5 Patterns that Mess Up Your Relationships

5 Patterns that Mess Up Your Relationships


By Amy

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar:

  • You go on two or three awesome dates with someone, then—POOF!—they disappear.  No text, no DM, no call.  You play it outwardly cool and send a couple of “good morning”-type texts every couple days, but you may as well be talking to yourself.
  • All of your exes tell you that you have way too much baggage.
  • You keep picking different versions of the same person.  The appearance changes, but the relationship patterns stay the same.
  • YOU always have to be the one who takes initiative.  YOU ask them out.  YOU make the first move.  YOU always ask about them and start conversations.  However, it is always THEM that walk away from the relationship.

Many people will tell you that you are not alone.  Seriously, think about all of the questions surrounding relationships—where your new relationship is headed, why are they pulling away, are they cheating, and will you ever meet your soulmate?  It is not surprising that relationships are such a hot topic.

This article may feel a little more casual, but it deals with the thought and behavior patterns that tend to sabotage relationships.  Some of these patterns are obvious red flags, while others tend to show in more subtle, corrosive ways.  The intention of this article is to help you figure out why your relationships may be stopping before they get a chance to start.  This article is in no way meant to shame, mock, trigger, or hurt you in any way.  On the contrary, it is meant to help you figure out if there is anything you want to change about the way you approach relationships, which is never an easy thing to do.  Please use the information presented here for your own self-improvement. 

  1.  Checking off the Boxes

For those of you who do online dating, what are some things you look for when you look at someone’s profile?  Maybe your inner monologue sounds like this:

  • “He doesn’t seem to have a sense of humor.  Yikes!  Swipe left.”
  • “She’s cute and I like that she has a dog.”
  • “That’s an expensive watch.  I’ll message him.”
  • “Eww, look at his teeth.  No thanks.”
  • “Hmmm…  Not my type.  Never mind.”

When it comes to dating, everyone has their must-haves and deal-breakers.  Knowing what you want and having standards is perfectly healthy.  After all, spending time in a toxic relationship or one that does not suit you feels awful.  What could be wrong with making sure a potential partner checks off all the boxes?

Think about your expectations for a minute.  When you finally get your dream relationship, what do you think is going to happen?  Are you picturing the bad days, as well as the good?  Do you see yourself with someone who disagrees with you from time to time, or do you think #couplesgoals involves being in constant sync?  The reality is that a relationship involves two separate people, not you and a clone who always does things the way you want them.  

Although these must-haves and deal-breakers help you figure out where to draw boundaries and what you need, checking off the boxes becomes relationship self-sabotage when you get too rigid.  Mental health experts have found that rigid thinking is associated with (Morris and Mansell, 2018):

  • Perfectionism
  • An increased need for control over people and situations
  • Social anxiety
  • Increased depression
  • Exaggerated fears of anything unfamiliar or out of your “comfort zone”
  • Difficulty accepting feedback or new information

So how do you know if you just have not found the right person yet or if you need to relax a little?  Here are some signs you are being too rigid in your relationships:

  • You try to tell your partner who they can hang out with or control where they go.
  • You find yourself criticizing your partner’s choice of clothes, music, food, phone apps, etc. often.
  • You often feel the need to change your partner or joke that they are a “fixer-upper.”
  • Your partner walks on eggshells when they come over because they know you will freak out if they break one of your rules.
  • You end up making most of the decisions in the relationship.
  • If your partner makes a suggestion or wants to compromise, you feel attacked.

The bottom line is being too rigid stems from a thought error called black-and-white thinking.  This all-or-nothing mentality hurts by leaving no room for a middle ground or negotiation.  Here are some examples of how black-and-white thinking might show up in your life (Litner, 2020):

  • Making statements involving the words:
    • Always
    • Never
    • Impossible
    • Perfect
    • Ruined
  • Avoiding conflict at all costs.
  • Ending relationships and friendships before the other person can hurt you.
  • Seeing people as “all good” or “all bad.” 
  • Quitting jobs suddenly.
  • Finding that very few things in your life are “good enough,” including you.

