It’s not easy to change behavior that you have been practicing for a long time. Transformation requires that you leave your past behind without the comfort of knowing what your future will be. You will feel more confident in taking that leap if you can trust in a healing plan that makes sense.
THE SEVEN-STEP PLAN
The seven steps to healing will give you an overview of the changes you must make to take you from where you are to where you want to be. These steps will help you overcome the ten most common relationship-sabotaging behaviors. The steps may seem a little overwhelming at first, but small successes will happen as soon as you begin, and those improvements will keep you from being discouraged along the way.
STEP ONE: OBSERVING YOUR BEHAVIOR WITHOUT JUDGMENT
To learn more about what you have done to sabotage your relationships, you need to observe your behavior without succumbing to self-criticism, or negative self-talk. Negative self-talk is a repeat of critical parental remarks that you internalized as a child. Without realizing it, you may continue to make those critical statements to yourself whenever you feel bad about something you’ve done:
- “What an idiot you are.”
- “You keep doing things that screw up your life.”
- “Why can’t you learn?”
- “No one will ever like you if you act like this.”
- “You knew what you were doing was wrong. Why didn’t you stop?”
Talking to yourself in this way when you have done something you regret is counterproductive. It’s too hard to remember to behave differently when you’re trying to defend yourself against a disdainful inner authority. If you are courageous enough to look at your negative behavior, you must give yourself the support you need to work on changing it. Self-criticism will only slow down your process of healing.
If you listen carefully to your own internal dialogue, you will likely hear the way a parent disciplined you when you were young. If a parent responded to your mistakes with disappointment, anger, impatience, or shame, you may find yourself repeating these comments in your own head as an adult.
To change your negative behavior, you must eliminate those destructive inner dialogues. When you recognize actions that have hurt your relationships in the past, simply observe them without allowing any inner judgments. You will expedite the process of healing if you look objectively at your negative relationship behavior without putting yourself down.
GETTING HELP ALONG THE WAY
If you are currently in a relationship and still have your partner’s love and confidence, it will immediately help the relationship to tell your partner that you are aware of what you are doing and determined to change it. Just saying that can help you get the time and support you’ll need to change.
If you feel embarrassed or want to judge yourself harshly, let those judgments go. If you feel the urge to deny or rationalize what you are doing, try to stop. This is the time to collect as much information as you can without allowing anything to cloud your ability to learn.
If you are not presently in a relationship, think about those partnerships that were significant to you and observe them as if they were happening now. Remember: do not let your self-evaluation devolve into embarrassment or shame.
Answering the following questions may help:
- What have you done that consistently offended, hurt, or pushed your partner away?
- What results were you looking for when you acted that way?
- What usually happened instead of what you wanted?
- Do you wish things had worked out differently? If so, how?
- What were you feeling when you repeated behavior that you know has not worked in the past?
- What did you do to try to make things better?
- Can you observe these past interactions without blaming your partners or yourself?
STEP TWO: FINDING THE TAPROOTS OF YOUR BEHAVIOR
Once you have objectively observed and identified your relationship-sabotaging behavior, you will be ready to explore its origins. Start by following your current behaviors back into the past. Think of this as a journey down the taproot of a tree, to its deepest core. By following this taproot, you will be able to see how your life experiences have created and reinforced this negative behavior.
Your relationship behavior patterns have developed from your inherited personality characteristics, the relationships you’ve observed, and your own experiences. To find the taproots of your sabotaging behavior, you will need to remember any traumatic interactions that may hold the seeds of your current behavior.
REPEATED IRRATIONAL BEHAVIORS
People are unlikely to repeat behavior that doesn’t work unless it’s driven by unquestioned conscious or unconscious childhood teachings. If, for instance, you were told as a child that a certain consequence would result if you did something, but that prediction never came true, you would be less likely to believe it would happen the next time.
But if the caretakers you were dependent on insisted that you continue to believe in that improbability, you may have accepted that their reasoning was sounder than yours. To challenge your caretakers might have risked their approval, a choice too difficult for most children to make. If children continue to accept their caretakers’ irrational statements, it may limit their ability to believe their own experiences later on.
he personality of each child will help or hinder whatever damage may result from these crazy-making interpretations. Some children come into this world happy, resilient, and outgoing. When the disappointment of a broken promise happens, they can shrug it off and start over with renewed hope. Others are not as fortunate. They may be born more anxious or less able to tolerate frustration. When their expectations are consistently undermined, they may hold on more dearly to unlikely futures or be unable to believe any longer that promises will come true.
