Patterns: How Neurology Can Save Relationships

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We live in a world of falling dominoes

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Patterns are everywhere, from the movements of the smallest insect to the rotation of planets. You’ll find them in Bruce Springsteen’s We Are Alive and in Mozart’s Requiem. You can see patterns in how termites construct their dwellings in California, New Jersey, and Texas despite never exchanging blueprints. But what, you may ask, has this to do with the constant bickering between you and your partner? Everything!

What Are Patterns?

Patterns are simply sequences of connected events that produce predictable outcomes.[1] For example, every morning, I make myself a latte, which requires six steps. I’ve done it so many times that my brain has organized the steps into a sequenced pattern, where the initiation of one step leads to the next until the sequence is completed, much like a falling domino in a line triggers the domino behind it until the last domino falls. If all the dominos are correctly spaced, it only takes a minor touch to set off the sequence.

Neuroscientists believe a similar progression occurs in the brain when information is stored in related groups, such as categories (for example, round objects) and patterns (for example, latte making), rather than single data points.[2] While this economy of effort saves the brain energy when storing and retrieving information, it can also set in motion unintended consequences—the dominos continue falling until the last one drops even if you wish to stop the sequence at the midpoint.

For example, in the morning, you make a comment about your partner’s insensitivity. By the end of the day, you’re not speaking to each other, and you don’t understand how the interaction went from an innocuous comment to you sleeping on the couch. What you may be ignoring are the words and actions that occurred between the first and last domino.

If neuroscientists are correct that the brain stores information in chains and chunks, then it is possible that tripping that first domino (for example, calling your partner insensitive) brings about the inevitability of an uncomfortable night on the couch. Yes, counseling and or psychotherapy may be appropriate to uncover an interaction pattern that culminates in accusations. But that long-term solution may not help you get a good night’s sleep tonight. Eliminating triggers and disrupting the pattern will be much faster.

Eliminating Triggers

Some neuroscientists cite the ability of the brain to create and recognize patterns as one of the most essential characteristics of being human.[3] Every pattern has a trigger, that first domino. You realize that the beginning of your bickering starts when you make a critical comment you believe is “constructive.”

There is an old joke about a man coming to his doctor’s office complaining about pain in his arm. The doctor says, “Show me.” The patient swings his arm and asks the doctor, “How can I eliminate the pain?” The Doctor responds, “Don’t do that.” As simple and as appropriate as the suggestion is, it doesn’t provide an answer to what should be done once the arm is moving, or how to stop the negativity in your interaction once the pattern has begun. The answer to your interaction is to disrupt the pattern.

Disrupt the Pattern

You realize that the sequence has begun, and it’s too late to prevent it by avoiding the trigger. However, the sequence can be stopped by removing a few dominos. For example, you notice that the sequence progression always involves escalating accusations. You say something nasty, and our partner responds by topping your negative comment. Their response requires you to escalate the argument, and you are on your way to Defcon 1.

But what would happen if, instead of ratcheting up the discussion a notch, you lowered it by saying, “You know, dear, you may be right. Let me think about it.” This de-escalation approach has been shown to be effective in managing autonomous computers, societal confrontations, and anger management, just to mention a few. [4, 5, 6]

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The Takeaway

Patterns are everywhere, including in our brains. Once you can identify the pattern your brain stored for disruptive personal interactions, you will be in a position to avoid triggers or if the pattern has begun, interrupt the sequence. Ignore patterns, and you become Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, who wakes every morning in Punxsutawney and repeats what he did the previous day.

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