Stuck in alone or together: An opportunity to addr...

Stuck in alone or together: An opportunity to address stuck patterns

A few months ago a therapist on twitter said something along the lines of: ‘When a relationship gets tough whether you break-up or stay together the work you’ll have to do will be the same’. It struck me that something similar could be said right now – in the time of Covid-19. Many of us are facing potentially long periods of social isolation/distancing. Whether we’re stuck in alone, or with other people, the work that we could usefully do will be the same.

This series of three posts work through what stuck patterns are, and the ways we can address them if we’re stuck in alone, or if we’re stuck in with others. However, all three are relevant to everyone because I’ll suggest that those of us stuck in alone could do with exploring how we might do some of this work with others, while those of us stuck in with others could do with getting plenty of solitude in order to do the parts of the work that need doing alone

In this first post, I’ll start with a bit more of an introduction to what stuck patterns are, and why we might prioritise shifting them at this time. 

Hopefully if/when this period of Covid-19 crisis is over, the ideas and practices here will still be helpful for those finding themselves alone and wanting to address their relationship patterns, and for those wanting to do so while in relationship with others. I’m also aware that not everybody will be ‘stuck in’, particularly those in the category of key-workers. Hopefully some of the ‘stuck together’ advice will also be useful for those who’re still out in the world working with others.

What are stuck patterns?

The point of the tweet I began with is that intimate relationships hold up a mirror to our habitual patterns of relating with others, and with ourselves. Most of us will have fetched up with some stuck patterns in how we relate along the way, which will have ended up being harmful – or at least not helpful – to ourselves and others. 

These patterns will generally emerge in all of our relationships, given time. Often they influence how we relate to other things in our lives besides people too: work, leisure, food, exercise, technology, etc. In this post I’m focusing on how stuck patterns emerge in relationships, particularly in relationships where we are very emotionally close and/or spending a lot of time together. This is where they often come up most intensely.

Stuck patterns determine how we relate to others  – and ourselves – on an everyday basis, and also when we’re triggered or activated. Different therapeutic approaches have all kinds of ways of naming these patterns and understanding where they come from. Generally they agree that stuck patterns are the strategies which we learnt when we were young – or sometimes through stress and trauma in later life – which enabled us to survive.

One useful model comes from Pete Walker’s work on cPTSD. He suggests that these strategies are often versions of the classic trauma responses of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Some of us learnt as kids that what worked was to battle, belittle or control those around us (fight). Others learnt that striving to perfect ourselves and do all-of-the-things was the way (flight). Others learnt to retreat into ourselves and self-soothing (freeze). Others learnt to do whatever it took to appease others and be what they wanted us to be (fawn). 

Most of us have some combination of these strategies, or go to different ones at different times. Generally they have become the way we habitually relate to other people, and they come out most vividly when we’re triggered or activated: in times of crisis or conflict.

For example, my go-to patterns are mainly fawn/flight. The fawn part means I habitually try to monitor myself to ensure I’m being ‘good’ for those around me, and struggle to have boundaries if people want me to do things that don’t feel good for me. The flight part means I tend towards over- rather than under-functioning, like – I don’t know – writing a whole bunch of books, zines, and blog posts to try to figure this stuff out and communicate it to others! 

When triggered, fawn/flight means that it can feel life-or-death to me to make things right with people. And I’m likely to throw everything that I have at the situation, exhausting myself in the process, rather than taking the time I need to look after myself and get some perspective.

If Pete’s model doesn’t work for you, there are many other ways of looking at stuck patterns out there. For example Jeffrey Young lists ten common problematic schemas with which we tend to approach relationships, again developed as survival strategies during our lives.

Whatever language you use for the stuck patterns, and whatever understanding you have of how they got there, we all have them and we can address them by:

  • Noticing the patterns
  • Doing something different
  • Making that an everyday practice so that new habits can bed in over time

Why address stuck patterns?

If we decide to stay in relationship with somebody, we’ll need to address those patterns in order for that relationship to work well for everyone in it over time (if it’s not working for everyone, it’s not working for anyone). If we break-up because the patterns are hurting us too much then we’ll need to address them or we’ll likely bring them into subsequent relationships.

