In our relationships, it’s the repeated things that keep us together or drive us apart. The health of our love life depends on our success in breaking patterns of dysfunction.
Have you ever found yourself asking, “Why does this always happen to me?”. You may be stuck in a cycle, and if so, this one is for you.
Finding someone to call your life partner can be a journey and a half. I know for me it took many years of happiness and heartbreak, ups and downs, and a lot of learning about myself and others. My most recent post before this one about the music that has shaped my life took me on a trip down memory lane on a few of those. After you’ve gone through all that effort, you’d think that you’d finally be able to get your Disney ending, live happily ever after, sail off into the sunset. Fortunately, there can be a lot of happiness, but unfortunately, there’s a lot more work to be done from there.
For many of us, it can be hard enough to get someone to say yes to giving things a go, but in truth the real work only starts from there. The awkward will we won’t we more than friends phase, the courting phase, the friends know phase, the dating phase, the engagement phase, the marriage phase, and any and all of the ones in between and beyond.
As with all our relationships, our love lives are heavily driven by the patterns that we have established in life, or the habits we’ve picked up from those closest to us. Whether it be from close friends, model relationships, or our family of origin, it’s important that we develop an awareness of how these cycles affect our daily lives, and how they may be either enhancing or ruining our chances with the opposite sex.
As I’ve gotten older and seen and experienced more in my own life and in my conversations with the many others I talk to, I see this particular issue as one of the saddest things about love. When you see something that could have been or should have been great fall to bits and you think, “Ah man if you could just see that you’re doing it again”, or that their partner is stuck or trapped in the same cycle as their friends, their parents, the people closest to them.
I’ve heard these referred to a number of times as generational curses. And whilst I believe there can be curses placed upon families, I think these are sustained or more accurately described by factoring in human decision – these are generational cycles. As one author put it, don’t confuse generational curses with poor generational choices.
But these are more than what we experience in our bloodline, as we are made up by more than just our family of origin. It’s what we were born into, but also what we grew up around, what we encountered as we invited people in, and what continues to influence us today.
Let’s have a look at how we may be making or breaking patterns of dysfunction.
Where you learnt about the opposite sex
All of us learned from somewhere. For many of us, our first experience of relationship, or its absence, for better, or for worse, was our family of origin. We may have had both parents, one parent, or been raised by another guardian. We may have had multiple surrounding family relationships, no surrounding family relationships, good surrounding relationships, or bad ones. Outside of the family, you may have had a number of family friends, or no family friends, good examples, or models of relationship so terrible you wish you didn’t even know those people.
But those are not the only voices in our lives. We also have had the loves and losses of society inform our love lives. Harry and Sally, Simba and Nala, Tom and Meg x2, the creations of Nicholas Sparks and Francine Rivers, and all the new Netflix Original Series charting us through various love lives. In real life we try to keep up with the Kardashian Wests and see which round Brangelina are up to and who is married to who this week.
Psychologists talk extensively about default behaviour. This is the behaviour that you exhibit when you don’t have anyone to perform for or try to win over. This is the real you, the you when no one else is around, and also the you who people get to experience once they’ve been in your life long enough for you to fall back to your defaults. A lot of our default behaviour has been developed by trying to cope in certain environments, and is our mechanism of preserving a system that we have become accustomed to, whether functional or dysfunctional.
In identifying issues in dysfunctional families and relationships, psychologists also try to understand the pattern of the whole unit, or the “system of dysfunction“. This is important because none of us are products of pure isolation – we are all developed by the relationships around us, and are often perpetuating the system.
And so, if you’re struggling in the early days of your relationship, or trying to make something long term survive some dark days, it’s important to recognise the role of the relationships that have advised you on how to love others.
Bad company corrupts good character. Unfortunately for many of us the bad company we have had inform us in our loved lives has remained unchallenged and absorbed far more than we acknowledge. As TD Jakes says in the book Before You Do, we are the way we are in love due to a lot of the relationships that have been modelled for us, and if we don’t go looking for the right examples, we’re not going to find it.
The baggage we bring along
If we didn’t learn it from someone else, we may have learned it ourselves in our own relationships. Two of the most scary words to think about in the world of love – “emotional baggage”.
All of us carry baggage with us. In order to thrive or survive in certain environments, we begin to act in certain ways to be accepted and feel loved or at least able to function in a particular environment. We carry words and actions that have built us up or torn us down.
And none of us are immune. I remember how shocked people were to hear that faith-based power couple John and Lisa Bevere had a dark struggle in their marriage, where John had been abusive for a number of years and was a hair’s breadth away from losing Lisa forever, as he probably should have. Fortunately he was able to recognise his baggage and they were able to take the steps to breaking patterns of dysfunction in their relationship, including a lengthy healing process.
I think it’s very hard to identify or let go of baggage because you probably loved the person who gave it to you. It’s amazing what we will do for love. In trying to do all the right things in bearing each other’s burdens and retaining a love that never fails, we instead take on wounds that cause us to try to cope in unhealthy ways. And sometimes saying goodbye the baggage means to us saying goodbye to the person who gave it to us, accepting that they or the relationship we had with them are gone forever, and that things will not be the same.
