Overcoming Schema-Driven Relationship Problems
We often find ourselves repeating the same patterns over and over in relationships, so much so that it can sometimes feel like we’re dating or marrying the same person over and over. This is a common phenomenon, but there is a way to break these patterns, to have fulfilling relationships that reflect our deepest values.
Interpersonal schemas are strongly held core beliefs that we have about ourselves, others, relationships, and the world. Schemas are hard to let go of because they make us feel safer by providing us with a level of predictability and certainty about how people will respond to us.
Schemas get developed in early childhood through our experiences with our environment, including our family, peers, and siblings. We then learn to cope and respond to our environments. These coping responses are usually adaptive and reasonable reactions to our environments and our upbringing. For example, individuals who have an abandonment schema may have been abandoned by someone they love or may have had a relationship with a caretaker in early childhood who was either unstable or unreliably available to them. Therefore they learned that people are unreliable, unstable, and may leave at any moment.
All of our schemas come from somewhere as a response to our environment, and the coping responses that we’ve learned regarding how to deal with our schemas were also adaptive at some point. If our caretaker was unreliable and unstable then we might cope with it through excessive independence and autonomy or we might cope with it by becoming really clingy and needy with the people we love for fear that we will lose them.
Whatever coping strategies we learned or stumbled onto, we now continue to use over and over again in our adult relationships. This leads us to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in our current relationships where the same needs that were not meant for us in childhood continue not to get met in our current relationships.
When we respond to our schemas in very rigid and inflexible ways, it may lead to schema-driven relationship problems. Schema-driven relationship problems occur when we continue to cope with our schema pain in a way that continues to reinforce and maintain our core belief about ourselves, which ends up damaging our current relationships.
For example, if an individual has an emotional deprivation schema, they hold the belief that their emotional needs and their need for nurturing, support, and understanding will not be met in relationships. They believe that people will continue to deprive them of their basic needs and that they will continue to be left feeling deprived and alone in all of their relationships. When their schema gets triggered in a relationship they might cope with it by not asking for help. They do not express their needs because they don’t believe their needs will be met. This behavior leads to their needs not getting met in relationships, thus reinforcing their core beliefs.
They may also oscillate between not expressing their needs at all and getting to a point of such a high level of deprivation that they become very demanding and urgent about their needs. They may demand that certain needs get met right away and may become very critical and blaming others if they are not. This behavior leads to schema reinforcement and a self-fulfilling prophecy in which their needs are even less likely to get met in their current relationships.
We all have core beliefs and schemas about ourselves and others, but if we don’t have flexible coping responses and ways to effectively express our feelings and needs, we will continue to have the same barriers show up for us, as they did in early childhood. We will continue to re-create the same pain of our early childhood’s unmet needs.
The goal is to understand what triggers our schemas, what our typical coping responses are when our schemas get triggered, and to be able to identify new alternative behaviors that are based on our values and the kind of person we want to be. When we are clear on our core beliefs in our relationships and how these beliefs affect the way we behave in relationships, we then have the freedom and the flexibility to try out new behaviors that might lead to new outcomes. This creates the opportunity for us to get our needs met in our current relationships and to learn the tools and strategies to express ourselves effectively. By doing so, we give others the real opportunity to disconfirm our core beliefs and schemas. When we truly allow others the opportunity to disconfirm our core beliefs, we find the right people and we build healthy, fulfilling, collaborative, and fair relationships.
5 Steps to Overcoming Schema-driven Relationship Problems:
1. Identify your schemas: you can click here to take a schema questionnaire and identify your primary schemas. You can also ask yourself several questions to identify your schemas. This is called the downward arrow technique: What is a strong negative belief that I have about my relationships? –Ask yourself if this belief is true what does that mean about you? If this next belief is true, what does that mean about you and your relationships? Keep asking yourself what these beliefs mean and say about you and your relationships. Once you can’t go any further, you have reached a schema.
2. Identify your triggers. Stay mindful during the week of all you’re interactions with others and notice moments when your schemas get triggered. Identify and write down all the triggers that activate your schema. For example, if you have a self-sacrifice schema, it is very likely that anytime someone needs a favor from you or has a request from you, your schema will be triggered. Click here to read about the common triggers and feelings that are connected to particular schemas.
3. Identify your values: Clarify the kind of person you want to be when your schema is triggered. What do you want to stand for, how do you want to respond, when you feel guilty, lonely, deprived, or hurt? Think about the kind of person you want to be and the kind of partner you want to be and write down all these values. Click here to read more about values and how to assess your values.
4. Identify the thoughts and the feelings that come up for you when your schema gets activated. What automatic thoughts are connected to your schemas? Do any of these thoughts stop you from taking important actions? Do they have to stop you? What feelings get triggered when you have these thoughts? Would you be willing to embrace these difficult emotions and still take actions that bring you closer to your values and what matters?
5. Identify new behaviors. Now that you’re clear about your values, pick three of the most important values and write down a specific behavior that will bring you closer to those particular values. Think about how you will try out this behavior this week and commit to it. When will you practice these new behavior? Keep in mind, the new behaviors will not eliminate the thoughts and feelings that are connected to your schema. Are you willing to notice all the thoughts and feelings connected to your schema and still carry out these new behaviors, if it means that it will bring you closer to the kind of relationship you want and the kind of person you want to be?
Good luck and remember to stay curious about the outcomes of your new behaviors. It’s very important to stay mindful and observe the outcomes of your values-based actions. Even if the immediate outcome is not what you had hoped for, the long-term outcome will bring you closer to having the relationships that you desire.
At the Bay Area CBT Center, we offer individualized therapy that provides you with the tools you need to improve well-being and create the life you desire. To learn more about how we can help, you can click here to book an appointment online. We have office locations in both San Francisco and Oakland.