It takes two to tango

Changing relationship patterns
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Presented at The Developing Group 4 July 2015

The longer a relationship pattern continues the more we can be sure neither person is solely responsible for the recurring outcome. From a systemic perspective it takes two to tango. That is, both parties (often unwittingly) perpetuate the pattern and the consistency of the outcome.

The systemic is usually easier to see when observing someone else’s relationship! It is also easier to see when the outcome is unwanted and hurtful. But the principle applies equally to patterns with fruitful and loving outcomes.

From inside the relationship it often seems like we are the injured party, the one who’s right, the one being reasonable, or that we are doing everything possible to change the situation. Under these circumstances it’s not always easy to see the perpetuating role our behaviour is playing.

This paper examines these relationship patterns and what needs to happen to take steps to initiate and maintain a new behaviour.

Below are two examples of the kind of pattern we aim to model.


In the beginning of my first 18-year marriage things were really good. But as the years rolled by things changed without either of us noticing. My husband’s behaviour became more unpredictable and erratic, and I began to walk on egg shells. My philosophy was ‘If he’s happy, I’m happy. If he’s not, I have to do everything in my power to make him happy so I can be happy’. I had no idea how dysfunctional we both were becoming; it happened so gradually it seemed ‘normal’. I was a wreck, and finally sought help.

The support group I joined asked me what I wanted. I repeatedly said “I want him to change so we can both be happy.” They continually replied “Yes, but what do you want?”. It took me quite a while to realise I didn’t have enough of a sense of self to even have wants. And I began to see that if my placating and appeasing continued things would stay the same, or even become worse.

Over several months I began to change, and my husband’s behaviour changed too. He would refuse to speak to me for long periods of time, disappear without saying where he was going, and make snide comments. While a part of me wanted to punish him, my support group helped me see that would just be me doing his pattern. Instead I learned how to identify my wants and needs. The really tough part was finding the courage to speak these to him. I was terrified, but knew we couldn’t go on like this. 

Eventually I told him I was not happy with the way things were between us. I said we needed to find ways to relate that involved open, honest communication (not silence, contemptuous looks and innuendo). I said I was willing to go to marriage counselling but he said “Let sleeping dogs lie”. I told him I loved him, but I was not willing to continue as things were.

My new self respect meant there was no going back to the placating behaviour, so I continued to state my position in various calm, but assertive ways. Sadly he was not willing to examine our relationship and in time I left and we divorced.

Penny’s realisation occurred in lots of small incremental ways, rather than in one defining moment as in the following example.


For many years my turbulent relationship with my parents often ended up with us having arguments. I realised a better relationship was possible but my best efforts had little or no long-term effect.

After one such argument I sat my parents down and asked them, ‘How do we keep getting into this situation?’. To my surprise, they said “When you visit it’s like we always end up feeling there’s something wrong with us and you are trying to improve us”.

In that moment I felt the pain of the truth and saw how my trying to ‘improve the relationship’ was continually leaving them feeling ‘less than’ and how, not surprisingly, they reacted against this. Their ‘defensiveness’ would in turn provoke my annoyance and we were off again, around a loop with no end.

I came away with a lot to think about. In the following weeks I experienced a range of emotions, including shame at the hurt I had caused and embarrassment that in spite of all my skills I was hindering and not helping the relationship. There was plenty of self-justification but the deep knowing of the part I was playing would not go away. I resolved to ‘leave them be’ and instead to look for things about them that I appreciated.

It took some time for us all to get used to my new behaviour, but slowly things improved. That was many years ago and our relationship has been improving ever since, far surpassing anything we ever had before.

Origin of the phrase 'it takes two to tango’

The phrase ‘It takes two to tango’ was made popular as a result of a 1952 song written by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning. Two versions of the song appeared that year, one by Pearl Bailey and the other by Louis Armstrong.

It is interesting to note that prior to this phrase being popular, takes two to tango was used in Australia during the 1930s to mean premarital sex!

The pattern

Supportive relationship patterns can continue for a long time. Sometimes a lifetime. And the same can be said for unproductive patterns. The question is: How to encourage the former and how to discourage the latter?

These patterns perpetuate because we rarely fully see how we are contributing to their continuance and therefore the wanted or unwanted outcome. Painful relationship patterns are usually more dramatic and therefore easier to unpack, so let’s start there.

