Three simple rules for understanding relationship patterns

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relationship patterns - Mark Ettensohn, Psy.D. Sacramento Therapist

As a therapist, much of my work involves helping people to recognize, understand, and change patterns that are keeping them stuck. These patterns tend to fall into two broad categories: problematic ways of relating to other people, and problematic ways of relating to oneself (Blatt and Levy, 2003).

Relationships can be very complicated. However, like most complicated things they boil down to simple principles. Basically, we were taught how to be in relationships when we were young. That’s one of the main things that childhood is all about – learning. We learn how to behave around other people, where we fit in, and how to get our needs met (in a previous post, I compared this learning process to a game with rules that we figure out as we grow and develop). When we become adults, we naturally enact these lessons. Most of them are unconscious because our brains and identities developed around them. Like the foundation and frame of a house, they exist behind the walls and under the floor. We can’t see them at first glance, but they give shape and support. Some of us were lucky and learned how to be in mutually interdependent and satisfying relationships with other people. Some of us learned to value ourselves because we felt valued and loved by our parents and caregivers. Unfortunately, some of us weren’t so lucky.

If we take a look at complicated things like partner choice (who we are attracted to) and self-talk (how we treat ourselves), we find that there are three simple tendencies (Benjamin, 1996):

1) Identification – we become like a significant caregiver (parent, teacher, older sibling, etc.) and find someone who we can treat in a manner similar to the way that we were treated by this person

2) Recapitulation – we become attracted to someone who reminds us of a significant caregiver
and who will treat us in a manner similar to the way we were treated by this person

3) Introjection – we treat ourselves in a manner similar to the way we were treated by a significant caregiver

Most of the problematic relationship patterns reported by the people I treat fall into one or more of these categories. Sometimes, it can be very complicated because the categories intersect with one another. For example, a person might be using identification in some areas of his/her life while using recapitulation or introjection in others.

I once worked with a person whose mother was very harsh and demanding. As an adult, this person placed constant pressure on herself to be “good” and never make mistakes. She was using introjection – treating herself the way that she had been treated. In her marriage, she was very perfectionistic and could not tolerate her husband or children making normal messes around the house. This was causing problems in her family because she would become very angry. Here, she was using identification. She was acting just like her mother had when she was young. At work, she would avoid any behavior that might lead to her making a mistake. Consequently, she missed opportunities to excel and stand out. She felt stuck. Here, she was using recapitulation. She expected that her boss would treat her just like her mother had treated her. As a result, she would keep issues and concerns to herself, afraid of "getting in trouble" for them. Her boss would only find out about them after they became huge problems and would react with anger or disapproval.The person’s expectation became a self-fulfilling prophecy: she unconsciously created familiar situations at work in which she was harshly reprimanded by an authority figure. The reprimands would only reinforce her belief that she needed to keep problems to herself – thus perpetuating the problematic cycle.

If you have been feeling “stuck,” either in terms of how you feel about yourself or in terms of how you feel in your significant relationships, it is likely that you are caught in one or more of these three tendencies: identification, recapitulation, or introjection. Talking to a therapist can help you begin to identify the unconscious relationship lessons you may be enacting in your adult life. As with all things, knowledge is power. It is only when we understand these patterns in our lives that we can begin to make conscious choices to change them.


Benjamin, L.S. (1996). A clinician-friendly version of the Interpersonal Circumplex: Structural analysis of social behavior (SASB). Journal of Personality Assessment, 66(2), 248-266.

Blatt, S. J., & Levy, K. N. (2003). Attachment theory, psychoanalysis, personality development, and psychopathology. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 23, 104-152.


I think ‘destiny’ is just a fancy word for a psychological pattern.”

– Jodie Foster

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