6 Dangerous Relationship Patterns All Couples Should Be Aware Of
And how to escape if you find yourselves guilty of any.
When you share your life with someone, it’s not surprising when — over time — some of your reactions and responses to each other’s behavior become repeatable. Some of these responses are good — supportive and thoughtful patterns, like casual displays of affection and habitually respecting each other’s independence, should be plentiful in your partnership.
But getting mired in unhealthy and destructive patterns — hair-trigger responses that come from a place of antagonism like persistent criticism and stonewalling — can wreak serious havoc, distancing you from your partner and stagnating your growth as a couple. The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to identify and steer out of such responses, as long as you recognize that you both have a part to play in unlearning them.
“It isn’t one partner that is the ‘bad person’ or at fault for these patterns… Both partners are responsible for how they communicate,” says Dr. Tracy Dalgleish, clinical psychologist and author of I Didn’t Sign Up for This: A Couples Therapist Shares Real-Life Stories of Breaking Patterns and Finding Joy in Relationships . . . Including Her Own. “Even if one person engages in one of these responses, the other always has a choice to meet them in a more connected manner.”
The best way to start doing that is to raise your awareness of some of the most common of these patterns and how they manifest. “Without insight into what is contributing to our difficulties,” says Dr. Dalgleish, “it’s hard to change.” Here are six dangerous patterns that are important to understand.
1. The “Pursue-Defend Cycle”
Finding fault with your partner’s behavior is a common coping mechanism we deploy to avoid feelings that might be painful or uncomfortable. It’s also a pattern that may not originate within your partnership, and may have previously manifested in parental relationships. Regardless, it almost always ends up locking both partners in what Dr. Dalgleish calls the ‘pursue-defend’ cycle.
“The pursuing partner ends up blaming and criticizing the other person, which results in defensiveness,” says Dr. Dalgleish. “One person says ‘I blame you because you are so defensive’ and the other responds with ‘I’m defensive because you attack me.’ Ultimately, this pattern leads to feeling disconnected, and partners not getting their needs met.”
How To Avoid It: Try and practice taking a moment of pause before you start to blame something on your partner or criticize their behavior. Dr. Dalgleish recommends asking yourself ‘‘What is this really about for me?’ ‘What feeling is happening for me underneath my initial anger?’”
This moment of pause doesn’t just give a second for cooler heads to prevail, it also allows you to chart the frequency of this response far more accurately than you’re probably used to — you can’t really take steps to change this pattern until you’re fully aware of the degree of influence it has on your relationship. Plus, the self-reflection that these questions encourage constitute a very healthy habit, when so many interpersonal issues in relationships stem from some kind of projection. Asking yourself to more accurately describe the issue that’s causing you distress can often stop you from ascribing blame to the closest and most convenient source — your partner.
Defensiveness can also be its own pattern when a partner routinely perceives that their character is being impugned.
“It's important to acknowledge the ‘perceived’ part, as sometimes people can be defensive even when there is no actual attack,” says Dr. Dalgleish. “Patterns of defensiveness often stem from chronically feeling attacked, never feeling heard or understood, or never having one's emotions validated… It pushes the other person away and is like saying, ‘I'm not going to see your reality.’”
At the root of all of this can be a deficit of self-worth. We can tend to get extra defensive when laboring under the false premise that we should never have any kind of negative impact on our partners at all. That’s not a realistic expectation for such an intimate relationship, especially when it means we interpret any criticism as implying that we’re not good enough for our partner.
How To Avoid It: Acknowledging out loud that the conversation is making you feel defensive is a great place to start. It means that your partner will know their words are having a potentially unintended impact on you, and can adjust accordingly. You can also begin to articulate the relationship between their words and your reaction for them, without suggesting that they should have understood that relationship already.
Your partner may not realize that when they say X, it makes you feel Y. Try gently drawing out the equation by telling them: “When you say that, it makes me feel like I’m not living up to your expectations for me, so I might be taking it more critically than you’re intending it to be.” Your partner will then feel encouraged to take responsibility for their side of this dynamic. “That responsibility can sound like ‘I see my impact on you and that wasn’t my intention,” says Dalgleish. “‘I’m sorry this happened.’”
A pattern of minimization results from one partner regularly diminishing or invalidating the importance of their partner’s complaints or concerns. “It’s almost like sweeping a feeling or issue under the rug,” says Dr. Dalgleish. She offers an example: “Your partner comes to you and shares that they are exhausted and overwhelmed. Your response: ‘It’s not that bad.’ or ‘At least you have help.’”
These invalidating responses can inadvertently lead your partner questioning their own experiences in the relationship. They can also cause them to ‘up the ante,’ getting angrier or more aggressively insistent on their position in order to feel seen.
