5 Steps to Change the Pattern

By Richard J. Loebl, LCSW, BCD

Selfish, hostile, or emotionally unstable people wreak havoc in relationships – and they often attract other people who have unhealthy personality traits. However, as a relationship expert with over 30 years’ experience, I can say that people with negative personality traits can and do have successful relationships. After all, none of us is perfect – almost everyone has some undesirable personality traits.

Negative personality traits don’t “cause” relationship distress in most cases – it’s more about how we fit with a certain person and our partner’s personality traits. And it’s about how we interact and respond to each-other’s personality traits or quirks.

Unhealthy Personality Traits in Relationships

This is a list of the most detrimental personality traits – those that tend to cause problems in relationships. These are not necessarily “personality disorders,” which tend to be more rigid and pervasive.

  • Narcissistic – More than just selfishness, a narcissist is the center of his (or her) own world. Narcissists have a superiority complex, with a sense of arrogance and entitlement. Their need for admiration – to be seen as special – becomes a central focus in their relationships. They tend to be controlling and demanding. Since they come first, they are often insensitive to others’ needs or feelings. They generally don’t feel guilty about their actions, and have little remorse when others are injured by their behavior.
  • Irritable and contentious – This cluster of personality traits includes excessive anger, aggressiveness and hostility, blame and argumentativeness. These individuals tend to be judgmental and critical, and they may appear to be sullen and “moody”. Their partners often feel they have to walk on egg shells. A destructive relationship dance may develop when their partners become defensive or shut down, erecting a protective wall.
  • Passive-aggressive – This is a type of indirect anger or hostility. Passive-aggressive people are basically avoiding conflict while inflicting damage. They pout, they give their partners the silent treatment, they withhold love, connection and affection, and they make false promises. They tend to be stubborn, uncooperative, and they procrastinate. It’s a zero-sum game – nobody wins.
  • Disconnected and emotionally detached – These individuals practice emotional and physical distance in relationships. They seem emotionally vacant – or their emotional states seem shallow or superficial. They’re distant, withdrawn, defensive and over-protective. Or they may seem indifferent and uncaring. These traits are highly destructive in relationships. How can you have a relationship with someone who isn’t there?
  • Dependent and insecure – All of us feel insecure at times, and some dependency is normal in relationships. However, people who have excessive abandonment fears tend to be very anxious and feel unsafe in relationships. They may feel empty inside, or unworthy of love. They lack self-confidence, they may be indecisive, and they’re often inhibited. Shame – not good enough – is a core belief system. Their partners may feel pressured, responsible, and suffocated – and they grow weary with these burdens.
  • Dramatic – These individuals are emotionally volatile or unstable. They are unable or unwilling to regulate or manage their moods. They are often highly emotionally reactive, “making mountains out of molehills”. Their relationships become unpredictable emotional roller-coasters.
  • Victim mentality – Some people tend to get stuck in the role of the victim (often acquired from traumatic childhood experience). In this role, victims feel one-down, defeated, aggrieved, and disempowered. They often feel depressed, helpless and hopeless. But they don’t see themselves as responsible. In fact, many victims feel a sense of righteousness – like martyrs who don’t deserve their fate, and they often blame others for their circumstances. Their partners react negatively to the blame – or to the chronic unhappiness – and a destructive dance ensues.
  • Boundaryless – Similar to co-dependence, these individuals are generally dependent, insecure, and intrusive – or they’re controlling and demanding. Since they feel unsafe and unworthy, they compensate with manipulative behavior (often unconscious). These are the rescuers, the enablers, and the controllers. They don’t feel they can get their needs met any other way.
  • Irresponsible – These emotionally immature individuals may seem to be carefree, but they are often unreliable and unaccountable. They don’t show up or they show up late. They allow others to carry the weight of responsibility. And they may be impulsive and unpredictable (emotionally reactive; risk-taking behavior; erratic behavior). In relationships they don’t make or uphold commitments, they’re not responsive to other’s needs, and they’re not reliable team members or partners.
  • Addictive – Obsessive tendencies and compulsive behavior, which may include alcohol or drug dependence, sex and love addiction, electronic media, shopping, gambling, and other uncontrolled, unhealthy behavior patterns. The chemicals, substances and behavior often take precedence over the relationship. The relationship with the addiction comes first.

5 Steps to Change the Pattern

If you believe you always choose the wrong person, or you seem to attract unhealthy relationships, here are 5 steps to change the pattern:

  1. Awareness – We can’t change what we don’t see. A “searching and fearless” inventory (such as the 4th step of AA) is called for. I suggest a written review of all past relationships. Identify your partners’ personality and behavior traits (and your own!), both positive and negative. Look for the patterns.
  2. Acceptance – Practice non-judgmental acceptance. As Nietzsche said, we’re “human, only human”. Use positive affirmations and recognize that while you may have made bad choices, you’re not a bad person. Use #3 below to help with this process.
  3. Understanding – Most of our choices are made unconsciously – including the person we choose to be in relationship with. In our work with hundreds of couples we frequently see patterns that help to explain these choices. A close examination and understanding of your family of origin can be quite revealing. Specifically, what did you learn about relationships from your parents? How did they deal with the normal frustrations and conflicts of married life? Professional help from a counselor or therapist may be the key to unlock these questions.
  4. Evaluation – How do you determine who is really the “right” person for you? If you’re already coupled or married, how do you know if you made the right choice? Actually, in most cases, these are misleading questions. There really is no such thing as the “right” person. Certainly, we need to rule out the obvious deal breakers (e.g., you want children but he does not; specific religious requirements; active addiction issues; etc.). And of course you want to avoid some of the more serious unhealthy personality traits listed above. We know from years of research that the way we conduct ourselves in a relationship is far more important than any specific quality or qualities of our partner. So that leads to the most important step of all:
  5. Practice Skills – Our experience, and years of clinical research show that relationship problems are mostly caused by negative, emotionally reactive patterns that develop over time – not the specific personality traits of our partners. We can learn healthy relationship skills, often with the assistance of couples therapy. These skills include mindfulness, compassion and empathy, and reversing reactive behavior (responding with friendship, love, understanding, and open vulnerability). Other skills include negotiation, compromise, and boundaries.

Relationships can be quite challenging, especially when unhealthy personality traits collide with normal tensions and conflicts. The good news is that we can learn to choose wisely and practice effective relationship skills. For additional information, please contact us today.

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