OK, you’re having yet another relationship problem. Does the problem seem familiar? Have you done these things and said these things before, in your prior relationships? Please pay attention to those warning signs. You may be repeating old mistakes that will lead you to the same unhappy place. Or, you may be able to look back on more than one relationship and see patterns that are similar in all of them.

Research shows that people automatically look for behavior patterns to follow, and once a pattern is established, they tend to follow it unconsciously. Think about when you change jobs or homes, and how difficult it is for the first couple of weeks to remember to drive in the new direction, and you’ll get an idea of how strong patterns are. If you understand how habit patterns develop, how strong they are, and what to do about them, you can see mistakes as they happen, or even before you make them, and change what you’re doing.

The same thing happens in your relationship. Each first event in dating and marriage creates a pattern you are likely to follow, unless you become aware and consciously change the habits that are problematic. Doing what you’ve always done is easy, and it reduces stress when it works well. It is only when the old familiar pattern leads to problems that it creates stress. Planning your wedding, for example, creates patterns for dealing with extended family, solving problems together, making financial decisions, and being considerate of each other’s feelings. Your first fight lays down a pattern for all future fights, so if you calm down, solve the problem and then make up, you’ve created a useful format to follow. These patterns are like the first layer of bricks in a wall. Every later brick will build on the pattern laid down at first, so if some of the patterns you’ve developed in your early relationship are creating problems, it’s worth the effort to learn to change them.

We also acquire patterns and habits from our early family and from past relationships. If you have created a habit of fighting instead of working things out, the good news is you can correct them. Maybe you bought the dream: you and this wonderful partner would get married, make a life together, have some really great kids, and life would be wonderful. That’s how the romantic movies and happy sitcoms show it, isn’t it? But, on some days, maybe your relationship feels more like “The War of the Roses,” and you despair of ever working it out.

There’s no need for despair: in my own marriage, as well as many years of marriage counseling, I’ve found almost any problem in a relationship can be fixed, if both partners want to fix it. What gets in the way is lack of skills and destructive patterns that get set up in the first months and years of your relationship.

To stop repeating mistakes, unpack the baggage. If you have difficult events in your past, don’t hide from them. Do your grieving, get therapy, work through whatever the issues were, learn the skills you needed then (like standing up for yourself, communicating effectively, setting boundaries, problem-solving). Whatever old wounds you refuse to deal with will come up in each new relationship until you figure them out, so do the work and don’t put it off. It will hurt a lot less than you think, and take less time than you fear.

Dr. Romance’s 3 tips avoid repeating your past relationship mistakes

1. Use Judgment: Be suspicious if it all seems “too good to be true”—it probably is. If your subconscious, neurotic needs are running the show, it’s fabulous at first and then horrible. If your common sense is running it, it starts out tentative, and grows stronger when you meet the right person. If your friends are worried about this relationship, listen to them. They could be wrong, but what if they’re right? You need to find out.

2. Welcome Insecurity: You shouldn’t feel like you always know what to do. You and this new person are doing a new thing. Seek to work as a team to figure it out as you go along. If either one of you is in charge, there’s probably a problem. If you’re working together, even though it’s not too smooth, it’s probably going OK.

3. Don’t keep secrets: Talk about past relationship issues, and be willing to share your emotions and reactions with each other. Getting to know each other is the key to developing a working relationship. Don’t follow some set of mental rules—that could be a trap from your childhood—don’t repeat your early family or your prior relationship. That style doesn’t suit who you are today. Instead, seek to learn something new, about yourself and about each other. If you’re afraid that telling the truth will upset your partner, you need to test that right away, to find out if you can get through the problem. Screwing things up is the way to find out if you can fix them together.

There are some problems that are probably insurmountable. Learn to recognize them:

1. Cheaters cheat: That's why it’s inadvisable to marry someone who was cheating in an affair with you; when you’re the spouse, you’ll get cheated on. People who feel entitled to sex any way they can get it, will always rationalize cheating, and just keep doing it. They don’t want to work on marital issues, or learn to keep intimacy alive with the same person. They get their jollies from illicit sex (cheating.) Both men and women cheat. Women are drawn to power, like men are drawn to beauty. Powerful men usually have a lot of charm and charisma, and they’re used to using flattery to get what they want, which is attractive to a woman who feels neglected or uncared about. Men seek sexual fulfillment and ego stroking. Cheaters don’t really concern themselves with the hurt they’re causing.

