Healthy Relationship Practices: Clarifying Your Relationship Patterns

Written by: Jorinde Berben
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Yesterday I was cleaning the house while listening to Brené Brown interviewing Esther Perel, perhaps two of my favourite women in the world. At one point, Esther talked about the patterns in relationships. (You can find the Unlocking Us podcast episode here.) “It takes two people to create a pattern,” Esther said. And once that pattern is created, it becomes a kind of unwritten rule.

The example she used was from Brené’s own marriage and is one that I recognized only too well. Brené discussed how she is the one in the relationship who usually moves forward without hesitation, while her husband often steps on the break and will voice doubts and reservations. Over time, the pattern becomes so strong that we start to see it as part of our character. We start to think we’re the go-getter, or we’re the sensible one, and the other person is obviously missing important skills. The thing is, even though we may be more inclined one way or another, we still need both aspects in our lives. If we didn’t, WE WOULDN’T HAVE CHOSEN THE PARTNER WE HAVE!

As Brené’s mind is blown by this, I experience a true ‘aha’-moment as well. Even if we usually take up one side of the equation, the fact that we put ourselves in relationships where there’s tension on this particular issue, means we’re looking for the other side of the equation in our lives as well.

It didn’t take long for me to start seeing these patterns in my own relationships. My partner is someone who definitely has a can-do attitude. “I’m not worried, I’m sure we’ll manage” is his usual approach to things. I’m more the type to think of everything that could possibly go wrong and then prepare for it. We take up these roles in all kinds of different domains: when it comes to planning excursions, to scheduling events and even in our finances.

What was really interesting is what Esther pointed out next: Partner X can only take one side of the equation BECAUSE partner Y takes the other side. My partner can be carefree about organizing trips because he knows that I’ll pay attention to the details so we don’t forget important things. At the same time, I can be overly cautious about going because I know that he’ll push enough to make sure we actually go out and do things. If we’d take up either of these positions alone, the balance would be lost. He might head out without provisions, I’d probably end up not going anywhere.

In my experience, when one party doesn’t take up the extreme end, the other party also doesn’t feel the need to do so. If my partner plans with more attention to detail, I’m less worried about forgetting something and feel more relaxed.

Perel goes on to explain that it may take two people to create a pattern, but it only takes one person to break it. If my partner all of a sudden started worrying about where every cent went (in the way I tend to do when I’m stressed), I’d probably relax my financial habits more. I might even tell him to lighten up (which he never tells me, to his credit!), and I wouldn’t be aware of the fact I was changing my habits either. Most of the time, this process happens completely subconsiously.

Sometimes, this pattern breaking can be scary. If you’re used to your partner being your rock, always sure of themselves and never wavering, it can be really frightening to see them break down in front of you. It’s good to keep this in mind when you do something seemingly out of character and get a reaction that is less than ideal. When my partner told me he was feeling completely overwhelmed (this was last June), for example, I couldn’t be there in the way that he needed me to be there because the idea of him not being full of energy and optimistic was too frightening of an idea, mostly because I rely heavily on that quality when I’m feeling overwhelmed myself.

It can be really easy to spot these dynamics in other relationships, and through that mirror, it can be really fun and interesting to decipher your own. If you think you’re on to something, talk it over with your partner. They have a different point of view for sure. See which qualities you both put out and how they complement each other. Look for what you’re looking for in your partner, what aspect you’ve unconsciously drawn into your life, and appreciate how your partner did the same by drawing you into their life. This way, you learn to respect your partner’s talents and skills, and your own at the same time.

Relationship patterns are not a bad thing, as long as they work out and can meet the relationship’s and partners’ needs. They can provide stability, reliability and safety. When a pattern becomes a source of conflict, however, it’s best to talk it through between the two of you, or with a relationship counselor. Patterns were made at one point, and they can be changed, too.

For now, I want to wish you some happy pattern-scavenging; with, why not, some Brené Brown and Esther Perel in the background. You won’t regret it!

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