Repeating Unhealthy Relationship Patterns

As children we learn ways of relating – from parents, siblings, anyone who's important in our lives.
And then, over and over, we replay the roles, including harmful ones. But we can free ourselves.

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What’s Learned from Unwanted Sexual Experiences

Men who had such experiences as boys have learned some unhealthy relationship patterns.

They experienced betrayal by the person who used them sexually. Often their needs were neglected or ignored by those who could have protected them, or helped them stop what was going on, or helped them deal with what happened.

Many patterns involve roles of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’

Often they have also experienced physical and emotional neglect and/or abuse. People responsible for caring for them may have turned on them in fits of rage, or repeatedly and harshly criticized them in ways that made them feel bad and ashamed. They may have witnessed very unhealthy ways of relating between parents, siblings, mother and her boyfriends, etc.

Roles People Play

Victim and Perpetrator

Unhealthy relationship patterns often revolve around roles of ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator.’

There are many versions of those roles, and they can be quite subtle. You might treat other people as objects to be ‘used’ to achieve your own goals. Or you may let yourself get ‘walked all over’ by others.

Even people who never think of themselves as ‘victims’ often respond as if others were trying to make them victims – and end up victimizing others, in small and sometimes large ways, all the while feeling like it’s ‘just self defense.’

For example, when parents and caregivers are abusive, they almost always believe (even if they don’t think about it) that their actions are justifiable responses to being victims of a child’s ‘disobedience,’ ‘disrespect,’ etc. Or they may feel like victims in another way that they believe entitles them to, for example, use a child for sexual gratification (‘my husband is pathetic and can’t satisfy me’).

Whenever we feel like some ‘deserved’ a nasty or attacking comment we just made, we’ve rapidly and automatically gone from feeling like a victim of that person to victimizing them. The point here isn’t to condemn ourselves, just to recognize how common these roles are, even in those small little battles of everyday life.


Replaying the ‘bystander’ role can be very destructive too. For example, you may look the other way as someone you know exploits or abuses another person. You may do nothing to protect a child from abuse or neglect that you know is happening.

There are so many ways that people can find themselves repeating painful relationship patterns from childhood – if they pay attention and reflect on their relationships. It’s so easy to fall into the roles of victim and perpetrator, and flip back and forth between them, without even realizing it.

Other Common Roles and Repetitions

There are other roles besides victim, perpetrator and bystander that people repeat from childhood.

Some people keep neglecting their own needs and taking care of others, even when others aren’t asking for it, in ways that lead to resentment and feeling neglected themselves.

Some try to control others with guilt or shame.

Some hide their emotional needs from others, then feel ignored and abandoned. Others make extreme emotional demands, or alternative between being needy and distant.

Also, many unhealthy relationship patterns are rooted in a lack of trust – that anyone can really care, understand them, be honest, etc. This lack of trust is usually rooted in childhood relationships with untrustworthy abusers, parents, or other important adults.

It could be with your second wife, your tenth girlfriend, or your twentieth boss. If you’re really honest with yourself, you’ll see that you’ve mostly been having the same basic relationship conflicts over the years.

And if you truly investigate, you’ll find that they’re almost always rooted in early childhood relationship patterns, especially those involving vulnerability and getting hurt.

Change Is Possible, Therapy Can Really Help

It is possible to
understand and overcome such patterns.

Fortunately, it really is possible to understand and overcome such deeply ingrained patterns.

Any safe and healthy relationship will give you opportunities to overcome the ways you repeat unhealthy relationship patterns.

But for many men, it’s going to require some extra help, not just from a patient and loving partner, but from someone who’s job includes providing such help, that is, a therapist or counselor.

In fact, one of the most healing things about a good therapy relationship is the following process:

  1. Developing a safe and trusting relationship, which allows you, with the therapist’s help, to…
  2. Observe yourself repeating old unhealthy relationship patterns, with people in your life and with the therapist, which gives you the chance to…
  3. Explore the related memories, feelings, and beliefs about yourself, others and relationships, which finally enables you to…
  4. Discover and practice new and much healthier ways of relating, especially when your ‘buttons get pushed.’

This is one of the main purposes of a therapy relationship, especially when the therapist includes ‘interpersonal’ or ‘psychodynamic’ approaches.

Many men have found that they can overcome old patterns much more quickly, and experience a lot less conflict and pain at work and at home, when they make use of therapy.

Finally, please keep in mind that other childhood experiences may contribute to relationship challenges and troubles. These can include harsh disciplining by parents, emotional or physical abuse, death of a parent or other close person, and various other experiences of neglect or betrayal by important people in one’s life. See Caution: It’s Not All About the Sexual Experiences.