2. Don’t fall for courting behavior: At the beginning, it may seem great that he takes control, sets up all the dates, etc or that she is very sweet and pampers you. But these can be signs of a controlling personality, and can turn ugly. If you have evidence that your partner flies into rage, verbally or sexually abuses or batters a previous partner or children, no matter how charming he may be, there is no control over his or her behavior. Temper tantrums, alcohol binges, wild spending and dramatic mood swings are not just a one-time incident, they might indicate a severely disturbed character, and it will not go away without years of intense therapy.

3. Know the signs of emotional blackmail:
1. A demand. Your partner won’t take “no” for an answer, and requests are really demands.
2. Resistance. When every discussion turns into an argument.
3. Pressure. Your partner pressures you to go along.
4. Threats. Your partner uses threatening or coercing tactics: threatening to end the relationship, tears, rage, badgering.
5. Compliance. If you give in, you’re setting a dangerous precedent. Your partner now knows you can be pressured into giving in to him or her, and this will increase the intensity of what he or she is willing to do to pressure you.
6. Repetition. An obsessive person will go through these previous five steps over and over, wearing you down each time. The easiest thing is to be sure when you say “no”, it means no.

4. Don’t hang on to a dead dream: Learn to let go. If you gave it your best shot, and you know it's over, or if it never really got started, don’t waste time in resentment and anger. If you find you have real reason to doubt your partner, and there are real problems, such as lying, severe money problems, a history of alcohol abuse, violence, many past relationship problems, a criminal record, reports of illegal activities, or drug use, do not make excuses, and do not accept promises of change. Change is difficult, and will take a lot of time. Mere promises, no matter how well intended, are not sufficient. Get out of this relationship before you are any more attached than you are now. If your partner decides to get help, let him or her do it because he or she knows they need it, not to get you back. Change made to win you back is not a strong enough motive to keep him or her committed to change, and the commitment to change will waver very soon.

5. Don’t try to reform your partner: Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you can help. Problems this severe require more than you can provide, and your “help” may only postpone the real treatment this person needs. Forget any idea of a second chance. Giving second chances to people who have severe problems merely keeps you from going on with your life, and sends you around the whole disappointing cycle again.

6. Take responsibility for your part: Learn to let go of blaming each other, and take responsibility for your part. Even if your ex was a monster, why did you choose to be with the ex, or stay? Look at your part, and try re-writing the movie of that past relationship. Look at every part where you could have made a different choice, and re-play the scene, using different choices. Olympic athletes use this technique for correcting less-than-perfect moves, thoughts, and behavior.

7. Create a financially responsible partnership: A marriage or live-in relationship is actually a business as well as a romantic arrangement. Couples are supposed to have income and expenses, and wind up with a profit, which we call savings and equity. Two grown-up partners, who can manage their money well, will be able to create the life they want, support their children, prepare for the future, and have some left over for fun. Good money managers live within their means, and are more concerned about whether their purchases are sensible than whether they’re fashionable.

Dependability and integrity are very valuable in a marriage, because they mean your relationship will be based on honesty and trust. If there’s a problem that makes either of you dissatisfied in the relationship, and you’re honest enough to tell each other, and work together to find a mutual solution, you’ll be a successful couple.

2017 Tina B. Tessina adapted from: How to Be Happy Partners: Working it out Together

Author Bio: Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 35 years’ experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 14 books in 17 languages, including How to Be Happy Partners: Working it Out Together; It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; The Ten Smartest Decisions a Woman Can Make After Forty; Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences, The Real 13th Step and her newest, How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free 4th Edition. She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog, and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter. Dr. Tessina was the CRO (Chief Romance Officer) for Love Forever. Online, she’s known as “Dr. Romance.” Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, TV, video and podcasts. She tweets @tinatessina.

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