The common themes in black-and-white thinking are fear and a need for control.  These themes go hand-in-hand because the need for control is how people cope with their fears.  So how can you deal with black-and-white thinking?  As with any fear-based thinking, the best way to do this is to find out what you are afraid of and work through it.  Counseling and coaching can be enormously helpful, as can talking to caring loved ones or finding a supportive community.  For those of you who like meditation and journaling, here are a few prompts to counter black-and-white thinking:

  • When did I make a statement using always or never today?  What were these statements?
    • What evidence do I have that makes these statements true?
    • What evidence do I have that makes these statements false?
    • What is the worst thing that can happen if I am right?  What about this scares me?
    • What is the worst thing that can happen if I am wrong?  What about this scares me?
    • How is this affecting my relationships?
    • What is at least one small step I can take today that would help me with my fear?
  • When did I make a statement using everything or nothing today?  What were these statements?
    • What evidence do I have that makes these statements true?
    • What evidence do I have that makes these statements false?
    • What is the worst thing that can happen if I am right?  What about this scares me?
    • What is the worst thing that can happen if I am wrong?  What about this scares me?
    • How is this affecting my relationships?
    • What is at least one small step I can take today that would help me with my fear?
  • What are some things that I believe are hopeless?
    • What evidence do I have that makes these statements true?
    • What evidence do I have that makes these statements false?
    • What is the worst thing that can happen if I am right?  What about this scares me?
    • What is the worst thing that can happen if I am wrong?  What about this scares me?
    • How is this affecting my relationships?
    • What is at least one small step I can take today that would help me with my fear?
  • What are some things that I believe I can’t do or shouldn’t even try because I’ll be bad at them?
    • What evidence do I have that makes these statements true?
    • What evidence do I have that makes these statements false?
    • What is the worst thing that can happen if I am right?  What about this scares me?
    • What is the worst thing that can happen if I am wrong?  What about this scares me?
    • How is this affecting my relationships?
    • What is at least one small step I can take today that would help me with my fear?

2.  Making it All About You

Think about your past relationships, or maybe the last fight you had in your current relationship.  Now take a breath and think about your behavior.  Take a look at the following scenarios and see if you recognize your own behavior in them:

  • Your partner promised you dinner at that new vegan restaurant.  It has taken ages, but you guys finally plan something for this coming Saturday.  Your partner tells you on Wednesday that their car broke down and it cost more than they thought it would.  They offer you something less expensive for Saturday and to go to the vegan place when they get paid.  Your blood boils.  After all, if they were really into you, wouldn’t they have found a way to make it happen?
  • Most—if not all—of your time with your partner is spent doing things that you like.  
  • Your partner spends more on your birthday than you do on theirs.
  • You go out of your way to make sure you are the one who ends every argument.
  • You manipulate all arguments to make sure your partner is the one who apologizes first, even if you were in the wrong.
  • You use guilt or ultimatums to get your way.

No situation is completely black-and-white, but it is time to honestly evaluate your relationships if anything in the previous list sounds like you.  Being able to ask for what you want and need in a relationship has its perks.  Doing this helps you know where you stand with a partner and prevents resentment down the road.  But just like checking off the boxes, however, making too many demands can make others question the relationship or leave.  

A huge part of relationships is compromise and being able to respond to the other person with empathy and respect.  Constantly demanding your way demonstrates neither of these qualities, which only chips away at your relationship over time.  In addition to making the other person feel bad about the relationship—and possibly themselves—taking an entitled approach may make you unhappier overall (Dambrun, 2017).  Research shows people who are self-centered tend to experience temporary happiness from material and external things, but less authentic happiness overall (Dambrun, 2017).  

Not only can selfishness make you unhappy, but it can also make you less attractive to potential partners.  Researchers asked an equal group of male and female participants to rate the attractiveness of potential partners (Moore et al, 2013).  The plot twist is they asked participants to rate the potential partners before and after telling the participants about how helpful and altruistic the potential partner was (Moore et al, 2013).  It turns out that while hearing tales of altruism was found to make men more attractive to women, reports of helping behavior were found to make both men and women more desirable to the participants (Moore et al, 2013).

If kindness makes someone more desirable, then why would some people bother to be selfish?

Kause et al (2018) found that self-centeredness may be related to how much status someone believes they have (Kause et al, 2018).  Their study indicated people who believed that they did not need others due to their status or resources were less likely to share (Kause et al, 2018).  When it comes to relationships, this means people who view themselves as more well-off, better looking, or otherwise of higher status feel as though they have more options than others.  Therefore, they feel less obligated to compromise when they do not have to or give of themselves.  

But what do you think about this theory?  Can you think of any other reasons people might get a little too selfish in relationships?  Tell us about it in the comments, as well as whether you want to learn more about how selfishness affects your relationships.

