Breaking the Cycle of Unhealthy Relationships – Part 1

Breaking the Cycle of Unhealthy RelationshipsThe previous article in this series listed the negative effects that can result in children raised by one or more unhealthy parents. These children are in danger of continuing this cycle of unhealthy relationships. They, and their children, often grow up as adults who feel “broken” – that they have something wrong or missing in them, and they do not know why. They think it must just be “ME”. On the contrary, their difficulties in coping and personality result from growing up with their unhealthy family dynamics. It is how they survived.

The next two articles in this series cover the positive changes that can happen with practice over time for each negative effect.

Much of this information was taken from Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Janet Geringer Woilitz, Ed.D. (See “For Further Reading” below.) “Adult Children of Alcoholics” or ACA will also refer to a multitude of other unhealthy parenting dynamics and home situations for the sake of brevity and clarity. One example of an unhealthy dynamic is living with a parent with emotional problems such as serious depression, anxiety or narcissism.

Breaking the Cycle of Unhealthy Relationships – Part One

1. Guessing at normalcy: Realize there is no such thing as normal. Discover a pattern that is comfortable for you and for those close to you. Read books on parenting, communication, and conflict resolution to learn how to function in a healthy manner as a family. Realize that your family members also were likely invalidated, and may appreciate hearing of their value to you. Find at least one trusted person in whom you can confide who will help you validate what you feel and discover about yourself and family. When a situation makes you uncomfortable, identify it, discuss it and make the decision what to do about it.

2. Difficulty completing projects from beginning to end: Determine if you are a true procrastinator or are simply lacking the knowledge of how to complete a task. This involves organizing, prioritizing and breaking things down into smaller parts, while considering the time frame to accomplish the task.

3. Lying rather than telling the truth: First, become aware of doing this, and when it occurs. Promise yourself that you will not lie for one whole day. If you break your promise, think about if the situation felt difficult or not, and what you were thinking about just before you lied. Do this day by day for a few days. If you find you are still lying, make a commitment to own up to each lie and make it right with the person to whom you lied. If you are unable to change this behavior, you may need to deal with this at a deeper level and may want to seek the assistance of a psychotherapist.

4. Judging yourself too harshly: Look at what you may gain by judging yourself harshly. Sometimes we fear being judged, so we judge ourselves to feel more in control. Life does not have to be perceived in various degrees of unhappiness. Sometimes we are afraid to get our hopes up or to be too happy for fear of being let down or disappointed. This avoidance of being disappointed may be a payoff for a fear of taking risks or feeling out of control if your life changes from misery to happier times. Realize that a particular trait may be considered to be negative by one person and positive by another. Explore what traits are useful for you and which ones get in your way. Learn to accept compliments graciously and be aware of and accept what you do well.

5. Difficulty having fun: Learn how to have fun by watching a child. Realize that not every moment needs to be productive. Discover what you wish you could have done as a child and do it now. The more confident you are, the less you will worry about looking silly or stupid.

6. Taking yourself too seriously: You need to separate your Self from what you do, such as your job responsibilities. Take your work seriously because it is important. But don’t take yourself too seriously. Try to set boundaries around time spent on the job and other responsibilities. Fit in some enjoyment for you, without it necessarily being productive time. You are not your work. It is what you do. Lead a balanced life.

7. Difficulty with Intimate Relationships: Children of alcoholics and adults of unhealthy childhoods do not know how to have a healthy, intimate relationship, nor can they recognize one. When entering a relationship, you must offer that person what you would want them to offer you. The degree of intimacy and its components will differ according to the type of relationship you have (ie: family, lover, friend, business partner, etc.)

Components of Intimate Relationships:

VULNERABILITY: To what degree do I let down my barriers? To what degree do I allow the other person to affect my feelings?

UNDERSTANDING: Do I understand the other person? Do I understand what he/she means by what he/she says or does?

EMPATHY: To what degree do I allow myself to feel what he/she feels?

COMPASSION: Do I have a genuine concern for the issues that cause the other person concern?

RESPECT: Do I treat the other person as if he or she has value to me?

TRUST: To what degree and on what levels do I let the other person gain access to the things about me that I don’t want everybody to know?

ACCEPTANCE: Do I accept myself? Does my partner accept me?

HONESTY: Is this relationship built on truth, or do we play games?

COMMUNICATION: Can we talk freely about important issues in the relationship? Do we know how to do it to make ourselves understood and to deepen the relationship because of the sharing?

COMPATIBILITY: To what degree do we like and dislike the same things? To what degree does it matter if we differ in certain attitudes and beliefs?

PERSONAL INTEGRITY: To what degree can I maintain integrity in myself as well as what I offer to the other person?

CONSIDERATION: Am I mindful of the other person’s needs as well as my own?

Important: Do you have a realistic view of the person and do they see you realistically? Children of Alcoholics, etc. have a fear of being abandoned, and therefore feel very threatened when conflict arises. It is vital to talk to your partner about how you feel when you have a conflict (ie: panic, fear), so that the partner understands your extreme difficulty in raising the issue and what you fear will happen if you do so. Healthy relationships discuss these reactions. Sometimes the issue really lies with you, rather than on the issue in the relationship. For example, if you are uncomfortable being touched, it may stem from a past experience in your childhood that remains unresolved. It may be surfacing in the relationship you have now, but that does not mean you have an unhealthy relationship and that this issue cannot be resolved.

The bottom line: Find out who you are and what works well for you, and feel good about yourself. Be willing to ACT upon it.

Next Time: Breaking the Cycle of Unhealthy Relationships – Part 2

Suggested Reading:

Adult Children of Alcoholics, by Janet G. Woilitz, Ed.D.

Much of the information in this article came from this source.

About Susan Saint-Welch

Susan Saint-Welch LMFT has counseled couples and individuals for many years on issues such as dating, marriage, family drama, coping with difficult times, improving self-image and living the life you love. She provides psychotherapy for clients in California and Dating, Couples and Life Coaching for clients outside California through secure video conferencing. She has published numerous articles regarding these issues on her website, on and on

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