Creating the Same Negative Patterns [36]

By Dr. Keith Witt
November 15, 2011
iStock_000001806047XSmall1 My friend Barbara Ligeti asked me about this a couple of months ago. It’s an important question, since such patterns are ubiquitous in human societies. Consciousness came to humans with a price. Our animal drives didn’t stop when we became self-aware—they became enormously more variable and complex. Only we have the instincts to adorn our bodies with garments and jewelry, create art, and think in metaphors. We are social animals, we must relate. We have difficulty being in the presence of another without creating some kind of social contract. Try sitting in a waiting room with another person without making any connection—it’s impossible. At the very least you’ll feel a subtle exchange of acknowledgement and positioning. We also hardwire habits quickly from behaviors. Each time we relate in a certain way—for instance, offering love to anger, or offering anger to love—we are more likely to go there again. Human relating cocreates powerful, demanding relational patterns, driven by evolution and shaped by self-awareness and culture. Most of us automatically offer welcoming smiles when being introduced—an engaging habit of social communion. Some of us instinctively tense and defend when criticized—usually a separating, self-defeating habit. As such patterns are repeated, they constellate into forms which self-reinforce until they become reflexive ways of perceiving, thinking, and responding. The habits that dominate our waking and sleeping lives (yes, we have habitual patterns even in our dreams) are almost all relational patterns with ourselves, others, the world, and to memories, anticipations, and the stories we automatically generate about all experience. Each repetition reinforces itself in our nervous system, making us more likely to relate that way again in similar-feeling situations. The shorter answer to, “What’s the deal with creating the same negative patterns? It happens, but if we keep reaching for deeper love and more self-understanding, we can transcend almost any toxic habit. The longer answer? Most of us try to love well, and it’s easy to feel like a failure if things don’t work out or end badly. We all suffer some romantic shame or regrets. I’ve wished so many times that I’d spent the afternoon at Laurie Garretson’s house when I was 17 and she asked me in on my way to get a neck X-ray. She was my first hot kiss, and there would have been a lot more of them if I’d had the wherewithal to blow off my doctor’s appointment. In such remorseful moments, I try to remind myself: “Lighten up! It’s all about effort and progress. Keep moving towards love.” People hardly ever get intimacy right the first few times. Think about it.
  • Are you with the first person you fell in love with?
  • Are you blissfully happy with your spouse and have no doubts whatsoever about your marriage?
If the answer to either is “yes,” then God bless you both! The rest of us usually have to get our asses kicked more than once before we start getting into healthy, stable relationship territory. In one study, a thousand people were asked if they’d ever been dumped by someone they really loved, or had dumped someone who really loved them. Over ninety percent said, “yes” to both questions. Committed intimacy always involves some suffering. When it comes to love, we get the bad with the good. For instance, each of us is genetically programmed to lust after desirable partners, fall in love with a special person, attach with that person for around four years, and also either cheat or break up to search for new love interests (see Blog #18). As we mature we can learn to connect closer and sweeter. Satisfying long term monogamy is possible but challenging—it needs depth, courage, and willingness. I so admire couples who keep improving love—and transcendent love is ubiquitous. Myths, books, records, and anthropological research reflect the human capacity for enduring, lifelong love—human history is rife with such inspiring romantic tragedies, comedies, and rhapsodies. The problem is, if both partners can’t keep love growing, genetically driven ancestral voices start demanding lust, infatuation, attachment, cheating/separation, and then moving on. How this all happens is detailed in my book-in-progress, 100 Reasons to Not have a Secret Affair, but the bottom line?  If we don’t get better at recognizing good partners, being a good partner, and growing in relationships, we’re at risk to be overwhelmed by our social/sexual drives. Myths—enduring cultural stories—also reveal archetypal forms of catastrophic and tragic human bonding—Paris and Helen recklessly swept up in romantic infatuation, Cupid ravishing and deserting Psyche, or Gilgamesh spending much of his life driven by regret and loss. These epics reflect genetic mandates, ancestral voices sung through emotion and impulse—evolutionary choirs guiding and driving us. How can we grow beautiful relationships? Most people are self-aware enough to notice patterns like, “I always feel hurt and leave,” or “Someone cheats and dumps me.”  Everyone wants to break out of painful cycles, but it’s hard to figure out exactly what to do. The bad news about repetitive problems is they demand attention in order to transform—destructive relational habits usually need conscious focus to change. The good news about repetitive problems is that they point specifically towards necessary work. If you keep being cheated on, whom are you choosing and how do you attune to lovers?  If you keep losing interest and leaving, why aren’t you fighting harder for love with someone you’ve opened your heart to? Exploring these questions can resolve such patterns, and also lead to deeper maturity and emotional wisdom. It starts with whom we choose. Who do we seek out for intimacy? Famous couples’ researcher John Gottman believes that at birth we begin generating “love maps” of whom we’ll be drawn to, and I agree with him. This speaks to the mysteries of romance. More specific principles are revealed by social research and the wisdom traditions:
  • Men tend to prefer women three and a half inches shorter, while women prefer men three and a half inches taller.
  • On energetic levels, the feminine opens to trustable masculine presence, while the masculine offers resolved claim to magnetize feminine radiance and surrender.
  • On defensive levels, we are drawn to complementary wounds (the alcoholic drawn to the codependent helper, or the victim to the persecutor).
  • All these perspectives grow through developmental levels beginning with me-first selfishness and then developing towards more kindness and mutuality.
This last point about developmental levels is huge (see Blog #17). Here at The School of Love we embrace most developmental systems—guides, as they are to liberation from negative programming. Robert Kegan’s ascending levels of social awareness and competence, Carol Gilligan’s progressive levels of moral development, and David Deida’s levels of sexual/relational growth are wonderful examples. Commit to effort and progress, and eventually the worst “find a partner, fall in love, somebody cheats or acts badly, painful drama, messy breakup, start all over again” pattern starts moving towards sturdier love. So, that’s the deal with repetitive negative patterns. They exist. They are strong and destructive. But we have gifts and resources. With effort and progress, some good always happens, so focused intent and assertive action will always yield growth. On an even brighter note, love is so powerfully programmed into our genes that—if we commit to change for the better—miracles are possible. I’ve observed countless courageous people over the decades transcend the most toxic relationship patterns to create sweet, stable love. We all are capable of loving better. We can transform negative patterns into positive growth.  

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