Intellectually we may realise we are part of a system and what we do or don’t do influences the behaviour of that system. But in the heat of the moment, when we experience frustration, injustice, criticism, resentment, helplessness, hopelessness, loss of trust, lack of respect or certainty we are right, it can narrow our awareness. We keep responding in the same way, and even if we try something new, it doesn’t produce a better outcome. Or if it does, we can’t keep the new behaviour going and we revert to type.

Indicator’s of being in an unsatisfying relationship pattern

I’ve tried everything.
S/he never understands what I’m saying.
I’ve told him/her a thousand times …
Here we go again.
Will I ever learn?
My manager is a bully.
Why won’t s/he listen to me?
How can they be so unreasonable?
It’s all his/her fault.
I’m just not appreciated.
I can’t believe I just did/said that again.
If only they would …

The system

Systems theory says a part can never control the whole, and so we can’t ensure things will turn out as we’d like. Statisticians tell us that over time a fluctuating system tends to ‘revert to the mean’. This is demonstrated in a kind of homeostasis – where the system changes to stay the same. Because of the systemic effects, we think it helps to understand is the nature of patterns.

Whatever relationship pattern we and the other person have created between us, it’s likely it wasn’t planned but emerged through the ongoing interaction of the two of us. Once a pattern exists its nature is to preserve itself – to seek it’s continuance. This does not require any intentional agent, but is an emergent property of the system. The pattern influences the parts of the system to behave in ways that ensure the continued existence of the pattern.


To give a simple example, have you noticed how similar types of shop often cluster in the same area? The electronic and furniture shops on Tottenham Court Road in London are prime examples. This clustering is not the result of town planning. Once the area is known to have a good supply and choice of a particular product or service, that’s where people gravitate. If you are going to open a new store, you are more likely to want to locate it in that area. And so it goes on. Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy has been the home of goldsmith’s for over 400 years.

Eric Berne brilliantly captured the ongoing nature of relationship patterns in his book, Games People Play. Games are maintained by lack of awareness, fear of intimacy and a need for drama. It seems any attention, even if it repeatedly ends up in pain, is preferable to no attention at all.

Most of us have experienced these kinds of self-sustaining and unsatisfying relationship patterns. As children we have little option but to learn to fit in with our caregivers’ patterns. Maybe that’s why they can be so tough to break away from – the large number of times we played our role will have laid down some robust neural pathways.

And yet, some people do change and some relationships do improve. How does that happen? We have noticed the following characteristics:

  • Acknowledgement that there is a recurring problem, and that attempts to improve the situation have not lasted (sometimes making things worse), and that something else needs to happen.
  • A recognition of our role in maintaining the pattern and the outcome. This is not an intellectual recognition, but a deep knowing that we are an active agent.1
  • A genuine desire to play a different role to lessen the unwanted outcome and improve the relationship.
  • Recognition of the triggers and responses in the trigger-response-trigger-response cycle. Awareness that triggers and responses are signals to do something different.
  • New behaviours are attempted and monitored for their effectiveness. Learning from successes and failures (what we call “trial and feedback”).
  • Monitoring is ongoing and further behaviours attempt to build on any improvements.
  • The relationship settles into a new stable pattern which perpetuates a more desired outcome – the more satisfying pattern becomes the norm.2

Extracts from Dance of Anger by Harriet Goldhor Lerner

pp. 34-35 [Paragraph order changed]

Most of us want the impossible. We want to control not only our own decisions and choices but also the other person’s reactions to them. We not only want to make a change; we want the other person to like the change that we make. We want to move ahead to a higher level of assertiveness and clarity and then receive praise and reinforcement from those very people who have chosen us for our old familiar ways.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to change someone else. The problem is that it usually doesn’t work. No matter how skilled we become … we cannot ensure that another person will do what we want him or her to, or see things our way, nor are we guaranteed that justice will prevail. We are able to move away from ineffective fighting only when we give up the fantasy that we can change or control another person. It is only then that we can reclaim the power that is truly ours – the power to change our own selves and take a new and different action on our own behalf.

Making a change never occurs smoothly end easily. We meet a countermove, or a “Change-back reaction!” from the other person whenever we begin to give up the old ways of silence, vagueness, or ineffective fighting and begin to make clear statements about the needs, wants, beliefs, and priorities of the self.