A combination of factors produces each unique human being. This personal mix of genetics, modeling, and parental teachings is then modified by every experience that follows. From these components, we develop the roles we expect to play in relationships and what we expect from our partners. If we don’t challenge the old teachings, our past will define our future.
Asking the following questions may help you locate the taproots of your sabotaging behavior:
- Which parts of your negative behavior did you learn and which seem more innate to your personality?
- Was your environment helpful or hostile to your development?
- What were your caretakers’ expectations of you?
- What kind of relationships did you observe around you?
- Were there any past traumas that could be affecting you now?
- What were the important ways you were nurtured or invalidated?
- When did you first begin acting in these negative ways in relationships?
STEP THREE: IDENTIFYING THE TRIGGERS
he next step is to determine what sets off your sabotaging behavior. Emotional or physical triggers—in the form of a simple phrase, a tone of voice, a gesture, or a facial expression—can remind you of a childhood event and bring the past into the present, whether or not you are conscious of what you may be responding to. Even environments that remind you of past traumatic events can affect what’s happening in your relationship.
riggers are established in childhood. They are reinforced throughout your life every time a negative sequence is repeated. Familiarity is a powerful mask, and you may not even recognize when your old behavior is being triggered. An unconscious memory may set off negative behavior in your present relationship before you realize that you could have had a better response.
Sometimes it’s a combination of events that leads to a negative reaction. These triggers may be obvious or subtle and harder to identify. If you observe yourself sabotaging your relationship, you will want to retrace your steps and try to remember what happened before you began reacting negatively. You may have to go back hours or days to discover when the sequence of events began that eventually led to your negative response.
Once you understand the sequence of events, you can try to recall when you first felt that way in your life. See if the present situation feels similar to what you experienced back then. Remember where you were, who was present, and how you felt at the time. The more details, the more helpful the memory will be.
You will want to ask yourself these questions: In what ways are the past and present situations similar? Does the relationship with your current partner feel similar to one from your past? (Note: The earlier the relationship, the more potent its effect may be.) It will help if you write your observations in your journal for later reference after you’ve had a chance to work with what you’ve discovered.
he most important clue to knowing you are being triggered is the intensity and quality of emotion you feel in the moment. Intense feelings that may seem too strong for the situation at hand are often associated with traumatic childhood experiences. Listen deeply to those feelings and see if they will help you to rediscover the memories you need.
he goal is to get a closer look at where your behaviors began. Once you identify the childhood experience that triggers your current feelings, you can anticipate your responses. That will give you time to choose an alternative reaction. The earlier you can recognize a trigger pattern, the more chance you will have to replace self-destructive behaviors with effective ones.
If you find yourself being triggered into negative behavior, these questions will help:
- When have you felt this way before?
- What was happening to you then?
- What did you feel?
- What was expected of you?
- What was the outcome?
- How is the present situation similar?
- What seems to be the present trigger that activated your reaction?
STEP FOUR: EXAMINING WHEN YOU ARE MOST SUSCEPTIBLE
Life’s trials can vary dramatically. When things are going well, we have more resilience, more time to think of options, and more reserves. A trigger that can set off a cascade of negative behavior when we’re tired, pressured, or frightened may not provoke us when we’re on an even keel. The same sequence of events that could throw you over the edge at one time might only evoke a gentle irritation at another. Learning to recognize when you are the most susceptible to reacting negatively gives you more leverage in maintaining your promises to yourself and to the one you love.
Perhaps you have unconsciously chosen a partner who reminds you of someone from your past. If your emotional reaction to your partner is similar to what you experienced before, you may automatically behave just as you did back then. Or your behavior may be triggered only when someone else threatens to take away your partner and activates a jealousy triangle you had as a child. You may be more susceptible to your triggers in a certain location or while experiencing a specific type of weather, hearing a familiar piece of music, or viewing a scene in a movie or TV program. Don’t be surprised if the reasons seem trivial at the time. They are often clues to much deeper issues that lie underneath.
WHAT CAUSES TRIGGERS TO ACTIVATE?
Some people are naturally more susceptible than others to triggers. Your inborn nature can make you more susceptible as well. Sensitive people are more reactive to all stimuli. Naturally resilient people don’t react as strongly even when they’re under stress.
Whatever your basic nature, your present state can exaggerate or calm your trigger reactions. For example, if you are facing multiple losses or demands, your adrenaline may be running higher than usual and you may be reactive to a situation that would normally not push in so hard. Depression and stress may also be factors. Whenever you feel “close to breaking” or that you “just can’t handle one more thing,” you may find yourself with a low tolerance for disappointment or challenge.