Better for us

Addressing our stuck patterns is better for ourselves because it will help us to discern which relationships in our lives are good for us. It will also prevent us from getting into painful dynamics with others, and enable us to notice such dynamics and shift them when we have.

Better for our close people

Addressing our stuck patterns is better for the people we’re close to because we’re less likely to hurt them, or get stuck in dynamics where we keep triggering each other with our patterns. Hopefully once we’re clearer on what our patterns are – and more able to shift from them – we’ll also have more capacity for the people in our lives and deal better when relationships do become difficult.

Better for everyone else

Addressing our stuck patterns is better for everybody because when we’re stuck in painful dynamics we have so much less to offer to the other people in our lives and to our wider communities. It’s extremely hard to be empathic and compassionate when we’re stuck in these patterns. We’re also more likely to act out of these patterns with others beyond our closest people if we haven’t addressed them: friends online, the staff in the supermarket, strangers on social media. 

It might seem like addressing our relationship patterns is not the most urgent thing we could be doing while the world is literally on fire with rising fevers and global temperatures, conflagrations and conflicts. In fact I’d argue it’s one of the most vital things we can do. Why?

  • On an everyday level our lives have the potential to be heaven or hell depending on how we relate to ourselves and each other. If we’re all relating to each other through our stuck patterns we’ll hurt each other and feel terrible about ourselves. If we can find ways to shift out of our stuck patterns then there’s the potential for everyday life – even a much more constrained everyday life – to be okay, perhaps even pretty good if we explicitly make this our plan and notice how we’re making progress over time.
  • In relation to sickness specifically we know the toll that stress and trauma take on the immune system. If we’re putting other people – and ourselves – under stress and/or triggering them into trauma responses with our patterns then we’re making it more likely that they’ll get sick and struggle to recover quickly, not to mention the mental health crises that can result from prolonged relational stress or being frequently retraumatised.
  • Just as our relationship to ourselves often mirrors the way we relate to other people, so too does the way we relate to the wider world. At a time when we urgently need to all be thinking and behaving collaboratively and collectively – and kindness, compassion and mutuality are essential – unlearning patterns which keep us locked in our own individual pain – and in stuck dynamics with close people – seems pretty urgent.

Addressing stuck patterns

In the next two blog posts I’ll cover how you might address stuck patterns if you’re stuck in alone, and if you’re stuck in with others. In some ways the challenges and opportunities of these two alternatives are opposite. Those stuck in alone may find it easier to get the space and time needed to do this slow habit-shifting work (although this will be more challenging for those who are still working full time from home and/or who struggle not to fill time with distractions). They may find it harder to get opportunities to practise shifting habits in relationship with others. Those stuck in together may find it hard to get enough space to do the inner work needed here, but they may find it easier to get practical opportunities to practice in relationship, particularly if those around them are up for this kind of work too.

A key aspect of what I’m arguing here is reframing our stuckness (alone or together) as an opportunity. Of course it’s vital to experience and express all of our feelings about the ways in which the current situation has altered our lives. This isn’t a Pollyanna approach. We need to feel our fear at what might be coming, our grief at what we’ve lost, our rage at systems which have failed to support us. 

However, embracing the potential in what has happened for befriending ourselves and addressing our stuck patterns can definitely be a useful reframe. It also means that we can relate differently to the micro-moments of difficulty which come up as we spend more time alone or with close people. Instead of regarding each freak-out, plunge into loneliness, argument, or relationship tension as a failure, we can reframe these as opportunities to slow down, to turn towards what we’re finding hard, and to learn more about our patterns and how they operate in us.

To read on to the posts about how to address stuck patterns if alone or with others, follow these links:

Stuck in alone.

Stuck in together.

There’s more about shifting stuck patterns when they are fleeting, entrenched, or overwhelming in this post.

Patreon link: If you liked this, feel free to support my Patreon, it will certainly help this self-employed person to maintain some income during these uncertain times.
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).