Murray Bowan (Bowen Family Systems Therapy) emphasizes the fact that in all families there is a powerful opposition to one member defining a more independent self. According to Bowen, the opposition invariably goes in successive steps:

“You are wrong,” with volumes of reasons to support this.
“Change back and we will accept you again.”
“If you don’t change back, these are the consequences,” which are then listed.

What are some common countermoves? We may be accused of coldness, disloyalty, selfishness, or disregard for others. (“How could you upset your mother by saying that to her?”) We may receive verbal or non-verbal threats that the other person will withdraw or terminate the relationship. (“We can’t be close if you feel that way.” “How can we have a relationship if you really mean that?”) Countermoves take any number of forms. For example, a person may have an asthma attack or even a stroke.

Countermoves are the other person’s unconscious attempt to restore a relationship to its prior balance or equilibrium, when anxiety about separateness and change gets too high. Other people do not make countermoves simply because they are dominating, controlling, or chauvinistic. They may or may not be these things, but that is almost beside the point Countermoves are an expression of anxiety, as well as of closeness and attachment.

Our job is to keep clear about our own position in the face of a countermove – not to prevent it from happening or to tell the other person that he or she should not be reacting that way.

Countermoves aside, our own resistance to change is just as formidable a force. … [We] may feel guilty if we strive to have for ourselves [what others in our primary relationships do not].  [We] may view our attempts at self-assertion as an act of disloyalty – a betrayal …

Often we behave as if “closeness” means “sameness.” Married coupes and family members are especially prone to behave as if there is one “reality” that should be agreed upon by all. But one of the hallmarks of emotional maturity is to recognise the validity of multiple realities and to understand that people think, feel, and react differently.

It is extremely difficult to learn, with our hearts as well as our heads, that we have a right to everything we think and feel – and so does everyone else. It is our job to state our thoughts and feelings clearly and to make responsible decisions that are congruent with our values and beliefs. It is not our job to make another person think and feel the way we do or the way we want them to. If we know and own our own desires, no one can argue with our own thoughts and feelings. They may try, but in response, we need not provide logical arguments in our defence.

Instead, we can simply say, “Well, it may seem crazy or irrational to you, but this is the way I see it.” (p.104)

We are responsible for our own behavior. But we are not responsible for other people’s reactions; nor are they responsible for ours. (p. 124)

The only person we can change and control is our own self. Changing our own self can feel so threatening and difficult that it is often easier to continue an old pattern of silent withdrawal or ineffective fighting and blaming. (p. 40)

Assuming responsibility for the self means not only clarifying the “I” but also observing and changing our part in the patterns that keep us stuck. (p. 125)

From pp. 133-134

As we learn to identify relationship patterns, we are faced with a peculiar paradox. On the one hand, our job is to learn to take responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and behaviour and to recognise that other people are responsible for their own. Yet, at the same time, how we react with others has a great deal to do with how they react with us. We cannot not influence a relationship pattern. Once a relationship is locked into a circular pattern, the whole cycle will change when one person takes the responsibility for changing her or his own part in the sequence.

Assuming this responsibility does not mean we take a self-blaming or self-deprecating position. Learning to observe and change our behaviour is a self-loving process that can’t take place in an atmospheres of self-criticism or self-blame. Such attitudes frequently undermine, rather than enhance, our ability to observe relationship patterns. They may even be part of the game we learn to play in which the unconscious goal is to safeguard relationship by being one down in order to help the other person feel up.

In contrast, it is a position of dignity and strength that allows us to say to ourselves or others, “You know, I observe that this is what I am doing in this relationship and I am now going to work to change it.” Such owning of responsibility does not let the other person off the hook. To the contrary, it brings our “separateness” into bold relief and confronts others with the fact that we alone bear the ultimate responsibility for defining our selves and the terms of our own lives. It respectful allows others to do the same.

Other articles

Previous pieces we have written on related subjects also Learning from Relationship (2005) and Modelling Conflict(2006) which include a summary of John Gottman’s research and a number of relationship-improving activities.


1.  Michael Mallows asks each of the couple, “Are you prepared to take 100% responsibility for your 50%?”.

2.  In Penny’s example above the ‘new stable pattern’ included a physical separation. When John Grinder was asked how come he doesn’t have a relationship with Richard Bandler he said, “We are communicating perfectly”.

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