3.  Making it All About Them

So far, we have learned that people who are seen as more helpful are often also seen as more attractive than their more self-centered peers (Moore et al, 2013).  However, being too selfless can have the opposite effect.  Consider the following scenarios:

  • You have no problem eating generic ramen or bologna sandwiches for two months so that you can buy your significant other that game they’ve been wanting.  When they ask you what you want, however, you have no idea.
  • No matter what they need, you are there for your partner.  Do they need help changing a tire at 3 AM?  You will be right there.  Do they need someone to listen and rub their shoulders after a tough day?  Their wish is your command.  Over the last couple of weeks, though, you have noticed they’ve been more distant.  They say “thank you” less, or without as much sincerity as they once did.  You confront them on this and they tell you, “I think I just need some space…”
  • You apologize for everything that makes your partner unhappy, even if it had nothing to do with you.
  • You love your partner and you would do anything for them.  You go above and beyond for them all the time, which they say they love about you.  But after a few months of this, you’ve noticed that you need more sleep than you did before the relationship started.  
  • You start to resent not having enough time for the things you enjoy.

Anyone that can recognize themselves in the above scenarios will tell you being everything to your significant other is exhausting, not to mention expensive.  It is no surprise that being in a relationship this unbalanced will chip away at your mental health as well.  Researchers have found that codependency—or a relationship style that involves completely sacrificing your needs for the happiness of another person—is strongly associated with anxiety and depression (Yaghoubnezhad et al, 2016).  There are a couple of theories as to why a codependent relationship style is so toxic for your mental health.

The first theory involves the characteristics of codependency.  Traits associated with a codependent relationship style include (Mental Health America, 2020):

  • Feeling overly responsible for the happiness of others.
  • Finding relationship partners that you can heal, pity, or “fix”.
  • Often focusing on gaining or keeping your partner’s approval.
  • Difficulty identifying your own feelings.
  • Feeling guilty when you have to speak up for yourself.
  • Not being able to define or maintain healthy boundaries for yourself.

According to a 2016 study, these traits tend to increase depression and anxiety over time because they lead to (Yaghoubnezhad et al, 2016):

  • Denying or suppressing what you feel and need, even outside of the relationship.
  • Using your need to make the other person happy as a way to not look at negative feelings and situations in your life.
  • Constant feelings of guilt, especially when you need to refuse a request.
  • Feeling like you have no identity or goals outside of the relationship.

The second theory regarding the relationship between codependency, depression, and anxiety involves who is more likely to develop a codependent relationship style.  Keep in mind most research on codependency is done on people in dysfunctional families.  This is because many mental health professionals believe codependency is a reaction to being raised or stuck in a toxic situation, such as having a loved one who is abusive or an addict (Panaghi et al, 2016).  However, not all people raised or stuck in dysfunctional situations have codependent relationships.  

Researchers believe certain people are more likely to develop a codependent relationship style due to their unique personality traits (Panaghi et al, 2016).  According to a 2016 study of 140 married women, those who were more likely to show traits of codependency in their relationships tended to be (Panaghi et al, 2016):

  • More neurotic, or likely to have deep-rooted anxiety.
  • Less open to new experiences.
  • Less cooperative, warm, or agreeable.

As depressing as all of this sounds, a codependent relationship style is something you can change.  Many people have been able to change the thought and behavior patterns associated with codependent relationships through a combination of (Mental Health America, 2020):

  • Individual therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), trauma therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), or substance abuse counseling.
  • Group therapy.
  • Medication for any underlying mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Journaling and self-help literature.
  • Support groups.

But what about you?  Can you relate to any of the signs of codependent relationships?  Would you like a post on getting better boundaries?  Tell us your story and suggestions in the comments below!

4.  Allowing Your Ex to Influence You

Let’s play a quick game of word association.  Ready?  The word is “ex”.  What was the first word or phrase that came to your mind?  Gold digger?  Evil troll?  The one that got away?  Great girl, bad timing?

Now think of every relationship you have had since that ex.  How did your ex shape your future relationships?  Did you go out of your way to find someone like them, or did you do a complete 180?  Maybe that ex caused you to avoid relationships for a long time.

Hopefully, those two quick exercises got you thinking about how much energy you gave to your past relationships versus what is happening in your present.  People keep ties to their exes for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes they have children together and will need to co-parent.  Or maybe the ex started out as a coworker or part of a larger friend group.  Perhaps the relationship stands out because it was your first relationship or your most toxic relationship.  Maybe you feel guilty or have a ton of questions about how it ended.  Whatever the case, allowing your ex to rent too much space in your head may be keeping you from finding a healthy relationship.  

