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How to identify - and change - your relationship patterns

Almaz Ohene

April 17th, 2022

Whether it's relationships that all end the same way, or lead to repeated unsatisfying connections, many of us are caught up in dating patterns that make us miserable. Here's how to break the cycle.

Do you think that you’re doing everything that you can to cultivate a lasting relationship but keep finding that things fizzle out before the relationship has really gone anywhere? Or do you constantly feel overwhelmed by emotions to the extent that you feel like you need to withdraw from a developing relationship? If either of these situations sound familiar, then you may be subconsciously drawn to unsatisfying relationships. 

To help understand why this might be happening over and over again, it’s helpful to understand a little more about why we are attracted to people that we are not compatible with. In doing so, you’ll gain greater knowledge about your own repetitive dating patterns.

Understanding attachment styles

The much-talked about ‘attachment theory’ can help us identify patterns in particular interpersonal dynamics. Developed from the research of British psychoanalyst John Bowlby in the 1950s, attachment theory originally described the different ways children ‘attach’ to their primary caregivers. This theory was then expanded in the 1980s to include differences in the ways in which adults experience and manage their emotions and attach to adult partners.

There are three main attachment styles: secure attachment, anxious attachment and avoidant attachment. 

Anxious attachers anticipate partners being emotionally unavailable, are likely to become preoccupied with how they are perceived by their partners and might overanalyse a burgeoning relationship.

Avoidant attachers have problems with intimacy, invest little emotion in social and romantic relationships and can be unwilling or unable to share thoughts or feelings with others.

Secure attachers tend to have trusting, lasting relationships, good levels of self-esteem, find it easy to share feelings with partners and friends, and seek out social support. 

If an anxious attacher and an avoidant attacher are in a relationship, there is also often a push-pull dynamic between them. As the anxious partner draws closer, the avoidant one pulls away. Eventually, the anxious person gives up; at which point the avoidant person, who craves intimacy, returns, leading to a short-lived reconciliation. Then, the same cycle starts again. 

For those trapped in this dynamic, it can often feel awful, but it is also familiar – the dynamic reminds us of our familial and/or formative relationships – and this can be hard to escape. 

Attachment styles manifest themselves from the first date onwards, affecting the dynamics of the emergent relationship and often leading to the end of the relationship.

How attachment styles play out in dating

If someone has an avoidant attachment style and starts dating someone who is secure in what they want, the relationship may feel both unfamiliar and demanding to them, often resulting in the avoidant attacher leaving the relationship. 

Moreover, if you’re someone who describes themselves as ‘chill’ about not having labels, you may inadvertently be an attractive choice for someone avoidant who is not that into commitment.

Avoidant attachers tend to be very self-sufficient and enjoy closeness mostly on their own terms. Often they prefer to keep intimacy at bay and they tend to pursue people who seem disinterested in them. It sounds counter-intuitive, as you’d imagine most people would find comfort in a secure relationship. But, for some, the insecurity of not really knowing where a relationship is going feels familiar and so the dynamic is likely to repeat itself.

Meanwhile, anxious attachers fear abandonment and the loss of their partner’s attention and love. As the label suggests, avoidant attachers ‘avoid’ getting too close or invested in a relationship. They probably see partners as ‘needy’ if they require lots of intimacy.

By contrast, secure attachers will feel comfortable in relationships, forming and nurturing bonds with relative ease. They'll be able to provide early reassurance of their interest, will usually communicate authentically and generally approach partners with compassion and kindness.

Tips for identifying patterns

Create a list of ‘red flags’ and identify your non-negotiables. Make a list of red flags any previous partners exhibited that indicated that they were emotionally unavailable. Think about those initial warning signs – perhaps their communication with you wasn’t consistent, they had difficulty committing to pre-arranged plans or they gave you mixed messages.

By contrast, if you felt that they were too ‘needy’, make a list of the behaviours that caused you to feel overwhelmed. Maybe they liked to be in constant contact or needed constant reassurance.

After your list-making exercise, you might start to notice that you’re looking for a partner to fulfil emotional needs which you aren’t meeting yourself. Realising this is a great thing; it gives you a starting point for working out what you need to address. If you’re avoidant, that might be learning how to let a partner in or if you’re anxious, you can work on your self-esteem until you realise that you are more than enough. 

If you want to change your dating partners, you will need to give people you wouldn’t normally be drawn to a chance. When you’re repeatedly drawn to unavailable partners, there may be a feeling of excitement and an initial spark that occurs between you and this person. Many people mistake this spark as meaning that this person is the right one for them when, in reality, feeling initially excited about someone may actually indicate that a self-destructive pattern is repeating itself.

The journey to changing your own repetitive dating patterns and becoming someone who can be securely attached isn’t always linear. Some of the indications of secure attachment include: 

  • getting to a space where you can see yourself as valuable and worthy of love and respect.
  • being able to validate your own thoughts, feelings and experiences, even though you might still struggle with certain insecurities.
  • being able to show up for yourself when needed by practising good self-care, reaching out to others for help and setting healthy boundaries for yourself and others.
  • developing the skills to comfort yourself and help yourself remain in control when you get upset. Knowing that your needs matter and that when you make mistakes it doesn’t make you a bad person or a failure; even when you mess up, you are still good enough. 

No matter what your attachment style or particular dating patterns, maintaining connections and interpersonal relationships requires work from all the people involved, and everyone deserves to be both happy and healthy in those relationships.

  • Relationship
  • Communication