How to Break the Cycle of Painful, Dramatic Relationships


“No matter how far we come, our parents are always in us.” ~Brad Meltzer

Had you asked me five years ago, before my healing and personal growth journey began, if my upbringing and childhood wounds were shaping the choices I was making in relationships, I would have scoffed at you and said, “No way. Are you kidding?”

Somehow, I had normalized the dysfunction I grew up in: the absentee father, the mother with mental illness, the lack of stability and safety, the enmeshment and codependency, the attachment wounds that left me spending a lifetime searching for someone or something to fill the void.

Somehow, I had overlooked the fact that I had chosen a partner who reflected back to me what had been familiar in my past: the power struggles, the imbalances, the passiveness and emotional disconnection, the unhealthy conflict resolution, the gaslighting and volatility.

This is not to say that my former partner was all bad, because he wasn’t. No one is. It’s just that together, we became toxic and dysfunctional, unintentionally recreating the patterns we had both witnessed growing up.

We were so entangled in our patterns and unconscious behaviors that we didn’t see how it was all playing out. I wrote off our unhealthy relationship dynamics as “normal,” something all marriages experience, because I had not yet spent any time diving into my childhood wounds to know any better. I lacked the awareness of what a healthy partnership looked like, because I had never known a healthy relationship—not with my mom, not with my dad, nor in observation of anyone in my extended family.

Dysfunction in my family (and my former partner’s family), appeared to be the norm. Therefore, I convinced myself that what I was experiencing was normal. Little did I know that I would eventually be the one to break the mold, to become the reasonable and sane one in a sea of insanity.

This is how I woke up:

1. The level of dissatisfaction and dysfunction in my marriage reached a breaking point that inadvertently led me to fall for another man.

2. This started me down a long road of healing, introspection, psychological work, and therapy.

3. Therapy taught me that my spouse was reflecting back to me the characteristics of both my mother and my father.

4. My relationship patterns were brought to my conscious awareness.

5. The knowledge of where my patterns and behaviors originated allowed me to make the changes needed to heal.

I remember the precise moment the light bulb turned on. It was like the heavens parted and a bolt of lightning came crashing down from the sky, illuminating what had previously been hidden in the dark. I was walking out of my therapist’s office one afternoon when I stopped abruptly in the middle of the parking lot and said aloud to myself, “Oh my God, April! You have married your mother and fallen in love with your father. How in the hell did this happen?”

During that session, she had pointed out, or rather helped me see, how my partner’s anger issues and harsh disciplinary measures resembled those I had seen in my mother, while his passivity and lack of accountability resembled traits of my father.

Unbeknownst to me, I had entered that relationship with a sort of subconscious recognition of both of my parents, even though some of these traits didn’t present themselves until later in our relationship. This realization in itself was enough to get me to wake up to the reality I had been living in and decide it was time to end the marriage.

The knowing is what helped me break the cycle. The knowing is what liberated me.

Through the painful and bitter process of uncoupling, I was finally able to free myself from the unhealthy and dysfunctional patterns that relationship was mirroring from my childhood. In a strange way, I was grateful for the unhappiness and dysfunction that partnership had created, because it provided me with the stark contrast I needed to experience in order to know what a healthy relationship is NOT.

Looking back, I couldn’t have seen it coming any sooner. I couldn’t have known what I didn’t know, even though I beat myself up for months after the divorce thinking it was all my fault. Even though my former partner tried to do the same… blaming, shaming, and avoiding any responsibility for his part in the toxicity and dysfunction. Skirting the fact that he was the other factor in the equation.

Then, I realized, “You know what? No. It takes two to tango.” Both parties need to clean up their side of the street, unpack their childhoods, and take accountability for their own wounding. Relationships are never a one-way street.

For anyone who has suffered through these types of unhealthy romantic relationships (the ones full of pain, drama, and conflict), please allow what I have learned to save you a little time and a little heartbreak. I’ll cut right to the chase.

