Breaking Out of Old Relationship Patterns
Esalen Team
February 1, 2018

By Lisa Firestone, Ph.D.

Our earliest attachment experiences serve as models for relationships throughout our lives. Without realizing it, our attachment patterns influence our attractions, how we relate to partners, and even whether or not a relationship lasts. This helps explain why we keep winding up in the same relationships. Believe it or not, our brains are actually wired to recreate conditions from our past. Childhood experiences help lay down neural networks that can lead us to later simulate a familiar environment. Even when our attachments were strained, we are likely to elicit these same patterns from future relationships.

The good news is we can learn new ways of relating by understanding how our history informs our behavior.

As adults, we often act in ways that may have been adaptive as kids but that hurt us today. We may repeat negative patterns we witnessed or act in ways that recreate familiar scenarios: arguing, whining, lashing out, or shutting down in the same way we did as kids. We may choose partners who remind us of our past, we may project characteristics onto our partner, or we may even provoke our partner to play out the other half of a destructive dynamic. These three patterns are referred to as selection, distortion, and provocation. By learning how they apply to our behavior, we can start to understand why we wind up with the same problems in our relationships.

There are many unseen elements that attract us to people who remind us of the past. Unfortunately, we can be magnetically drawn to partners who help us relive old, negative patterns. These patterns are often unpleasant, even painful, but they also somehow feel comfortable and familiar. For example, if we felt ignored as kids, we may subconsciously seek out people who aren’t available (i.e. “I love how he seems so cool and mysterious.”) If we felt intruded on, we may wind up with partners who take charge (i.e. “She’s so outgoing and confident.”) Eventually, these initially alluring traits become problematic (i.e. “He’s so distant and rejecting.” She’s so loud and controlling.”) Very often, we choose people who lead us to feel the same ways we did in our original attachment relationships.

Even when we enter a relationship with someone who treats us in positive ways, we may start to see that person in ways that fit our past. We may project that our partner is being critical or intrusive or assume they’re being distant or rejecting based on our childhood environment. Unfortunately, in our close relationships, we tend to distort the ones we love to fit familiar ways we felt in our original family. To challenge this, we must be aware of ways we read into our partner’s actions, words, and expressions, projecting the old ways of seeing ourselves onto them.

In addition to selecting and distorting partners, we may provoke our partner to act in ways that remind us of our past. We don’t do this consciously, but our drive to recreate the emotional climate of our childhood can influence our behavior. If we were ignored as kids, we may have had to pester our parents to get our needs met. As a result, we grew up feeling like a bother. In an adult relationship, we may still feel like we need to nag to get attention. An old insecurity can lead us to act in ways that provoke our partner to retreat, leading us, once again, to feel like a bother. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, we engage in behaviors that trigger the same response from others, so we can feel the same bad way we felt as kids. These qualities don’t represent who we really are but projections that were put on us in early life.

It’s possible to rid ourselves of hurtful overlays of our past. When we illuminate our early experiences and the models they provided for relating, we can separate our past from the present and make more conscious decisions about who we want to be with and who we want to be in our relationships. We can break out of deep-rooted patterns and forge a new romantic destiny.

Join Lisa and Joyce Catlett for Adult Attachment in Romantic Relationships beginning April 20, 2018. Learn more.

Photo by Addison Olian


Esalen Team