Like a paint by number painting, our relationships, and relational conflict, follow predictable patterns. We change the colors, have an informed opinion about the colors, and end up in emotionally entangled arguments about the colors. But we miss the reality that we often are painting the same patterns over and over. We are simply painting the same patterns with different colors.
If we don’t’ see the relational patterns in our lives and work, we are tempted to believe we need a new palette. New colors will produce a new painting, a better painting. But what we will realize with time is that we recreate the same pattern, only with different colors. It is not until we begin to do the inner work of being aware of our predictable patterns in relationships that we will see a different outcome.
Our pattern maybe we eject from a relationship because getting too close creates anxiety in us. Or we smother the other in relationship because getting too much distance creates anxiety in us. We may find fault in the system that is overly organized, or find fault in the environment that is overly relational. What we miss is how unconsciously we rehearse the same script, and paint the same relational patterns.
The first step in beginning to see patterns, not just colors, in relationships is being inquisitive. There is a security required in curiosity. Trust is what invites us to explore what beneath our family trees and hidden among the patterns of our lives. I believe curiosity combats anxiety. It admits, by its nature, there are layers and levels it does not yet know. Children are by nature curious. They ask why more times than a parent can almost stand. But their inquisitive nature is the wiring required for learning. The same is true for us. We need to relearn how to be inquisitive about who we are. Curiosity begins by asking good questions.
The simplest, and most effective, line of questioning I have found is, the “5 Whys”. Asking the question “why?” five times - each time using the answer of the previous question to frame the next question. This begins to illuminate thoughts and feelings protected by patterns we’ve learned over the years. By the third or fourth “why?” we are exposing vulnerable areas where the patterns of how we think, feel, and act are drawn.
I recently practiced the “5 Whys” while at breakfast with a friend. He revealed a storm was brewing at home with his ongoing opposition to his wife’s work. It began with the first “why” about the nature of her work. After the third “why?” it was becoming clear that he wanted her to be at home. He grew up with a single mother who was always working. The colors had changed. The pattern remained the same. By the fifth “why?” he vulnerably acknowledged he missed her when she was away. I asked how the conversation about her work could be different if he began with, “I miss you when you’re at work.” His grin hinted at how the pattern could be redrawn towards intimacy instead of instigating another argument.
The patterns we know draw the lines we follow. Our patterns work for us, for the most part. They are based on what we know and they are what we’ve used to survive. But our patterns also fail us. They become the predictable parts of who we are that we can no longer see. We can change our context, but our relational conflicts remain hidden behind the different colors. The “5 Whys” strategy sees patterns beneath the colors and is used by companies and counselors alike. The line of questions asks us to look beneath the circumstances to the operating systems we instinctively follow.
When we begin to see patterns, we can begin to choose to change them. We can draw new lines. Lines based on a greater awareness of what works for our benefit and the benefit of those around us. We identify a relational conflict as it begins to emerge because we recognize the pattern, regardless of the color or context in may be in. We now have the choice of pattern and palette.
As you begin to see the patterns more clearly in your relationships, you begin to see them emerge in every relationship. The author Frederick Buchner writes, “The story of any one of us is the story of us all.” Every person has relational patterns. Our hope is to grow in awareness and invite others to the process of seeing patterns, not just colors.
No longer painting the same old patterns, we now cultivate relationships with newfound curiosity. It begins with seeing patterns in the world inside us and then around us. Each day we practice tracing new lines of relational renewal. Our relationships are secure enough to creatively explore new conversations. Relational health is a never-ending adventure. But we can let the kids use the color by number books, and we can choose to create something unique and beautiful with the relationships in our lives.
What patterns in relationships have you covered up by simply changing colors?
What lines were drawn in your family of origin that you often unconsciously paint by?
How would have seeing the patterns, not just the colors, impacted the last relational conflict you were in? What relational lines could you redraw to begin to be free to create with new patterns and palette?