Just to be clear, it is completely normal and healthy to grieve after the loss of a significant relationship.  And most people would agree that reflecting on how a relationship ended can help you process the relationship once and for all.  No two people are going to handle the end of a relationship the same way.  However, the following signs may mean that your feelings about the past may be sabotaging your present:

  • One or more of your friends have asked you to stop mentioning your ex.
  • You compare everyone you date to your ex.
  • You find yourself making statements like, “If my ex was here…”
  • You fantasize about your ex…  a lot.
  • Everything reminds you of your ex.
  • You avoid exclusive relationships with anyone new in case your ex calls.
  • You process your feelings about your ex with everyone else you date.

Rumination—or the tendency to overthink past events and mistakes—harms relationships for a couple of reasons.  First, mental health professionals believe ruminating on the past makes you less satisfied with your current relationships or friendships (Spendelow et al, 2017).  This lack of overall happiness with your social relationships can lead to less effort put into the relationships.  Over time, this weakens your social connections and increases your sense of isolation, possibly causing you to focus on the past more (Spendelow et al, 2017).  Lastly, mental health professionals believe rumination is strongly related to developing anxiety and depression (McLaughlin and Nolen-Hoeksema, 2012).  

Here are some other key facts about rumination:

  • Women are more likely to co-ruminate, meaning ruminate with friends, family, and coworkers (Spendelow et al, 2017).
  • People with insecure attachment styles are more likely to ruminate after a significant relationship ends (Marshall et al, 2013).  You can watch a quick summary of attachment styles here and here.
  • Adolescents who tend to ruminate report more incidents of problems with friends, such as bullying and social exclusion (McLaughlin and Nolen-Hoeksema, 2012).
  • People with secure and avoidant attachment styles tend to ruminate less after a significant relationship ends (Marshall et al, 2013).

Do you tend to ruminate?  If you do, just know that you do not have to stay in that dark place forever.  The key may lie in finding a qualified professional to talk to, writing your feelings in a journal, or taking up a mindfulness practice.  So what are your tips for dealing with rumination?

5. Overlooking Red Flags

One of the running themes in this article is understanding when your boundaries are too loose or too rigid.  All relationships involve give-and-take.  Part of that process is understanding when you need to let something go and when you need to stand up for yourself.

Where do your boundaries lie?  Which issues would you excuse?  Which issues would force you to show someone the door?  Think about these questions as you check out the following scenarios:

  • Table manners are a major sticking point for you.  Hearing someone slurp their soup is like nails on a chalkboard.  You agree to have dinner with someone you met on Tinder.  This person seems like the complete package—smart, gorgeous, kind, funny, and interesting.  The conversation is flowing and the sparks are flying…  and then dinner comes.  This gorgeous, wonderful person chews with their mouth open and doesn’t seem to know when to use a napkin.  
  • Family is everything to you.  They’ve always had your back and you have theirs.  You decide to introduce your new partner to them and it turns into a major political argument.  Your partner complains and makes fun of them the whole way home.
  • You’ve been with your partner for a couple of years.  Being around your best friend is a challenge for you because they have noticed your partner “playfully” puts you down in public.  You love your partner and you love your friend.  So why is it beginning to feel like you are caught in the middle of the two?
  • You like to stay friends with your exes.  Your current partner believes exes need to stay in the past. You know that you don’t want to be with any of your exes.  You know that you only want your current partner, but they simmer with anger every time you reach for your phone.  
  • You basically like your partner’s friends, except for one.  This friend seems to hang all over your partner and ignore you when all of you hang out together.  This friend is always leaving flirty comments on your partner’s social media.  You mention this to your partner, but they say they’ve been friends with this person for half their lives.  “This is just how they are.

What were some of your thoughts as you read the above hypothetical situations?  Were any of them grounds for leaving the relationship, or were there any that needed a little more context?  Knowing what is important to you in a relationship gives you choices.  Depending on how major the issue is, you can choose to leave the relationship, try to work it out with your partner, or let it go.  