Once you understand when you are the most susceptible, you can compensate. Knowing when your reserves are down and your needs are high can make the difference between succeeding and failing.
SLOWING DOWN REACTIVITY
Asking these questions may help you slow down your reactivity:
- What’s typically going on in your life when you seem more reactive to your triggers?
- Does your partner remind you of anyone from your childhood? If so, how?
- Which of your personality traits drives your reactivity?
- Do trigger situations feel familiar? If so, how?
- Is there anything your partner could do to change your response?
- How old do you feel when you react to a trigger?
STEP FIVE: SEEKING A NEW VISION AND FINDING ALTERNATIVE BEHAVIOR
Steps one through four will help you determine which behaviors you want to change, trace the origins of these behaviors, and understand your vulnerabilities. These steps will form the foundation for your transformation.
Steps five through seven will help you determine the person you want to become and to make certain you meet, and hold on to, your goal. Changing an instilled set of reactions can be difficult, for the combination of your inherited nature and life experiences provides a powerful drag chute. Many people are so used to failing in relationships that they have accepted their situations as unavoidable. You need to define an alternative path, so that the one you’ve been on no longer feels like your only choice.
THREE CRUCIAL COMMITMENTS
Change can begin when you make the commitment to do the following three things:
- Identify what you are leaving behind.
- Have a vision of who you want to become.
- Decide how you can make it happen and ensure that your new behavior will hold.
It’s always easier to leave the past behind when you are excited about the future. Even so, it’s sometimes hard to stay on course when the comfort of old behavior beckons. To avoid feeling discouraged, you will need to keep your eye on where you are headed. Here are some general guidelines that will help you focus on your specific sabotaging behaviors.
You will want to begin your journey by finding new people to emulate, those who react successfully when they are confronted with relationship challenges. Observing these new role models, you will be able to consistently compare your past negative behavior to more successful behavior.
he past will continue to insert itself as you try to change your responses. If you find yourself repeatedly slipping back, you may find it helpful to go back in time and imagine the kind of caretaker you would have wanted as a child, rather than the one who taught you sabotaging behavior. Some people effectively use this new internalized parent as their role model. A willing and helpful partner can also be an asset, as can a professional who may be able to assist you in separating your past responses from those you want to develop.
As you do the exercises, you will begin to formulate your own personal set of goals and how to realize them. What’s important to remember is that you are emerging from deeply set patterns into a world you do not yet know.
THE FOURTH COMMITMENT
Once you have your vision in place, you must commit to exerting self-discipline and patience. Holding on to new behavior takes practice when old habit patterns are strong, especially if they were learned through traumatic experiences. The emotional grooves of dysfunctional behavior are deep and easily repeated. The new path is uncertain. You must stay conscious at every crossroads and choose the direction that takes you where you want to go.
For each of the ten destructive relationship behaviors explored, there are better alternatives. Even if you are currently in an established relationship, you will see positive changes from the moment you begin your journey.
SOME GUIDING QUESTIONS
You may want to write the answers to the following questions in your journal. Then keep your journal in a spot where you can ask yourself these questions every day and compare your answers:
- What behaviors are you leaving behind?
- What do you want to become?
- What resources will you use to create your vision?
- What will you use to judge your progress?
- Are you being patient and supportive of your hard work?
STEP SIX: FINDING WITNESSES AND SUPPORT
Most people are not naturally loners. Their personalities are formed by the responses of people they are dependent on as children and are honed throughout their lives. To change deeply set dysfunctional behavior patterns, most people need to surround themselves with empathetic and supportive people who champion their new behaviors, and avoid those people who might be more comfortable with their old behaviors.
As you try to transform old behaviors into newer ones, you may often feel unsure of your footing. This is when you need impartial, loving witnesses to help keep you on track.
You will want to find people who can be as close to objective with you as possible. You want those people around you to remind you—without placation, indulgence, or criticism – of your new promises to yourself. If you are currently in a relationship, you might hope your partner will help you. If you are not involved with someone right now, or you’re with someone who is too angry or disappointed to help, you will need to find support elsewhere.
Once you have identified a behavior that must be changed, legitimate witnesses will keep you honest. They will stay conscious of your taproots, help you identify your triggers, and remind you of your current vulnerabilities. Ideally, everything you say or do from now on should take you closer to the new behavior you want to master.
