How to heal a toxic relationship habit
It’s not our fault we fall for bad boys. Or girls for that matter. Choosing the same kind of person over and over again, having similar fights, ending in the exactly the same heartbreak, living a life where you feel like you make the same bad decisions over and over again … it’s not our fault.
So says Debbi Carberry, relationships expert and clinical social worker in Brisbane, who has just launched an online course in the hope of teaching people how to break their bad relationship habits.
“We need to be more compassionate with ourselves,” says Carberry, “we are neurologically hardwired to behave in specific ways when it comes to our connection to others, but specifically our intimate partners. We’re taught during infancy how to get our needs met then use that in our adult relationship and this can be problematic. Our unhealthy relationship patterns are ‘attachment wounds’.”
Carberry explains that we choose people based on familiarity, and recognition of behavioural patterns that are familiar and comfortable for us. These patterns were established from 0 – 3 years old, so we have no control over them.
“If you had to vy for attention because maybe you had a disabled sibling and your carer’s attention was distracted, that has formed the way you interact in your adult relationships,” says Carberry.
She is quick to stress it’s not about blaming parents. “Everyone is human, nobody has had the perfect childhood,” she says.
Some attachment wounds can include things like:
- Fears of abandonment or rejection.
- Becoming a chameleon and changing the way people behave to suit their partner’s preferences (this can be exhausting and unsustainable).
- Feeling overly responsible.
- Struggling with power issues.
- Taking on a partner’s problems as if they are your own.
- Compromising your own values and beliefs to please others or avoid conflict.
- A lack of self-worth.
- Fear of engulfment.
- Rarely asking for help.
Most common attachment styles to recognise:
People with an anxious attachment style looks for connection but any suggestion of separation or distance becomes unbearable.
“When your partner says he’s off to the shop for five minutes, but ends up taking 30 minutes, you freak out,” says Carberry, “When he gets back, you shout at him as soon as he walks in the door. This is because you’re anxious that he might leave you permanently, but they actually end up leaving because you fight with them over things like this.”
This person wants connection but finds it overwhelming and might pull back because as a child, they may have wanted that attention but found that closeness is painful.
“You may have a fear of people not meeting your needs, so you feel like you have to create distance between you and your partner to keep yourself safe. So when you meet a guy who keeps telling you how fantastic his ex girlfriend is and you’re wondering why he keeps talking about her, it’s because he needs to create distance and wants to make you back off, because that is what he’s learnt about connection,” say Carberry.
What about bad boys?
This is complicated and a typical situation is that you’re attracted to this kind of person, but they always turn out to treat you badly.
“He’s not, actually,” says Carberry, “The thing is, you only like him because his behaviour is known to you. So you think there’s electricity there, but it’s actually because you recognise his behaviours, they are familiar to you. Run the other way!” she laughs. “You need to pick the guy who bores you or who you’re initially uncomfortable with, and you need to learn different behaviours so you feel comfortable in that situation. It doesn’t come naturally to you because you’re not wired for it. It’s a learned behaviour. It’s not about I’m not good enough.”
How to fix it
Carberry says the best way to heal an attachment wound is actually being aware of it.
“And unfortunately, in the middle of an argument is the best time!” she says.
For example, if you’ve had a fight with your partner and he always walks out the door, even though you ask him not to and that panics you, you’ll get even more upset and think he is treating you badly.
If those people recognise their attachment style and do something different in that moment, they can heal the wound. One of you wants to run and one of you feels panic.
“The person who wants to run needs to say ‘I feel overwhelmed right now and I need to leave for 15 minutes but I promise that I’ll come back’ and the person who waits behind needs to be compassionate to themselves and say ‘I know that this is scary, he promised he’ll come back, it will be fine.’ So when he comes through the door, instead of yelling at him and fighting, she needs to wait a moment. He should be gentle in approaching and they need to start a dialogue again, recognising each other’s needs.”
When we are able to do that, we actually repair the wound.
“People think the argument is the problem, but it’s not, it’s the wound,” says Carberry. “It’s complicated because it’s hard to recognise. If you know what the wound is, you can fix it.”
Carberry’s online course starts on Feb 22.
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