And then we do the thing we never thought we would – we repeat the cycle. We explode in anger, we dismiss feelings, we act with an entitled spirit. We become the monster we say we hate, and then we become the monster in someone else’s story, who then has to decide to repeat the cycle again, or deal with it.
We are destined to repeat what we cannot forgive.
I’ve always loved what Louie Giglio advised on this in My Really Bad Date. He says that the goal isn’t necessarily no baggage – just enough that it fits in the overhead compartments or under the seat in front of you. We’re all going to bring it, but we need to minimize what we bring, or it’s going to become very hard to travel and take other people with us.
Recognising the patterns
It’s really, really easy to identify patterns in the lives of others, if you look hard enough and are willing to see the truth. You can look at one generation’s issues, and you may be able to identify it in the next. You can see the patterns of one dating relationship, and see how exactly the same behaviours happened again in the next. You can see how a married couple can get in a holding pattern of emotional gridlock, unable to begin breaking patterns of dysfunction that have kept them trapped.
It’s harder to do that with yourself.
I wonder how often we take the time to take an objective look at how we are in our relationships. In our friendships, in our families, and especially in our marriages. When we feel stuck or like exactly the same thing is happening all over again, we seldom stop and ask if we’re bringing a broken pattern along with us. And it doesn’t matter what country you move to, what year of your marriage you’re up to, or which new partner you swap out for, you take yourself with you.
“Doctor, it hurts when I push here and here and here”. “Of course it does son, you have a broken finger”. More often than we are willing to admit, we are the problem in our relationships. Or at least we are contributing to it. Because when we’re together, it’s not my problem or your problem, it’s our problem.
Same same, but different
One of the largest contributors to our patterns repeating actually lies at the heart of who we are. Our identity. And whilst in a relationship it becomes more about “we” than it is about “me”, we can’t and shouldn’t fully disappear.
One word for it is codependency. The inability to function or live or exist at all without the presence of the other. Dr David Schnarch identifies a different title for it, known as “borrowed functioning“. He observes that individuals in relationship who do not have a sense of their own identity rely heavily on the identity and the actions of the other person to be able to define themselves. And while we all do that to some extent, and should, it becomes unhealthy when we lose our sense of self completely.
Relationship counsellor Esther Perel also talks about how these things in our relationships prevent us from enjoying our closest intimacy, refering to “codependent fusion” as the death of intimacy. As she writes, you become so obsessed and so identified in another person that you fail to see yourself.
Differentiation is our ability or inability to maintain a sense of self whilst in close proximity to others. It enables us to avoid resentment, control, and cycles of dysfunction whereby the status quo is never changeable because it all depends on what the other person does. You won’t be breaking patterns of dysfunction if it’s all stuck in what another person does or doesn’t do.
And so, on and on the cycle goes.
Once again, we find ourselves staring at the foundational question of our lives – who am I? What is my purpose in this world?
Until I can answer, I will remain in and return to the default patterns that have preserved my life to this point, for good or for ill. I will remain in a de-identifable mess of intermeshing with this other person or these other people and continue to feel powerless and trapped when things don’t change.
A masterpiece such as yourself created for good works cannot do what you’re called to do when we don’t know where you finish and the other person starts. We are one but we are also many.
Nursing our dysfunction
In a series on dating and marriage from TD Jakes called Making Great Decisions, he cuts to the heart of one of our most unhelpful behaviours – we nurse our dysfunction. He points out that most of us have had our issues longer than we’ve had the relationship. Helen Burns, another renown marriage speaker, observes that we use our great ability to nurse and nurture for evil when we use it to nurse and rehearse our pain and dysfunction.
Because our dysfunction is so closely linked to our sense of identity, or lack thereof, we do all we can to look after it.
Could it be possible that all your break ups have happened because you continue to nurse your pain?
Could it be that you keep destroying good women simply because you keep looking after your addictions?
Could it be that your love life, your family, your friendships are a nightmare because you love and cherish your anger more than you do the other person in your life?
Breaking patterns of dysfunction
To make love work, and really work, we need to find and build a new normal. The Hebrews referred to this as leaving your old house and cleaving to your partner. Two becoming one. A physical, emotional, and spiritual union. Not just you and not just me, but both of us together yet individual.
Have you forgotten who you are? Have you forgotten who you would like to be?
Are you tired of continuing the same cycles that have destroyed your family for generations? Are you done with watching another relationship in your life drop dead because of the same behaviour?
John Maxwell in Beyond Talent says that we cannot become what we need by remaining what we are. Doctors Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their work on dysfunction say that we change our behaviour when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. I wonder if you’re reading this and you recognise that you’ve reached your pain threshold, and it’s time to change.
Change is going to be hard. It’s going to be painful. It’s going to mean that all your coping mechanisms need to be re-evaluated. It’s going to mean going there to the place you don’t want to go.
But if you can become an expert in breaking patterns of dysfunction in your life, you’ll be free to love the way you were born to be.
How about you? How have you gone about breaking patterns of dysfunction in your life?