top of page
  • astonetherapist

Why are some relationships harmonious while others slide into violence and chaos?

You probably noticed some strong family patterns in your life – at times, you may be repeating what your parents did and you may be living their lives. Your partner works in the same profession as their father or you have adopted your mother's hobbies. We are born and gradually adopt ideas about life. From the beginning, we form an idea of what is "normal." Norms vary greatly across families. To explain this, I'll borrow Albert Bandura's concept of social learning.

Social Learning in Everyday Life

Imagine a family where parents often resort to loud arguments, shouting, and mutual blaming. Children who witness these scenes are very likely to think of this behavior as normal and may carry it into their adult relationships. Often, people are surprised when others handle conflicts differently – calmly and with respect towards the other party. We might see this stark contrast when we visit our friend's family as a child. It can be fascinating to see that there is another way.

In some families, it's common to deal with conflicts by silence. Maybe the parents themselves don't know how to talk about problems or maybe they fear their emotions. Years later, their children grow up and start using the same strategies. Or they may rebel against their parents' behavior so vehemently that they adopt the opposite stance. On the other hand, if children see their parents treating each other with respect, expressing their feelings openly, and handling conflicts constructively, these positive behavior patterns may transfer into their future relationships. This is why I often look at chilhood patterns and upbringing with the couples I see. I find it very helpful to look at the connections between the past and what was modeled for us, and the present romantic relationship patterns. This way, we create more awareness, insight and look at the reasons why you and your partner behave a certain way. With more understanding comes more compassion. More compassion leads to connection. When you are connected you can problem solve easier.

Unclear Boundaries

The biggest trouble arises when the perception of what is acceptable shifts dramatically, setting off a vicious cycle. The child grows up but they may struggle to define boundaries. When we can't effectively communicate our needs and feel incapable of defending our boundaries, our self-esteem suffers. This leads us into relationships with people who don't value us, thus completing the cycle.

Fortunately, healthy behavior patterns are also reinforced in a similar manner: when we can clearly and effectively communicate our needs and feelings, we are better able to defend our boundaries. Good communication and boundary-setting can lead to greater self-esteem, which in turn fosters healthier relationships. And these healthy relationships then support further open communication, healthy boundary-setting, and self-confidence.

If you feel caught in an unhealthy cycle, don't despair. It's important to understand that this cycle isn't irreversible. Once we change one part, it can affect the entire system. When we start working on our self-esteem, we become more confident in defending our boundaries. This subsequently helps us improve our communication skills, leading to healthier relationships. It's not an easy process and may require time, patience, and for some, couples therapy.

Key Areas of Change

The good news is that we have a lifelong capacity to learn and grow. The first step is realizing that we want to change something. This requires thorough, genuine, and honest reflection on our relationships and the ways we behave towards others and allow them to behave towards us. Taking this step alone can be challenging and may require the help of a therapist. If you decide to tackle this yourself, you can focus on these common areas:

Stress response. How do you behave when you feel under pressure or stressed? Are there recurring patterns? Do you withdraw, become aggressive, or try to please others at the expense of your own needs?

Communication. How do you express your thoughts and feelings? Are there phrases or tones of voice that originate from your childhood? How do you react to criticism or conflict?

Relationships. What roles do you usually take on in relationships? Are you always the caregiver, the victim, the rebel, or something else? These roles may stem from family dynamics experienced in childhood. Do your relationships always break down at the same stage for the same reasons?

Emotional reactions. Which emotions are hardest for you to handle? This too may indicate patterns you adopted as a way to deal with unpleasant situations.

Physical reactions. Some learned behavior patterns may be associated with physical reactions, such as tension, excessive sweating, or a rapid heartbeat. When and why do these reactions occur for you?

Procrastination and avoidance. Are there tasks or situations you avoid or procrastinate on?

Next time you find yourself arguing with your partner, not speaking for days, throwing plates, or hurting with words, try to honestly ask yourself if this behavior contributes to a healthy relationship for both of you. You might be surprised when you sincerely look beneath the surface and discover the true motives driving this behavior. Or perhaps you won't uncover the causes and will simply acknowledge that something is wrong, that this isn't what you want, and that you need to change something, even if you don't yet know what. Therapists can help recognize and change unhealthy behavior patterns. Recognition alone isn't enough because you still need to replace the undesirable behavior with one that is desirable and makes sense to us. This too is a challenging process.

Another piece of good news: It's never too late. When adults actively work on change, they show their children that change is possible. This is also an important skill that children can learn from us. Problem-solving is a delicate skill that requires sensitivity, the art of active listening, staying calm, and above all, the awareness that we want to arrive at a solution together. And like any skill, it can be trained. Changing behavior patterns learned in childhood can be challenging, but it's possible and also very much worth it. It helps create healthier and happier relationships not only for us but also for our children.

18 views0 comments


bottom of page