What are your most detrimental relationships patterns? Do you ignore red flags? Settle for less? Lose yourself in the relationship? Attract emotionally unavailable people? Blame and fault-find? Reject others before they reject you? There are hundreds of such obviously dysfunctional behaviors. Many people are even painfully aware of them.
I always date projects and fixer-uppers.
For some reason, I keep falling for abusive partners.
I get into a relationship and then bail after three months, tops.
Ask anyone what their relationships problems are and they’ll tell you something like this. But what if I told you that none of that shit is your problem? That those things are mere symptoms, or in many cases, solutions to a deeper problem?
Why We Do Things And Stuff
Although it’s not always readily apparent, all human behavior is geared towards protecting ourselves or getting our needs met. And the often strange and indirect ways we go about doing that are a product of our childhood adaptations.
If nothing you did as a child was ever good enough for your parents, you may have concluded that not trying and being rejected was considerably less painful than giving it your all and being rejected anyway. Like most folks, you defaulted to the least painful option (good job). But then eventually, you started shaming yourself for being a lazy, incompetent, no-good procrastinator. You hate yourself because your parents traumatized you for being human, and now you’ll date any old ax-murderer who comes along. Can you see how it all started with trying to protect yourself from the pain of unyielding criticism?
Maybe your parents had those same impossible expectations, but you adapted with perfectionism. You became the valedictorian, overachiever, supermodel, brain surgeon. Your tolerance for mistakes and human error became practically nonexistent because you needed to clutch every gold medal to secure your parents’ love. But now you can’t stand anyone you date after a lifetime of training yourself to hate human imperfections. And it all began with trying to get your needs met.
These examples are simplified — human beings are complex creatures. But pick any bad habit, character defect, relationship challenge, or arbitrary thing you hate about yourself and we can walk that thing right back to the source in no time. And, spoiler alert, you are not the source. No one was born with bad habits and self-loathing. Somebody taught you that bullshit.
Anti-Self, No-Self, and Pro-Self Behaviors
In an effort to peel back each self-defeating behavior and see what’s driving it, I’ve learned to characterize such behaviors as either anti-self, no-self, or pro-self. Let me explain…
Anti-self behaviors are driven by toxic shame, low self-esteem, and unworthiness.
I’m trash. I don’t deserve good things. Probably no one would ever want to be with me, so I’ll date whoever comes along. I’ll settle for less because I don’t believe I deserve more.
No-self behaviors are characterized by self-abandonment, dissociation, and inauthenticity.
I have no idea what I want, like, prefer, or need, so I’ll date anyone. I’ll settle for less because I don’t even know what more is.
Pro-self behaviors are directly aimed at protecting yourself, getting your needs met or confirming your deeply held beliefs about something to create the illusion of certainty.
This could be, My childhood relationships were very painful. I settle for less and date emotionally unavailable people because I’m actually afraid of intimacy, even though I’d tell you otherwise. I’m just protecting myself.
Or, I was an invisible child who never felt seen, heard, valued, or respected. I settle for less and date immature people who rely on me because it feels good to be needed. My partners actually satisfy many of my unmet needs, even though they’re not healthy or equal mates.
Or, Relationships aren’t safe and people can’t be trusted. I settle for less and date unsafe, untrustworthy people to confirm my suspicions. Certainty is the antidote to not feeling safe. This is just what I need to continue protecting myself and getting my needs met in all the ways I adapted from childhood.
Out of Chaos Comes Order
It’s beneficial to write down your dysfunctional relationship patterns — to see them on paper in black and white (the Fix Your Picker Workbook covers this). Then you can go through each one and decide if it’s an anti-self, no-self, or pro-self behavior (or a combination). Patterns emerge.
In many cases, a tendency toward anti-self behavior is indicative of Anxious Attachment, characterized by a negative view of the self and a positive view of others. These people may be codependents, clingers, love addicts, or hopeless romantics — people who value connection over protection. These conditions follow physically or emotionally abandoning childhood experiences — just as sure as night follows the day.
An abundance of protective pro-self behaviors could be a whistle-blower for Avoidant Attachment, noted by a positive view of the self and a negative view of others. These people value protection more than connection and tend to be aloof, noncommittal, or guarded. They may create intensity outside of their relationships with work, habits, or hobbies to avoid the perceived dangers of emotional connection because relationships were not safe for them in childhood.
No-self behavior often tells a story of chronic neglect, underdevelopment, and self-abandonment (see De-Selfed: Why Don’t I Know Who I Am?). These folks often feel very lost and unsure of what’s going on. They may vaguely sense that a problem exists but haven’t the foggiest notion of what the hell to do about it.
In every case, you will find a specific type of childhood trauma and the completely understandable behaviors you adapted to survive that shit. And with a skilled and knowledgeable therapist or coach, you can heal the underlying wounds that are driving these maladaptive coping strategies.
Reclaiming Your Life
You are not broken, you are not stupid, and you are not crazy. You make perfect sense in the context of survival. But you don’t wanna be in the context of survival anymore. You wanna live. Trust me on this one.
Your adult relationship problems are literally a continuation of your childhood relationship problems. And until you address the underlying trauma, you’ll just keep putting band-aids on top of band-aids and freaking out when people get near the wound.
You don’t have to live that way.
You can heal.