Addressing stuck patterns when stuck in together

Addressing stuck patterns when stuck in together

This blog post outlines ways in which we might address our relationship patterns if we’re stuck in with others during Covid-19. There’s a post discussing the reasons why we might want to do so here, and one about what we can do if we’re stuck in alone – and what the practice of shifting our patterns looks like – here.

Perhaps addressing our stuck relationship patterns becomes a matter of greater urgency for those stuck together than those stuck alone. Being up alongside partners, family, or housemates day after day can be a hell or a heaven depending on whether we’re playing out our patterns on each other, or managing to do something different. 

I’m reminded of Sartre’s No Exithell is other people’ or the Jewish parable of the long spoons, where hell is a place with a magnificent feast but everyone has spoons so long that they are unable to feed themselves and they starve. Heaven is exactly the same, but people are using the spoons to feed each other. I guess The Good Place would be ideal Netflix viewing for folk stuck in together for the duration.

Probably, inevitably, time stuck in together will sometimes be heaven, sometimes hell, and oftentimes something in between. Pema Chödrön talks about the six Buddhist heaven and hell realms as places we’re always moving between in our everyday life. In relation to our stuck patterns we could perhaps see the worst hell realm as when we’re utterly locked into our patterns with each other, retraumatising each other constantly. The hungry ghost realm is about addiction and craving. Perhaps it’s where we’re not in permanent hell, but are still filled with unfulfilled yearning and longing for the other person to save us from our pain. The animal realm is where we don’t realise that the things that bring us short term pleasure often cause us long term pain – like a moth to a flame. So perhaps in this realm we’re still employing old patterns to try to get what we want – from ourselves and others – and struggling when it means relationships flounder long term even if we do get some immediate pleasure or control.

The human realm is where we muddle along with glimpses of connection and harmony with others, and times of disconnection and pain. In the realm of the jealous gods we perhaps manage to see how our patterns hurt us all long term and manage do something different, but there’s still that sense of separation of self from other. The heaven realm could be those sacred moments when we feel our connection and oneness and the sense that what helps us helps others and vice versa. Our patterns have dropped away – at least briefly – and we know what it’s like to relate together without those patterns tugging us down into fear and shame.

As with addressing our stuck patterns when stuck in alone, two vital elements of addressing our patterns when stuck together are time alone and support from others.

The need for space

It is virtually impossible to address our stuck patterns in relationships if we have no space and solitude. We need enough slowness and spaciousness around time together to notice our patterns playing out, and to practise doing something different.

One dangerous idea about relationships is that it is better to spend all – or most – of our time together. This is likely to play out in risky ways at this time as people may be spending all their days and nights together for extended periods of time. It’s easy for us to feel shame around taking our own time and space due to a cultural assumption that we ‘should’ be together, and that being apart is a failure or a ‘bad sign’ about the relationship. This can be especially hard in relationships where one or both people’s patterns involve trying to maximise together time in order to avoid the fear and shame they have around abandonment.

It would be great to reverse this idea and to assume that everyone needs space and time alone in relationships and that it’s okay for people to have different needs and boundaries around this. It could be good, early on, for each person in a shared space under social isolation or distancing to tune into their needs and to communicate them to others. What might be possible in terms of giving people time alone where they know they’ll be uninterrupted? If it’s not possible for everyone to have their own private room, then can shared spaces be allocated on a rota, or private spaces made within shared rooms by blocking off parts of them?

Alone time becomes even more vital when one or more people are activated, triggered, or in a trauma response, as is often the case in conflict. Again, there’s a cultural norm that we must stay together at such times and sort it out to get back to good feelings as quickly as possible, often by making the other person see that we’re right and they’re wrong. Actually when we’re in such a reactive response we are way more likely to act out our stuck patterns and to hurt the other person and/or ourselves in the process. Finding ourselves in traumatic interactions regularly will likely make those patterns play out more, as well as retraumatising us so that we’re less and less able to handle the conflicts and crises that do occur. Over time it becomes increasingly hard to see each others’ perspectives and to look after ourselves and other people in our lives.

