Entangled Behavioral Patterns

Each of us has a set of behavioral patterns that we bring into all our relationships. Our patterns and those of others get enmeshed and we actually create a third dynamic behavioral pattern unique to each relationship. This actually explains why some of our relationships flow so smoothly and others are so challenging. Have you ever wondered why you seem to be such a great communicator in some relationships and completely unable to be understood clearly in others? Could it be that the relationship behavioral pattern dynamic is getting in the way?

If you regularly follow my blog, you know I am a big fan of the enneagram for cultivating awareness of our unconscious behavioral patterns. Being “aware” of our own behavioral patterns is the first key step in understanding how they are impacting our lives — and our relationships. Then, the second step is assessing what is working for us — and what isn’t.

Using the enneagram is one of the “fast track” tools for personal growth. The real gift of the enneagram is that it not only helps us diagnose what isn’t working anymore, it offers us the framework to step out of outgrown, unnecessary patterns and into healthier, more enriching ways to engage in our lives and relationships.

Many of our unconscious behavioral patterns originated in our childhood. The same is true of our values, how we view the world, and how we choose our friends and life partners.

Here’s the distinction however — as we grow and mature, as we gain more knowledge and life experiences, we organically re-assess our values. Our world view expands as we finish high school or college, start a job or career, build a life of our own. We find ourselves learning a lot from our friendships and our marriages. We are in a constant state of change. These change prompt us to re-assess our values, our goals, our impact on others and our overall contentment (or discontentment).

Yet while we are in a constant state of change, accumulating more knowledge and information that informs us about the trajectory of our lives — we are dragging around with us all those childhood behavioral patterns. We actually are using child-like navigational tools in our adult world. Ironically, we often strive hard to build an adult life for ourselves that is quite different from our childhood experiences. Yet our unconscious behavioral patterns can become our biggest hurdles to successfully achieving those goals.

As Ian Morgan Cron states so profoundly in this latest enneagram book, The Story of You, those childhood patterns work well — until they don’t.

I found the enneagram to be just the tool I needed to realize the protective armor of my childhood and the patterns that held that armor in place were no longer needed.

Hindsight truly is 20/20 — Just revisiting a few old memories and events with this awareness brought to light the way I would “help” too much, deny my own needs and harmonize when I should have stood my ground. Even with the best of intentions, the downside of my childhood patterns kept me from growing into a healthier version of my best self. My most uplifting discovery was that a healthy enneagram Type 2 often becomes a “helper” in the most incredible ways — by mentoring and resourcing others in their own journeys of self discovery and personal growth. That was the big push that I needed to address my personal roadblocks.

A very simple and effective tool for starting this needed change is to do the opposite of what you would normally do. Sounds so easy, doesn’t it? It’s not. A lifelong helper almost has to tie her hands behind her back and slowly exit a room when the intense urge to jump in and rescue, fix or resolve an issue arises! It takes a Herculean effort for a helper to actually ask for help — or say no, when she’s overextended.

My friends who are also Type 2’s have become a support group for this purging process. We laugh a lot, we hold each other accountable, and we cheer wildly when we tell stories of how we “responded in a much healthier way” to a familiar event that once pulled us back into childhood patterns.

What I love about the inner work that we can all benefit from doing, is that it frees us up and creates so much space in our hearts, minds and lives. A mindfulness tool that I’d been trying to implement was “not to take things personally.” As I read about each of the nine types, it became the knowledge base I needed to lean hard into this practice. The more I learned how each of the nine types often “show up” in life, the greater was my awareness of how other’s childhood patterns were impacting their adult lives. Not only did that free me from “taking things personally”, it also increased my empathy for others on several levels. (The seeds of my becoming a more effective “helper” were nurtured in this process.)

This brings me back to recognizing just how entangled we can get in each other’s behavioral patterns. If you feel like you keep buying a ticket to the same “merry go round” when it comes to relationship issues, this just might be an insightful starting point.

Let’s take a look at what might transpire when our old unconscious behavioral patterns get enmeshed with someone else’s.

If a peace-maker and a challenger forge a relationship, you can bet that some friction and fireworks are quickly invited along for the ride. The “challenger” who loves a heated, feisty argument in order to work things out will become a steamroller for the “conflict avoider” who just wants harmony and peace above all else.

It’s likely that the conflict avoider will not speak up and will choose to acquiesce to the needs of the challenger. This will feel like the path of least resistance to a peace-maker. Meanwhile the challenger might get bored and frustrated by that approach. A challenger thrives on high energy, some conflict and a good, heated discussion.

If both of those people double down on their old patterns, a conflict avoider may withdraw and stuff their emotions. A blind spot is not acknowledging and expressing their needs. The challenger might be perceived as nagging and controlling. The challenger is likely to keep bringing up the issue at hand, making more points, turning up the heat, refusing to back off. A blind spot is not recognizing that this approach pushes away the connection and understanding they are seeking. The peace-maker might be perceived as insensitive, unsupportive and dis-engaged.

Can you begin to see how these old patterns get in the way of building a strong, fluid and trusting relationship?

It often isn’t the person we care about that is the problem. It’s outgrown, unhealthy behavioral patterns that prevent us from really getting to know each other, what we need and how best to support each other. We may have common interests, shared core values and similar hopes and dreams, but without peeling back some of our history, we may have a hard time getting on the same page and building a strong relational foundation.

By the way, this is true for all our relationships — be it parent, sibling, partner or friend. If you spend some time reading about all nine types of the enneagram, you will discover deeper insights into the people you think you know pretty well. At the very least, it will create a little more awareness about behavioral patterns and how they show up in our responses to life. A great primer for this can be found at The Enneagram Institute online (https://www.enneagraminstitute.com)

Under the “Learn” tab you can read descriptions of each of the nine types. I especially find the “Levels of Development” section for each type to be so helpful for anyone that wants to shed the childhood navigational system and upgrade to a more mature, self-aware version.

Also under the “Learn” tab, you will find “The Enneagram Type Combinations.” This is one of my favorite resources for cultivating more awareness about how different types interact with each other. You can click on any combination of types and learn what each type brings to that relationship combo as well as learn about potential troublespots. This invaluable resource is the equivalent of having a detailed nautical chart, channel buoys, and a lighthouse to skillfully navigate our relationships with others.

Cultivating more self-awareness helps us discover the places where we get snagged by our outdated, outgrown navigational system. It is an invitation to take a long hard look at how our childhood armor and the behavioral patterns that hold that armor in place just might be the reasons we are having such a difficult time showing up as our best selves in the meaningful lives we are working so hard to build.


Elizabeth Earnshaw is a Gottman certified therapist and an outstanding resource for couples who are committed to a thriving and fulfilling relationship.

Follow Liz on Instagram for more insights like this: @lizlistens

A primer for the Enneagram by Ian Morgan Cron
Ian’s most recent book – Helping you “re-write” your childhood story into a more evolved one for your adult life.

Published by

Inspired New Horizons

I am blogging about reinventing myself in my retirement years as an independent woman free to fully enjoy life's adventures, while practicing mindfulness and discovering my life's purposes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s