Do you feel like you have the same relationships over and over again?
You might be in relationship patterns—where even though you are with different people, the behaviors and relationship goals are often the same.
In fact, this can happen with romantic partners as well as friends, parents and business colleagues.
I want to help you identify your relationship pattern with the people in your life.
What is a relationship pattern? Sometimes these are called relationship templates because they are almost like formulas that we use over and over again without realizing it.
Repeating the same behaviors over and over again with new people in our life.
These patterns can be both bad and good for us, and they can occur in romantic relationships, friendships and working relationships. Our relationship patterns dictate three basic things:
- Who we pick—the kind of person we get into relationships with.
- How we interact with them—the behaviors we use with them during the relationship.
- How we let them treat us—what we allow them to say and do with us while in the relationship.
You might already be thinking of some patterns in your own life after reading about these three outcomes. When I first started exploring the idea of relationship patterns in our lab, I realized there were similarities across people. To make it easier for you to identify yours, I have broken them down into five archetypes.
These five archetypes should help you start identifying your patterns–of course, you might have your own nuanced patterns. Great! That’s exactly what I want to happen for you. I’m hoping this list can serve as a jumping off point for you to identify your specific patterns. Here are the common ones I see:
#1: The Caregiver
We play into the caregiver relationship pattern when we always are trying to fix, take care of or improve the person we are with. This can happen whether the other person wants it or not. You might have someone who wants to be taken care of and fixed. Or, maybe you keep partnering or becoming friends with people who don’t want to change, but YOU want to fix them.
Friendship Example: You really want to help your friend – you want to inspire them to get the right job, find the right partner or make over their wardrobe. And you keep picking friends who you need to take care of. You may see yourself as the savior for their problems. Over time, this can become exhausting and one-sided.
Romantic Example: You pick partners you want to change. You think, “If I just could get them to ___ they would be so much better off.” Over time, this can cause resentment, especially if the other person doesn’t want to change. Or worse, they do change for you and you still want more.
Professional Example: You keep having the same boss or colleague over and over again, where they rely on you for their emotional support. They constantly want to debrief in your office, they get overly personal at work or, worse, ask you to do more than your fair share because they need you “just this one time, I swear.”
#2: The Alpha
The alpha is the opposite relationship pattern from the caregiver. This is when you want to be the one in charge. You dictate the rules and habits of the relationship and you only like being in relationships where you can be the driver or the chief decision maker.
Friendship Example: Are you always the one choosing where to eat, what to do and when to hang out? This can be good if you like being in charge and the other person wants you to take the lead on social decisions, but this also can be bad if you don’t listen to the other person’s needs. If you are the alpha in a friendship, make sure you are giving your friend a chance to drive sometimes. If you are in an alpha relationship, make sure you are honest and speak up about your individual needs.
Romantic Example: In romantic relationships, the alpha usually initiates talks and big relationship steps, such as saying “I love you” first or wanting to move in together. Sometimes, the alpha wants to control their partner’s actions and feelings. If not kept in check, the alpha can be too domineering and controlling. If you are an alpha, remember you cannot control someone else’s feelings. Nor would you want to! Keep your desire to control in check by giving your partner freedom to express themselves and be themselves.
Professional Example: Do you have an overbearing client? Or a controloholic colleague? Or a micromanaging boss? If you notice yourself constantly partnering with or working under an alpha boss, it can be difficult to state your needs. Sometimes an alpha colleague is great because they share what they want very clearly. Other times, you have to fight to be heard. If you are the alpha, be sure you give your colleagues time and space to share their opinions and give them freedom to work on their own—be careful of micromanagement. If you have an alpha colleague or boss, know the best ways to state your boundaries and needs and make these clear to them.
#3: The Parent
Do you ever feel as though you are parenting your partner? Or that you are the mom of your friend group? You might be accidentally getting into a parent–child relationship. Sometimes this can happen with eldest children who were used to taking on a bigger role growing up or individuals with a strong maternal or paternal instinct. Remember, this doesn’t have to be bad, but it can be a pattern that is important to recognize in yourself.
Friendship Example: You are always the one coordinating and making sure everyone is taken care of. This role can be wonderful for a group if your mothering is appreciated, but it can turn bad if you are chastising or punishing friends for ‘bad behavior.’ Be sure your parenting helps everyone, as opposed to making people feel judged or watched like you are a parent.