Figuring out what is a minor issue and what will not work for you is only half the battle.  You then have to decide what you want to do with the answers you get.  Refusing to look at major lingering issues between partners creates a great deal of toxicity in the relationship.  Ignoring a red flag—or an issue too significant to make a relationship work—can harm more than your relationships.  People who stay in toxic relationships report:   

  • Higher rates of abuse and worse communication in relationships that are on again/off again (University of Missouri-Columbia, 2018).
  • Increased depression and anxiety (University of Missouri-Columbia, 2018).
  • Feeling unimportant or disrespected (Supportiv, 2020).
  • Difficulty trusting yourself (Supportiv, 2020).
  • You start to expect everyone else to act like your toxic partner (Supportiv, 2020).
  • Feeling like you cannot do anything right (Supportiv, 2020).

This list shows staying in a toxic situation will definitely chip away at your self-esteem and mental health over time.  It also brings up the question of why people stay in toxic situations.  Although each relationship is different, mental health professionals have identified a handful of reasons people tend to stay in toxic relationships:

  • Concern for their Partner:  Research indicates people are less likely to break up with a partner if they believe their partner will be devastated by the break up (Joel et al, 2018).  Mental health experts believe people find it especially difficult to end a relationship if they believe their partner is more invested or dependent upon the relationship than they are (Joel et al, 2018).  
  • Practical Benefits to the Relationship:  People are more likely to stay in a toxic or abusive relationship if they feel their practical needs are being met (Copp et al, 2015).  Practical needs include financial concerns and needs related to one’s survival, such as shelter (Copp et al, 2015).
  • To Keep up Appearances:  Research shows someone in an abusive relationship is less likely to get out of the relationship if they feel their friends and family would judge them harshly for being in an abusive situation (Copp et al, 2015).
  • Age and Gender:  Mental health professionals believe adolescent and young adult males are the most likely demographic to remain in a verbally or emotionally abusive relationship (Karakurt and Silver, 2013).  Younger females are more likely to experience toxic behaviors, such as property damage and social isolation by a partner than other demographics (Karakurt and Silver, 2013). 
  • Trauma:  Boundaries—or guidelines that help us figure out what is healthy or unhealthy for us—can become blurry if you have a lot of unhealed trauma.  In fact, research indicates the depression and anxiety associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) negatively impact your ability to have a healthy relationship (Campbell and Renshaw, 2018).  You can watch the Psych2Go video about unhealed trauma here.  Your boundaries can also become weaker due to constant exposure to toxic behavior in the relationship.  

Regardless of what keeps you in a toxic situation, just know that many people have chosen to leave abusive or toxic relationships and have become happier and healthier for it.  If you are wondering whether it’s time to stop ignoring the red flags in your relationship, consider the following questions:

  • What are three things keeping you in this relationship?
  • What are the things that make you want to leave the relationship?
  • In your perfect world, what would be different about this relationship?
  • What emotional needs is this relationship filling for you?
  • What financial needs is this relationship filling for you?
  • What practical or physical needs is this relationship filling for you?
  • How is this relationship holding you back?
  • What about this relationship is making you unhappy?
  • When you think about leaving the relationship, how do you feel?
  • Have you thought about your life after this relationship?  How do you feel about it?
  • Have you been ignoring red flags in this relationship?  What are they?
  • Do you feel like anyone would judge you for ending this relationship?  What do you think they would do or say?
  • What would you say to a close friend who was going through the same thing as you?
  • How does the thought of ending this relationship make you feel about yourself?

Whatever you choose to do with your relationship, please understand that nobody deserves to be abused or mistreated.  

Putting it All Together

Take a second to reflect on why you clicked on this article.  What is it about the topic that got your attention?  Chances are, you have noticed some things you do not like about your relationships and want to change them.  Or maybe you were concerned about a friend who is constantly going through relationship drama.  Perhaps you have never had a relationship and want to avoid mistakes others have made.

Reading this post is a great first step to accomplishing any of these goals.  You are worthy of loving, healthy relationships.  Behavior patterns such as the ones listed in this post can be changed.  You just need to find the right combination of support and self-care, such as talking to a trusted friend, reaching out to other members of the support/guidance community, journaling, mindfulness meditation, and speaking to a qualified mental health professional.  You can find a qualified mental health professional by contacting your university’s student counseling clinic, county crisis line, or your insurance company.  With the right support, you will see that your past does not have to define your future.  

Was there anything in the article you could relate to, or found helpful?  Tell us about it!  

Please don’t be afraid to reach out to an online community, a friend, or a qualified professional if it becomes too much.  Remember, there is help out there!


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