Four Ways to Break Harmful Patterns in a Relationship

March 14, 2019
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By Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D.

Dan Tomasulo, Ph.D.

When something isn’t right in a relationship it is usually because a pattern of behavior has become irritating. But your partner’s pattern is only half of it. Typically, you’ve developed a response that’s been just as unsatisfying. Experts encourage various ways to change these destructive arrangements. Here are four of the top ones:

1. Let your partner know what’s wrong. Bothersome behaviors often start off small, get ignored, and grow into highly irritating issues between couples. Once you are aware your partner has done something upsetting to you don’t hold it in. If the moment isn’t right to bring it up – like when other people are around – don’t wait too long to have a private conversation. You want your concerns to be expressed as near to the time they happened as possible.

2. Use “I” statements. Instead of: “You drive me crazy when you chew with your mouth open.” It is better to say: “I get upset when you chew with your mouth open.” It seems like a small difference. But the first sentence is an attack on the person’s behavior and can start a war. When you use “I” statements you are talking about some- thing you’re the world’s expert in – you. They can argue, apologize, or disagree, but they can’t change what you know to be real. “I” statements are your truth. Even if they try to disagree you can honestly say that it doesn’t change what you feel. You’re the expert on your feelings.

3. Take responsibility for your part. If you’ve kept silent for too long on something bothering you, your partner may not know how irritating they’ve been. When you become aware that you’ve been in a destructive pattern of reaction, take responsibility. “I should have spoken up about this earlier,” lets you share accountability for the problem – and correction.

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4. Compliment your partner. One of the biggest problems in working with couples is getting them to shift from criticism to compliments. Seeing what’s wrong in each other can often eclipse the good things. Make a habit of catching your partner doing something you appreciate. Say it out loud. The secret to a good relationship is having more compliments than criticisms. Saying thank you goes a very long way in making a healthy relationship.

Dan Tomasulo holds a Ph.D. in psychology, an MFA in writing and a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. He teaches positive psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. For more information, visit his website

This article was first published in the March 7-March 13, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.

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