Romantic Example: Are you nagging your partner about paying the bills? Cleaning up? Not loading the dishwasher correctly? You might be taking on a parent role with them. If this works for your household, great. But be careful, because parenting a partner can be the opposite of romantic or sexy.
Professional Example: In professional settings, people sometimes can take the role model relationship too far. Maybe you give a colleague advice, support their career and give them constructive criticism—wonderful! This is a healthy parental relationship pattern. But be careful you don’t see their successes as your successes or their failures as your failures. This is when the parenting role supersedes a professional relationship.
#4: The Codependent
This relationship pattern happens when you and your partner immediately become a unit, both giving up a lot of your individuality. This can be good if you are healthy support systems for each other, but it can be bad if you begin doing everything together, stop having your own friends or activities, or are completely reliant on the other person for social, emotional and psychological support.
Friendship Example: In codependent friendships, the closeness can be both supporting and stunting. In a supportive best friendship, you are extremely close. In a stunting one, you hold each other back to maintain the completely interconnected relationship. For example, in a negative codependent friendship, there can be jealousy of new friendships or success if the other person feels they are going to get left behind.
Romantic Example: Have you ever been with a partner and felt like you had to give up your entire identity in the name of loving and pleasing them? This is a codependence that causes isolation. In negative codependent relationships, both partners may cease seeing other friends or family, abandon solo hobbies or even have trouble expressing differing interests or feelings.
Professional Example: In professional settings a colleague or boss might be completely reliant on you to maintain their equilibrium or success. Their to-do list might even be so intertwined with yours that they feel they cannot work without your feedback or input. This can be good if you have a really productive team or interconnected work tasks, but signs of a negative codependent relationship are when someone feels the need for constant check-ins or feels abandoned or unable to work without their partner.
#5: The Push-Pull
Do you have very volatile relationships? Constant up and downs? Breakups and makeups? Then you might be in the push-pull relationship pattern. Here’s how this often goes: One person feels the relationship is perfect, but the other needs some space. The space-seeker flakes, which makes the nester cling even harder, which then makes the space-seeker run for the hills. I call this push-pull. You might always be the puller—the one who needs space and pulls away. Or you might always be the pusher—the one always pushing for more time, more intimacy and faster connection. Or you might switch back and forth. If this sounds familiar, then you have the push-pull pattern. Your breakups can be rough, but are you really ever truly broken up?
Friendship Example: Do you have a clingy or needy friend? Or are you the one who gets upset if your text isn’t answered within the first minute? With friends, the push-pull can be times of intensity–seeing each other frequently followed by times where each person gets space or a break. It can be hard to rely on these friendships, because they are so up and down.
Romantic Example: The push-pull relationship pattern happens the most often in romantic relationships. Someone wants to get super serious really fast, and the other person wants to take it slow. This can cause painful feelings of rejection and unsureness, but when you are on the same page, it can feel magical.
Professional Example: You are less likely to see a negative push-pull in the professional environment, because the nature of work is it often ebbs and flows. Some weeks, you are working with a colleague intensely, other weeks you go days working on your own thing. The key here is to be settled with that kind of flow. If you are the one who likes to push—or work closely all the time, you have to be ready for down times or periods where people need to work independently. If you are the puller—you like working on your own all the time, you need to make time and space to work with others, even if it isn’t your favorite activity.
Bonus: Secure / Anxious / Avoidant / Fearful
If none of the five patterns above sound quite like you, I have a bonus for you! Four relationship patterns are dictated by something called Attachment Theory. I explain these four types in the video above…watch to see if those fit you better.
Bottom Line: Remember that none of these patterns are good or bad, but it is important to know the strengths and pitfalls of each and to be honest with the people in your life about your patterns. Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have the same relationship pattern in all areas of my life?
- Does my relationship pattern change in work vs. social vs. romantic settings?
- What triggers cause my pattern to go negative or unhealthy?
- How does my relationship pattern change how I engage in conflict?
- Should I fight the pattern or leverage it?
In this way, you can make your relationship pattern work for you.
To your success,
PS- Want to get to know your partner better? Ask these 36 questions developed to take your relationship to the next level.
About Vanessa Van Edwards
Lead Investigator, Science of People
I’ve always wanted to know how people work, and that’s what Science of People is about. What drives our behavior? Why do people act the way they do? And most importantly, can you predict and change behavior to be more successful? I think the answer is yes. More about Vanessa.
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