It’s hard to stop smoking with a lit cigarette in your hand.
What is it about bad habits that makes so many of them so hard to break? What is it about unhealthy relationship patterns that keep us stuck in a rut? It seems that our brains are programmed more for “maintaining the status quo” than they are for “learning from past mistakes.”
Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, LPC, LMHC, NCC, is professor and chair of the Counseling, Adult and Higher Education department at Northern Illinois University. She is a licensed counselor whose focus includes working with individuals and families facing transitions. Her academic research explores development over the lifespan with a strong focus on women’s relationships and women’s developmental transitions.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
When we are infants, attachment theory suggests that we are already learning what to expect from others in relationships. In summary, if our caregivers provided security and responsiveness to our needs, we grow up ready to trust that others with whom we interact will do the same. However, less than adequate caregiving may lead us to assume that our needs are not worthy of being met or that others cannot be trusted to be there for us. Or if we have a caregiver who provides security one day, but inattention the next, we may grow up to seek chaos and unpredictability in our relationships—even creating trouble where none exists. And children quickly “learn what they live.”
Thus, as in the case of addictions, our brains crave the familiar and the security that it provides. Studies of the brain show that addictions to processes (gambling, sex, and even unhealthy relationship dynamics) affect our brains the same as addictions to alcohol or drugs. We go from enjoying the pleasure associated with the activity to learning to associate the activity with pleasure to craving the activity and being motivated to seek it out with fervor. So if chaos is what our brain knows, it will be what it seeks out. If the “make-up sex” gives someone a high, then the fight that precedes it becomes part of the cycle of feeding the addiction.
If you notice that you are constantly choosing the “wrong person,” perhaps it is time to figure out why your brain seems to tell you he or she is “right.” Just as in substance abuse, until a person recognizes that they have got a problem, there is nothing that they can do to help themselves.
Learning from past mistakes is ironically what your brain has done if you find yourself consistently repeating the same bad choices and it seems too easy or comfortable to change. If you recognize that you are inviting problematic relationships into your life and are ready to stop, here are 5 steps for re-wiring your brain:
- Acknowledge the cycle of relationship addiction. Get honest with yourself and really explore what it is about the bad choices you are making that feels good.
- If currently in one of those negative outcome relationships, end it. It’s pretty much impossible to stop smoking if you’re holding a lit cigarette in your hand.
- Recognize that relationships are meant to be “give and take” with compromise and mutual gratification; a relationship is not a partnership if one member wins every time.
- Remind yourself that your needs are as valid as anyone else’s needs might be. Write down what you feel are your “healthy needs” in a relationship—to be respected, to be heard, to be cherished, to offer and receive fidelity, etc.
- Replace the negative relationship with healthy positive experiences. Re-wiring the brain is not a quick task—the grooves that have been worn into the brain’s circuits can be difficult to erase or avoid. It takes effort and commitment, just like beating any addiction requires.
Create your own “28-day program” that includes avoiding time with or thoughts of the addictive process/substance/person. Find new, healthy ways to light up the brain’s pleasure pathways. Ignore the desire to give into the craving for the familiar and challenge yourself to do one thing each day that brings healthy happiness to your life. Build new friendships, explore your passion for art, blog or journal, volunteer!
Learning from past mistakes is not always easy—we crave the familiar as it feels “safe.” However, when your perception of “safety” equates to hazardous relational addiction, it is past time to risk the discomfort involved in replacing negative behavioral patterns with those that promote, not compromise, your physical, emotional, and mental well-being.