Many of my clients complain of having difficulty breaking the patterns of behavior that cause them to feel stuck in negative interactions while communicating with intimate partners. Fortunately, awareness of the ways in which we are conditioned to fall into recurring behaviors that reinforce themselves over time is the beginning of changing them.
For instance, Alicia and Joshua, married for eight years, struggle over intimacy issues because Alicia generalizes her fear of being hurt by her ex-husband (who betrayed her) to her present relationship and this has left her with abandonment issues.
Alicia is articulate, engaging, and enjoying a career as an elementary teacher. At 38, she’s aware that she sabotages relationships that might be good for her. Yet, in spite of her on-again, off-again romances, she fell in love with and married Joshua, 39. Alicia knows she’s her own saboteur and that Joshua plans to stay around, is faithful, and in love with her. At times, it is as if Alicia is wired to recreate the past and she can be self-destructive and threaten to leave Joshua.
Why is Breaking the Patterns We Have Created Important?
When we get close to someone, it can bring to the surface unresolved issues from the past — the very things that we might want to avoid. I have seen too many relationships sabotaged or crumble because one or both partners are unaware that they bring a backlog of hurt, fears, and ambivalence from their past into present interactions. And these issues can lead to negative behavior patterns that are a challenge to eliminate – so can bring us turmoil with our partner if they are not addressed.
In an April article for The Gottman Institute’s blog, Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart offers readers advice on how to disrupt the negative patterns so many people easily fall into. Approaching the subject from a psychological perspective, she analyzes the ways in which we learn — that is to say the ways in which we’re conditioned to fall into transgressive cyclical behaviors that reinforce themselves over time.
Dr. Lockhart’s essential belief is that negative learned behaviors are just as easy to develop as positive ones. Indeed, she describes repetitive, learned behaviors as the product as a sort of practice that can be channeled to positive ends. Engaging in repetitive thought processes, for example, can follow one of two tracks: “positive affirmation or negative self-statements,” according to Dr. Lockhart.
The natural conclusion that she draws on the ways that we can effectively condition ourselves to reinforce and then repeat positive, productive behaviors is quite liberating. We have control over ourselves, and our thoughts, actions and characteristic behavioral traits that can be improved and made positive through practice and being motivated to preserve relationships.
Dr. Lockhart then outlines practical steps to “breaking the cycle.” She writes that “Whatever the reason, these all play a role in the repetition of cycles. Here are some ways to work through them so the cycles you are engaged in actually benefit and help you, rather than hurt you.” Her steps require diligence and patience, but will soon become second nature.
First, she counsels reader to “make a record of patterns of behaviors. You can do this through video recording, journaling, or sharing your journey with others (podcasts, blogging, social media).” This initial step will open the door to those that follow. You can do this on your phone, tablet, or in a notebook.
Next, Dr. Lockhart asks that people identify their “triggers,” or as she puts it, the “things that really grind your gears and things that you have an exaggerated emotional or mental reaction to beyond what should be expected.” Identifying triggers will unlock the next step: understanding your response to your triggers (we’ll cover this next month).
Here are 4 ways to identify triggers.
1. Pay attention to your physical reactions
Notice any tensing of muscles, increased heart rate, hot or cold flushes, tingles, or any physical change that generally indicates contraction (or physically reacting from what your partner says or does). Ask yourself: what’s the first reaction in my body? Do my fists clench? Does my breathing speed up? Does my face turn hot or red? Do I feel like fleeing the situation? Do I feel frozen or unable to move? Mentally note these reactions and write them down. Remember that physical reactions can be subtle all the way to extreme – so don’t rule anything out.
2. Notice what thoughts or emotions are intense or recurring
Look for extreme thoughts with opposing viewpoints (i.e., someone or something is good/bad, right/wrong, nice/evil, etc.). Be aware of these thoughts without reacting to them or being judgmental. What automatic thoughts are you having about the other person or situation? For example, your trigger could range from your partner’s tone of voice to body language. Ask yourself: do these behaviors remind you of someone else? Writing down these triggers will help you remember them so that you remain self-aware in the future.
3. What happened before you were triggered?
Sometimes there are certain “preconditions” to being triggered, for example, having a stressful day at work, waking up “on the wrong side of the bed,” going to a certain uncomfortable place (like a relative’s home), virtually anything could set the stage for being triggered later on. When you’re trying to identify your emotional triggers, you can prevent yourself from being triggered in the future simply by slowing down and reflecting upon them once you’re aware of the trigger prerequisites.
4. What emotional needs of yours were not being met?
When you’re triggered emotionally, it can usually be traced to one or more of our deepest needs or desires not being met. Take some time to think about which of your needs or desires were being threatened. These needs include acceptance, autonomy, attention, safety, love, being valued, and control.
At this point, it’s a good idea to reflect on what unmet needs or desires are constantly resurfacing. Becoming aware of your body, thoughts, unmet needs and desires, and certain people or situations that set you off will help you to get a better handle on your emotions and not to overreact or lose control of your emotions. For instance, you might feel overwhelmed by attending a family event and either freeze, feel like arguing with someone, or even have a strong desire to leave. By being aware of your triggers, you’ll be better able to cope.
According to experts such as Dr. Lockhart, the final step in dealing successfully with triggers and breaking out of a negative pattern that keeps you in a rut, is developing a hypothesis or guess about where these patterns came from. In other words, reflect on your patterns of behavior and thought, including your history of these patterns, as a way to better evaluate the root causes of any negative cycles that have formed. And unpacking these issues will help lead to a better understanding of whether and how these learned behaviors serve you — or work against your personal growth, emotional health, and ultimately your happiness.
By reading this blog, you’ve learned about identifying triggers and breaking the patterns that have kept you in a rut. Next month, you’ll learn the coping skills for dealing with negative patterns that keep you in a rut!