1. We are all longing.

Deep down, we all have the desire to be loved intensely and wholeheartedly. We desire someone to help us feel seen and adored and to wrap us up in a soft, comfy blanket of protection. We long for the parents we never had, for the love we wished we had received, and for the chance to be loved just once in the most breathtaking, unimaginable way. Sometimes, we are lucky enough to experience this. And other times, we think we have found it, only later to realize that it was just a memento of the past coming to pay us a visit.

2. We unconsciously choose partners who remind us of our parents, usually the opposite-sex parent.

This does not have to be tied to gender, but rather whoever embodies the masculine/feminine energy in the relationship.

As much as we’d like to say that things with our partner “just didn’t work out” or that the problem was all on them, we must learn to admit to ourselves how our upbringing impacts our romantic lives. More often than not, the partners we choose have some obvious, and some not-so-obvious, things in common with our parent of the opposite sex.

For example, if your dad was a workaholic and was rarely present for you as a child, you may tend to (unknowingly) seek male partners who are also career-driven and perhaps distant or detached. If you are a male, and you grew up with a mother who was meek and submissive and rarely stood up for herself, you may find yourself with female partners who are the same.

3. We unconsciously seek partners who we think will give us what our parents could not.

On another level, it can be that we are subconsciously trying to recreate scenarios from our childhood that didn’t meet our needs. We are attracted to people who show us what it could feel like to have the parent we wished we’d had.

For example, we may seek a partner who is kind and nurturing, because we didn’t receive nurturing as a child. Or we might be enamored by a partner who makes us feel safe and protected, because we didn’t feel safe and protected as a child.

If you go back to your childhood and think about what you were lacking, and then look closely at your last few relationships, or even situationships, you may come to discover that the person you were dating possessed certain qualities that filled a gap inside. What attracted you to them is that they filled a hole in your heart that was left by one of your parents.

Keep in mind these dynamics usually play out on a subconscious level. You are often not consciously aware of your choices, because you have not yet done the work to reveal what it is that is driving your behavior and causing you to make these relationship choices.

This is why it is so crucial to get to know yourself and to dive deep into your past, your wounding, and your patterns and behaviors. Until the underlying nuances are brought into your awareness, you will continue to repeat the same patterns, choosing similar kinds of partners who show up wearing different suits.

If we truly want to free ourselves from the relationship patterns that we inherited from our caregivers, we must begin by focusing our attention inward. Rather than seeking love outside of ourselves, or looking to another to repair our wounds or mend our broken hearts, we must give ourselves the love we seek. This means healing our childhood wounds and traumas, re-parenting ourselves and our inner child, and cultivating a deeply compassionate self-concept.

Some of the reparenting methods that helped me the most include:

  • Inner child healing and reprogramming exercises
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Brainspotting
  • Journaling
  • Visualization

Be patient with yourself during this process of healing, uncovering, and repairing. It can be difficult to come to new realizations about your past and some of the ways that you didn’t get what you needed as a child. It can stir up feelings of sadness, anger, or grief, so you must hold yourself gently and do the inner work as you feel ready and as you have the necessary support to guide you through it.

Realizing that we made poor choices in relationships can cause enough shame. We need not strengthen the blow by beating up on ourselves further for something that we were not aware of at the time. However, being in a healthy relationship means that we are willing to own our side of the street, take accountability for our choices, and make the necessary changes to show up better the next time. As the saying goes, “Once you know better, do better.”

Our parents did the best they could with the tools and awareness they had at the time, as did we. But now, it is time to pave a new path. You get to be the one to rewrite the script. You get to be the person in your family who, despite being surrounded with dysfunction and unhealthy relationship models, breaks the cycle for good. You get to prove to yourself, and to your future children someday, that just as dysfunction can be passed down through your lineage, so can healing.

You… yes, you.

Whoever gets to hold your heart will be infinitely blessed because of your courage. Love you. ♥

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