As soon as we recognise that anyone present is triggered it’s best to get some space and time so that we can soothe ourselves and/or get support from somebody who is not caught up in the dynamic with us. There’s advice about how to do this in the conflict chapter of my book Rewriting the Rules and in the literature on trauma on and offline.

I love this four elements idea that I recently heard about from Elan Shapiro. Earth stands for grounding, air for breathing, water for salivating, and fire for visualising something safe and soothing: all things that help to calm our nervous system.

Getting support

Another dangerous idea about relationships like families and partnerships is that they should be private and protected from the eyes of anybody outside of them. That means that all kinds of damaging dynamics can begin to play out without anybody spotting them and saying that something doesn’t seem right. For those within the dynamic it can often be hard to spot this happening because the dynamic has developed so gradually over time, and/or because it may be so familiar from damaging dynamics we’ve been part of in the past that we don’t realise there’s a problem.

Again there’s a risk that this ideal of privacy and protection will play out more during this time because we’re stuck with each other and it feels risky to acknowledge – to ourselves or to our friends – that there are any problems. The cultural ideals around families and romantic relationships really don’t help here because we’re bombarded with images of happy families and perfect loves which we can never live up to, but may well feel we have to pretend we’re managing in order to avoid shame.

It would be great to reverse this idea and come to a new cultural norm whereby a healthy family or relationship of any kind is one with the windows open where everyone involved is nurturing their support system and able to talk freely about what the relationship is like for them: good and bad. That means that the inevitable patterns which are present for all of us can be more easily seen and discussed openly, instead of becoming hidden and unspeakable.

It can be useful for each person in the partnership, family, or household to consider what their needs are to get support from outside, and how those supports might be put in place. Again supportive relationships that each of you might consider building in, separately, online if you can, include:

  • Peers who are also engaging in this kind of work to share how it’s going and support each other
  • Small groups where you all have time to share what’s going on for you at the moment and be heard
  • More explicit forms of one-to-one peer support or therapy (Time to Think gives one useful model for this)
  • Professional support if you can afford it (therapy relationships are one place where it’s explicitly intended that you can notice your patterns playing out and practise different ones)
  • Contact with people in your life who offer you care and/or protection 
  • Engagements with authors and communities who are discussing how to do this kind of work – and supporting each other around it – at this time

When doing this work together it’s also useful to consider whether the relationship can be supported, as well as the individuals who make it up, whether that be a partnership, a family system, or a group of housemates. If dynamics have become stuck and/or damaging this is particularly vital. Possible forms of support for this – which can all be done online – include:

  • Relationship therapy
  • Systemic/family therapy
  • Mediation
  • Restorative and transformative justice

You might also get creative about how conversations between members of any cohabiting group might be witnessed and supported by others in your system or community, instead of doing such conversations in private. Can it become a regular practice between you that difficult conversations are carried out in front of each other, perhaps with a designated facilitator? Can you agree a structure for such conversations, such as each person getting time to speak and be heard? Can you have a process for what will happen if anyone gets triggered or activated? Such conversations can be returned to over time rather than being a one-off, and it’s useful to have aims like ‘everyone being heard’ rather than figuring out who is right and wrong.

Doing it together?

One great opportunity of being stuck together for extended periods is the potential to do this kind of work together. Very few things bring up our stuck patterns like our close relationships, especially when we’re around each other a lot. What a fabulous AFOG (as Dossie Easton and Janet Hardy call it)!

However it’s very hard to do this kind of work together unless everybody is fully on board. As I stressed when talking about doing this work alone, we’re in for a hell of a ride here. Engaging with our stuck patterns involves facing our deepest fears and shames, and may well bring up tough memories from when these patterns came into being, as well as times when they’ve been most vivid over the years. We’ll likely have to face times when we’ve hurt others badly as well as times when we’ve been hurt ourselves. 

