If it's a Pattern, it's a Problem

One day in graduate school I heard the professor say the phrase, “If it’s a pattern, it’s a problem.” He or she (I can’t remember who the professor was or even what subject it was) had probably said that before. However, that day it lodged in my thinking and I’ve never been able to shake it loose. Mostly, it made me look at stuff in my life to see if I could identify what problematic concerns there were. I was so pleased to find that there were none. I did find, however, that my wife had a pattern of complaining about the same things in me over and over again. If only she’d been in that class and gotten the help she so desperately needed. Actually, I have an abundance of patterns that are anywhere from slightly irritating to incredibly dysfunctional and what’s even worse is the fact that I am blind to most of them. That’s right. Most problematic patterns tend to be in our blind spots, at least initially. Enough about me, let’s talk about others and their problems.

I had a couple in counseling years ago (in another state) whose name I cannot remember (but it doesn’t matter because this couple was so much like the rest of us that you will think you either know them or you are them but you don’t and you aren’t). This couple struggled a lot with conflict resolution (that’s code for “they hollered a lot at each other”). Here’s what they would do. They’d get in an argument over some difference of opinion usually parenting, money mismanagement, or feeling hurt by each other’s less than loving behavior. Their arguing would begin to escalate. They would each get a little louder, someone would point. One of them would mock or use sarcasm. Both would interrupt (a lot) as they would get louder. One would begin to use a little profanity and eventually both of them sure as hell would. This would definitely cause the volume to go up another notch, until finally the husband would be reminded that this feels just like his home as a kid. He would remember that he promised himself that “I will never have a marriage like my parents!” When that happened, he would turn his back to his wife and head for the study. He wanted away from all the things he was feeling deep in his soul and figured the best place to be away from those feelings was to be away from what he thought was causing those feelings (and that would be his wife). As soon as he turned his back to her, she would feel huge rejection, hurt, and even abandonment. The hurt she felt totally justified in her mind raising the volume more and she did. This would cause him to feel totally justified in increasing his speed for the study. As he walked faster away from her, she informed him that he was the most cowardly, passive man she had ever met. She would go on to state loudly that he never faced his problems and could not be trusted to protect her and the kids.

The fight would end when he slammed the door of the study in her face. That was their pattern and it was a problem.

Most of us want to change unhealthy patterns into healthy ones. Usually we need someone (either in person, in a book, or in a message) to tell us that a change is in order and it needs to occur sooner than later. Here’s what a change might look like for this couple. The first thing that needs to happen is to interrupt the pattern. An interruption is fairly simple. It can be a thought that goes something like this, “Hey, we’re doing that thing again where I get anxious, she gets loud, and I head down the hall. Not good. Doesn’t help.” Her thought might be, “Hey we’re doing that thing again where I get loud and he gets weak. Not good. Doesn’t help.” An interruption is recognizing in the middle of a pattern that you’re in the middle of a pattern. It’s not hindsight. It is knowing it as its happening and the result is you feel differently about it even as it’s going down. You may have two or three or more interruptions before you actually go to step two which is a disruption.

Disrupting the pattern is doing something which causes it to go differently than it normally does. A minor difference is acceptable here. Any difference at all is acceptable here. Here’s what he might do as he recognizes he’s headed for the study: stop and turn around to face his wife and say, “Here we are again”. Holds up his hands in the time out sign like a referee. “I’m sorry I turned my back to you. Give me fifteen minutes of alone time in my study and I’ll meet you at the kitchen table and we’ll talk about this.” Or, “I’ve got to go to work now but tonight at eight thirty we’ll meet at the kitchen table and talk about this.” Her disruption might sound like this, “I’m sorry I raised my voice. Will you meet me in fifteen minutes at the kitchen table to talk about this?”

Anger mismanagement is a common hurtful pattern in all our lives. Anger is not the problem. Our expression of it often is the problem. Newton Hightower is a Houston therapist that offers this list of disruptions that any of us can use if needed. Do any of these behaviors need disrupting in your life?

Newton would say as you feel anger beginning to escalate stop doing any of these behaviors that you normally do: stop speaking, stop staying, stop interrupting, stop cussing, stop name-calling, stop pointing, stop threatening, stop raising your voice, stop using sarcasm, stop mocking, stop throwing things, stop slamming doors, stop all non-affectionate touching, stop talking in a mean tone, stop sighing, stop rolling your eyes, and stop staring.

You see, disrupting a pattern can be as simple as stop doing one thing that is a part of your normal contribution to the pattern. If you disrupt a pattern that occurs every day, you’ll see it diminish to every other day. If it’s happening every week, you’ll see it slow to every other week, month, etc…After you’ve been successful at a few (three or four) disruptions you will begin to see that the pattern is arrested. I would say a pattern is arrested if you’ve gone ninety days since the last episode of the pattern. Ninety days is a good marker. Six months is a better marker. Two years is a great marker. If you have gone two years without the pattern raising its ugly head again, you may very well have eradicated the pattern.

The hope most of us have is to eradicate hurtful patterns in our and our loved ones lives. I want to encourage you to start with simply interrupting it. Being successful at that will enable you to disrupt it which will start a pattern of arresting it and eventuallyeradicating it. When you eradicate a pattern and start planning to throw yourself a parade, ask someone around you if there might be anything else you might work on first. We all have a lot of work to do. None of us are finished products. I hope this is helpful.

God bless and have a great day. I welcome your comments. Matt.

#anger #relationships

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