STEP SEVEN: STAYING FOCUSED
Even though you are fully committed to challenging your deep-set behavior problems, you may find yourself backsliding at times. The person you have decided to become is still forming, and the person you were will hold on to old behaviors. If you occasionally find yourself behaving in old ways, you must be patient and forgiving. The old adage is correct: it doesn’t matter how many times you fall, only that you get up again.
Eventually your new behaviors will become more automatic. Rely on your cheering squad to keep you from giving up and to remind you of the rewards that lie ahead, and don’t put yourself down if you have temporary setbacks.
The Sabotaging Partner
he least understood but most probable barrier to accomplishing your goal may be the reaction of your current partner. In most cases, partners will be hopeful about positive changes, but in some cases, your partner’s own negative behavior problems may reinforce yours, causing reciprocal damage. If you’ve always chosen the same kind of person and your relationships have never worked, your current partner may be consciously or unconsciously sabotaging you.
If you keep picking people who hurt you in the same way, you may be unconsciously seeking to symbolically reconnect with someone from your past. Perhaps you have believed that you can change what happened in the past by having more power in the present. Familiarity is a magnetic seduction, even when it leads you down the wrong path.
here are times when both partners choose each other as symbolic parents from the past. The result can be a mutual healing when both people are aware of the overlapping dysfunction, or it can be a total disaster if both partners reinforce old negative patterns.
Staying on Track
T stay on track, you will want to commit to these objectives:
- Keep your eye on whom you want to become, but don’t punish yourself when you slip back.
- When you are in danger of slipping, reach out to your support system.
- Make sure your partner is not sabotaging your efforts to change.
- Reward yourself for successes.
- Go easy on yourself if you’re not always on target.
Battle Scars and Heroism
Past failures may make you gun-shy about trying again. But as you replace destructive behaviors with those that build great connections, you will gain confidence in a new and more positive future. Confidence comes from the battle scars of heroism, and these battles are winnable. Faith is the belief that the improbable can transform into the possible. Trust is what you will feel in yourself, and in the future, when your efforts are rewarded.
Make the failures of the past a platform for your future success. Here are some guidelines:
- Be courageous in exploring you childhood roots and relationship failures.
- Set up your goals for alternative behaviors and practice them religiously.
- Check in with yourself regularly to make sure that the child within you feels supported and cared for.
- Keep your eye on what’s possible, even when you feel lost.
- Make sure your support network is intact.
- Choose partners and friends who are compassionate but still hold you to your goals.
Remembering the Bigger Picture
As you work on your goals, it will help to focus on others who have made it to the other side. Remember that no relationship is without heartbreak or misunderstanding. Everyone brings both positive and negative baggage into a relationship. New lovers always want to stay in love, and even though many relationships may fail, most people continue to seek a lasting commitment.
Relationship saboteurs desire love and commitment just like everyone else. Unfortunately, they repeat negative patterns of behavior that continue despite the alienation they create. Of course, destructive behaviors are not exclusive to saboteurs. Any of us are capable of behaving in these ways at some point in our lives. There were moments when these very human responses seemed reasonable and even justifiable.
What sets saboteurs apart is the predictability, frequency, and intensity with which these behaviors occur and their consistently harmful effects on relationships.
T help you remember your goals, place these five reminders someplace where you can read them each day of your life:
- Reach for success in small steps along the way.
- Don’t let failures stop you from trying again.
- Focus on the couples you know who have overcome similar challenges.
- Believe in your own capacity to care for the child within you.
- Remember that your sabotaging behaviors are not all of you.
Occasionally a lover or good friend will tell you about a wonderful difference in you that you hadn’t noticed. These seven steps will work. Stay committed to your process and have faith in the outcome.
- Stay objective.
- Keep their own needs out of the way.
Your witnesses must be able to do the following:
- Support your commitment.
- Allow you to find your own way.
- Stay honest.
- Remind you of your promises to yourself.
This article has been edited and excerpted from the book Relationship Saboteurs (New Harbinger Publications, 2010) by Randi Gunther, Ph.D. Dr. Gunther is a clinical psychologist and marriage counselor in Lomita, CA. She has given multiple workshops and lectures, inspiring hundreds of couples to go beyond their limitations to create successful relationships. A practical idealist, she encourages her patients to give up their deadlocked limitations and to create the relationships of their dreams. In more than forty years of practice, she has spent over 90,000 face-to-face hours helping individuals and couples. www.newharbinger.com
Other Articles by Randi Gunther, Ph.D.
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