If we’re stuck in with families then we might be doing this work with the very people who we were with when the patterns developed in the first place. If we’re stuck in with partners then we may be doing this work with people who we hoped would give us the things we lost or lacked back when these patterns were put in place. Often part of what we have to face is other peoples’ inability to give us those things – at least not in any completely consistent ongoing way – as well as the impact of their patterns on us.

My own personal criteria for doing this kind of work with others are:

  1. Is everyone involved up for doing their own individual work?
  2. Is everyone involved cultivating their own support system to help them through it given that it’s hard – if not impossible – to support each other within a relationship where this is currently playing out?
  3. Are we broadly on the same page with this way of understanding things: acknowledging that we’re all part of these dynamics with our own stuck patterns, rather than trying to pin it on one person being the main problem?

If everyone involved is up for it then it can be a good idea to start having discussions about what the processes will be within your partnership or group, as well as how these might be supported from outside, and what support you might offer out in return. For example, you might think about making times for everyone to gather together:

  • Just to share how they are doing (where each person gets allocated time to share), 
  • To address practical aspects of living together during this time
  • To address emotional dynamics of living together during this time and what stuck patterns are playing out between people
  • To deal with specific conflicts
  • To relax and have fun together (because it’s hard to do this work if all your time together is focused on hard stuff)

Addressing our part when others are not on board

Whether or not the people around you are working on their stuck patterns, it’s still worth doing your work. In fact, you doing this kind of work can become a model for others which they may take up if and when they’re ready. Also when one person changes their patterns it can be that the whole system shifts to encompass that change. Harriet Lerner’s work is really helpful on how to shift our own patterns and hold firm when others try to pull us back into old dynamics or systems.

It wouldn’t be consensual to push anybody into doing this kind of work. Also it’s important to recognise what a big ask it is, and how it may well not be something people yet have capacity for.

However, it is also a hell of a lot of emotional labour for one person to work on their patterns – and to try to improve the relationship or family – when others involved are doing nothing. It is hard – if not impossible – to make these changes within a system where others are actively resisting such changes, or unable or unwilling to confront their role in it at all.

If you want to address your own stuck patterns within a relationship, family or group where others aren’t up for doing it together, then you might find my suggestions on how to do this work when stuck alone helpful. Considering how you can carve out time and space within your home to do this work, as well as how to get outside support, will be particularly important here.

Of course the most dangerous end of the spectrum of these kinds of stuck relationships patterns are abusive relationship dynamics of various kinds, including coercive control as well as physically or sexually abusive relationships. Slightly lower down the spectrum – but still concerning – are relationships where one or more people are frequently being (re)traumatised by the degree of conflict or the kinds of dynamics that are playing out.

In situations where there is abuse, damaging dynamics, and/or where other people involved are not up for addressing the dynamics, it is important to consider other options. Of course this may be far more difficult during this time of social distancing and isolation. There’s government guidance for safe accommodation provision here, a useful article about the spike in domestic abuse here, and a list of places to support you in crisis here and here

Personally I think it’s useful for all people – whether living alone or with others during this time – to have a sense of what their contingency plan will be if their living situation becomes damaging and their mental health deteriorates because of it. Mental and physical risks need to be balanced. It may be the case that alleviating stress by moving location for a brief period of respite – or longer term –  is less risky to everyone’s physical and mental health than staying put. Also remember the toll that the stress of repressing the pain you’re in – or having regular trauma times – can take on the immune system.

For more about how you might go about shifting stuck patterns, check out my post on being stuck in alone. There’s more about what the patterns are – and where they come from in this post. There’s more about shifting stuck patterns when they are fleeting, entrenched, or overwhelming in this post.

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Plural tag: This post was written by Beastie.

Meg-John (MJ) Barker (they/them) is a writer, zine-maker, collaborator, contemplative practitioner, and friend. They are the author of a number of zines and popular books on sex, gender, and relationships, including graphic guides to Queer, Gender, and Sexuality (with Jules Scheele), and How To Understand Your Gender, Sexuality and Relationships (with Alex Iantaffi).