it can become difficult to know who “started it.”  Just resolve not to let the vicious circle start in the first place.

The Conflict Avoider: “We don’t have a problem”

Toxic relationship patterns: The conflict avoiderA partner who avoids conflicts

  • rarely shares his/her feelings
  • is secretive and withdrawn
  • hates confrontations
  • thanks people’s problems are “all in their head”
  • fears intimacy

The Conflict Avoider’s hidden message is:

“If we start talking about these problems, I might have to make some embarrassing admissions.”

Try this:

  1. When your partner cuts you off, do NOT use threats or seek revenge. These responses will only make matters worse. You can’t force someone to move past denial.
  2. Share with your partner how you feel.
  3. Make it clear that you will love your partner any less for being honest; in fact, honestly will strengthen your relationship.
  4. Encourage your partner to express their thoughts and feelings. Show empathy and understanding by not interrupting or judging.
  5. Choose your battles: Not every issue needs immediate resolution.
  6. Be patient; change takes time.

The Expert: “I know what’s best for you”

A partner who’s an expert in everything

  • usually begins statements with “I”
  • tends to dominate conversations
  • doesn’t take seriously his/her partner’s actions, opinions, and feelings
  • always has “the answer”
  • feels superior to others
  • brags about his/her achievements
  • feels threatened by others who appear knowledgeable

The expert’s hidden message is:

“I don’t want to listen to you because I want things to go my way, no matter what you say.”

Try this:

If you’re the Expert:

  • Realize that listening to your partner, sharing, and compromising help you grow as a person and as a couple
  • Ask yourself: What will really happen if I let my partner speak and participate in our decision-making? And then – try it out to see what will happen! You might just be pleasantly surprised.

If you’re the one who’s being dominated:

  • Share with your partner your desire for a more collaboration in your relationship, and in decision-making in particular
  • Acknowledge your partner’s strength and decision-making abilities, and express your wish to share your own input
  • Set boundaries by discussing which decisions need to be made together and which decisions can be made independently

The Blamer: “It’s all your fault”

Toxic relationship patterns: The BlamerA partner who’s a blamer

  • avoids self-examination and instead blames their partner (or an external entity)
  • often says he/she feels like an outsider
  • thinks people don’t understand him/her
  • feels superior to others
  • rarely or never admits to being wrong or unable to accomplish a task
  • makes accusations instead of expressing feelings

The Blamer’s hidden message is:

“I can’t face my own inadequacies, so I blame other people when things aren’t working out in my life.”

Try this:

If you’re the Blamer:

  1. Realize that blaming your partner (or others) for your feelings and actions neither makes you really feel better nor does it contribute anything positive to your relationship
  2. Develop more self-awareness: Pay attention to how you feel and why you feel that way. Use these insights to help you recognize when you’re about to blame your partner unfairly.
  3. Use “I” statements in discussions with your partner, rather than “you” statements. For example, say “I felt embarrassed when this happened…, ” rather than “You embarrassed me when…”

If you’re the one who’s being blamed:

  1. Stay calm! If you react in a defensive way, your conflict may escalate.
  2. Share with your partner how you feel using “I” statements
  3. Do not accept the blame for everything. Assess the accusations and recognize when you’re not at fault.
  4. Focus on problem-solving rather than dwelling on blame.

While each relationship is unique, we often find common patterns and behaviors that cause conflict and dissatisfaction, and often contribute to the decay of a relationship.

If you recognize any of these patterns in you or your partner, don’t despair. Change is possible, and it starts with self-awareness and open communication. Acknowledge the patterns and take a first step to a healthier, more fulfilling relationship.

And remember, it’s not about finding fault but rather about finding solutions. Break the cycle, break free from the patterns, and embrace the opportunity for growth and love. Your journey to a thriving relationship begins with understanding and, most importantly, action.

So, which pattern sounds familiar to you, and what steps will you take to transform your (future) relationship?

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