“When someone engages in minimization, it's often an indication that their own experiences have never been validated,” says Dr. Dalgleish. This means that undoing this pattern can (and should) be practiced on yourself as well as your partner.
How To Avoid It: Try getting in the habit of acknowledging your own feelings and needs by taking turns sharing one at the dinner table and validating it for each other, asking follow up questions if one partner doesn’t fully understand it. A crucial thing to remember when you engage in this exercise is that acknowledging your partner's feelings about a situation is not the same thing as agreeing with their position, and doesn’t have to be.
In arguments, that mindset makes us more combative, as if anything ceded to your partner is territory lost. Remember that saying “from your point of view, it makes sense that you’re feeling that, and need this as a result” opens up a channel for you to provide your own, different point of view in a way that your partner will be receptive to. Try and verbalize the underlying reasons why their perspective might be different from yours, and you’ll be well on your way to seeing both perspectives as equally valid.
Say you’re swamped with your workload, or have issues procrastinating during your personal time, or you tend to sleep in late, and your partner asks if you’d be able to spend more time visiting their parents with them. That might make you feel like your partner is the one taking precious free time away from you, and you might tell them that, but we both know that an internal issue originating outside of the relationship has been externalized within the relationship.
This is another way of blaming them, and they’ll feel you putting your discomfort onto them as a result, causing the lines of communication to break down. Make a habit of this and, per Dr. Dalgleish, “your partner may end up not sharing information and keeping their feelings and needs to themselves.”
How To Avoid It: “Practice focusing on one person’s experience at a time. Couples often argue who is right or wrong — shift to being on the same team and then practice seeing the other person’s thoughts and feelings.” Another skill to work on is differentiation: reminding yourself that you and your partner are separate people. “Your partner is allowed to have their own thoughts and feelings,” says Dr. Dalgleish, “and they are not always about you.”
5. Stonewalling Or Shutting Down
It’s not a crime to have certain topics or conversations come up that you’d rather not discuss. You might have several — family, money, sex, and work can all be the source of an issue your partner persistently wants to bring up, and you persistently don’t.
You’re entitled to boundaries, but when you enforce those boundaries by constantly insisting it’s the wrong time to talk about something, leaving for work or going to bed as a way to shut the conversation down, or worst of all: giving your partner an abrupt silent treatment, it has several negative effects on them.
To start, it sends a danger signal to their brain as they wonder why you don’t want to engage on this topic. Then, says Dr. Dalgleish, “when things are left unresolved, resentment is likely to build… As a result, the sense of safety between partners starts to diminish.”
How to Avoid It: Find your way out of this pattern by establishing some safe places to communicate. Broaching subjects you’re nervous to talk about while out for a drive or on a walk can be a good place to start. “I also recommend [that] couples who struggle to have conversations engage in a task while being shoulder to shoulder,” says Dalgleish. The alternative physical positioning—i.e. facing each other at a dinner table—is inherently more confrontational.
Here’s a question to consider: In your relationship, does one of you need to make a detailed agenda for every vacation, while the other is content to go with the flow? Does one of you organize bills and tax returns while the other just licks the stamps? Does one of you always order for the other at restaurants? You might be finding yourself in what’s called the “overfunctioning/underfunctioning” dynamic.
Psychologically, this is the result of trying to reconcile the complicated implications of a simple truth — you’re your own person, and yet you’re sharing your life with someone else. In some people, this brings out a more assertive side as they try to hold onto their autonomy. In others, not so much.
“Overfunctioning is characterized by a partner who takes more control over planning, provides care (sometimes too much), and tries to fix things for others,” says Dalgleish. The underfunctioning partner, by contrast, is more inclined to procrastinate, defer responsibility for household tasks, and rely on their partner to make decisions.”
Now, this dynamic can start off as the result of a good intention — the desire, particularly early on in a relationship, to support your partner. But, as with all of these patterns, resentment is inevitable as time goes on.
How To Avoid It: If you’re the overfunctioner in the relationship, Dalgleish says to identify one thing on your task list that is overwhelming you, and that the other partner can take on. “When they take over the task, resist the urge to check in or follow up on the task,” she says. “Practice letting the partner who underfunctions make more decisions in the relationship.”
Once you start to really clock them, these patterns can feel overwhelming. How can you and your partner change a knee-jerk response that seems to pop up omnipresently in your lives?
With any of the issues we’ve just discussed, the simple steps of recognizing an issue, vocalizing its effect on your relationship, and meeting your partner in the middle as you search for a solution can work wonders. Making changes takes two, and it takes time.