The Two Most Toxic Patterns In Relationships

Of all the issues that mental health counselors deal with in dysfunctional relationships with the opposite sex, chronic patterns of destructive, repetitive behavior are the most common.

These patterns of toxic behavior can harm the mental, emotional and physical health and well-being of each partner. Relationships are put off balance by protective behaviors learned in childhood and carried forward into the couple relationship. Such behaviors can lead to the demise of the relationship, ending in break up or divorce.

Two of the most toxic of these repetitive patterns in dysfunctional relationships are Demand/Withdraw (DM/W for short) and Repetition Compulsion.

Top Toxic Repetitive Pattern: Demand/Withdraw

Demand/Withdraw (DM/W) is a phenomenon where one person wants change while the other person in the relationship wants to maintain their power by keeping status quo. The person seeking change starts making demands. The person who is more invested in holding onto power withdraws and disengages from the relationship.

Research shows that a relationship having an imbalance of power where one person is more dependent on the other (either emotionally or monetarily) will have the less powerful member of the couple making demands. The demand role is predominately played by the woman and the withdrawal role played by the man in most relationships.

Some researchers have proposed that the differences in how men and women are socialized may account for the difference in the roles. Women tend to seek affiliation, are more expressive, and are afraid of abandonment. Men are more autonomous and fear engulfment in relationships. Personality differences may also account for the roles played in DM/W. Individuals who are emotionally confident and securely attached believe in their own worthiness and therefore do not engage in Demand/Withdraw while those have attachment issues stemming from childhood and life experiences are more likely to engage in DM/W.

Marital topics such as intimacy, communication, commitment, habits and personality triggered the demand/withdraw pattern. Other issues such as work, children, money and other relationships do not trigger the cycle. Also, the likelihood of the pattern appearing increases if one of the couple is depressed.

All of these variables work in tangent to kick-off the pattern. What may start as a mundane and reasonable discussion can quickly escalate into the DM/W pattern. The more the opposing party withdraws, the more the demanding party demands. The frustration of the demanding individual will increase, making them very likely to sling every transgression and flaw towards the withdrawing party, which only makes them withdraw more. The higher the demand, the greater the withdrawal.

This toxic pattern of demand-withdraw has led many researchers to conclude that DM/W is a powerful predictor of marital dissatisfaction and divorce. The fallout is not limited to just the couple engaged in the pattern. Children of DM/W couples tend to show higher incidences of depression, physical abuse and mental health symptoms as a result of this pattern.

Key to breaking out of the Demand/Withdraw pattern is to recognize that it is present in your relationship. Seeking the help of a therapist will give the couple the tools needed to finally break free of this toxic pattern.

Childhood Survival Tactics in Adult Relationships: Repetition Compulsion

Another insidious pattern that strains relationships to the breaking point is repetition compulsion. Repetition compulsion is a neurotic defense mechanism that attempts to rewrite childhood history, typically the troubled relationship with the opposite sex parent from one’s family of origin.

When a child has an early parental relationship filled with abandonment, neglect, abuse, rejection or intense frustration and disappointment, they are put in a difficult place psychologically. In order to survive, the child has to deny the reality of their situation, including their strong emotions of anger/rage, depression and despair.

To overcome these intense emotions and maintain their state of denial, children will instead cling to hope. This hope is a childish one where the young person believes that if only they could be good enough, smart enough, perfect enough, etc., their problem parent will finally love them unconditionally, as they long for and need to be loved. They mistakingly believe that they (the child) are the problem and they hold the power to fix the situation by becoming someone more acceptable to the parent. Even though they try desperately over and over again to fix the relationship, they cannot. They do not understand that the problem lies with the parent, not them.

The wounded child continues to cling to the hope throughout childhood and into adulthood in order to avoid falling into despair. Once an adult, the wounded person has, like most adults, an uncanny attraction for someone of the opposite sex who resembles in some fashion (either psychologically or physically) the parent with whom they had difficulties. At this point, the inner child is calling the shots and the person is making the choice for this parent-like mate unconsciously. The decision is made in the subconscious, which is why repetition compulsion is a neurosis.

As an adult, the inner child who was wounded, rejected or abandoned is still trying to win their mother’s or father’s love. The adult re-creates the relationship dynamics of his/her childhood with their love interest in an effort to provide an opportunity to change the outcome of the relationship. The inner child still carries the hope that this time it will be different, that they can fix or transform them.

While the rational adult part of the wounded individual knows that a change is highly unlikely, the wounded inner child continues to try to fix the situation, just as they have been doing since childhood. The cycle continues to go on, repeating, in hopes that change will come. The result is that the inevitable failure just reinforces feelings of inadequacy, inferiority and not being loved.

This toxic pattern of repetition compulsion can be healed, but only if the wounded individual is willing to accept the traumatic facts of the abusive childhood and give up the defense mechanism itself, thereby forgiving the abuser. Once the reality of their childhood has been consciously accepted, the compulsion to repeat past history loses its power and the once-wounded person is set free.

Demand/Withdraw and repetition compulsion are two of the most toxic patterns in relationships today. By understanding the dynamics of these patterns, you can start your own relationship on the road towards healing and wholeness.


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