How couples can move beyond negative relationship patterns

At times in our intimate relationships we can find ourselves repeating the same pattern of conflict with each other over and over. There can be a sense of escalation where both partners end up feeling unresolved and more distant from each other, and it can be hard to see how we can do anything different. Even though we may be aware of this, again and again we get drawn into the same pattern – so much so that the interactions roll out in an almost predictable way.
Often an aspect of these patterns is a kind of spiral effect. The way each person reacts to the other causes them to respond in a way which only increases the intensity of our reaction. Instead of getting our desired result we only push it further away.
Unwinding this cycle can be a challenging and tricky process, but the benefits for couples are potentially huge. Looking at the typical communication cycle can be a powerful way to get to underlying feelings and dynamics and open up the possibility of new and better ways of relating to each other.

People and relationships are complex and unique and the approaches which will facilitate healing and growth in each relationship will necessarily vary. The following is a model to work within. It’s always important to remember that the map is not the territory. Having said this, the following approach is the result of the experiences of myself and other practitioners in counselling and may certainly help couples to deepen and improve their relationships. Whilst the focus here is on romantic relationships, the principles can also be applied to all sorts of relating.

BECOMING AWARE OF THE CYCLE

The first step is to become aware of the negative cycle. You can do this by choosing a specific typical confrontation, disagreement or instance of rupture to focus on. The patterns across interactions are often very similar.

Go through slowly and step by step what happened in the interaction. Here we are searching for an agreed progression of events. Avoid getting into arguments about what is true and what isn’t. Allow room for differences in perception, focusing on what each partner has experienced, especially emotionally. Each partner is allowed to define their own experience, not their partner’s. There is an art to keeping it about your own experience rather than projecting what has happened for the other. For example rather than – “then you got furious so I shut down”, instead use “then I felt like you got furious, so I shut down”. The subtle difference between these statements allows room for the other to have their own truth. In this way it is easier to come to an agreement of what happens in the cycle.

A cycle might look something like this:

Sarah was irritated that Tim didn’t come home from work when he said he would. She asked him where he had been. Tim felt that she was accusing him of doing something wrong, when he had been working hard on his business. He immediately responded with anger, feeling like she is always on his back and doesn’t appreciate what he does for the family. Sarah felt his anger was out of proportion and confronting, and disengaged from him by saying it didn’t matter and busying herself with preparing dinner. This angered Tim even more, feeling like she had attacked him and then not acknowledged his innocence. He raised his voice and pushed her to apologise. Sarah began to cry, feeling like Tim hated her. Tim felt that suddenly he was put in the position of attacker, when it was Sarah that first attacked him. He kept demanding to know what she thought he had been doing, Sarah became very quiet, feeling unable to respond. Furious and frustrated and feeling there was nothing he could do to make Sarah admit she had been the one to attack him, he stormed out of the house, feeling accused and unacknowledged. Sarah felt abandoned by Tim leaving and he hated her. She went into her room and cried for an hour.

IDENTIFYING THE UNDERLYING EMOTIONS

So now that we are aware of and have agreed on the path of the cycle, how do we begin to do something different?

A key element is the realisation that each partner’s reaction to the other is part of causing the undesired response in the other. This creates the spiral effect. In the example, the angrier that Tim gets, the more Sarah withdraws. The more Sarah withdraws, the angrier Tim becomes.

A way through this is to uncover and share the emotions underlying the interaction. These emotions can be quite different than those which appear on the surface, and are hidden because there is vulnerability of some kind attached to them.

Firstly, each partner needs to be able to identify their own underlying emotions. If this is difficult, working with a relationship counsellor can be particularly helpful. It can be hard for partners in deep relationship difficulty to trust each other enough to discover the underlying feelings together.

If partners are reasonably aware of their underlying emotions, they can then begin communicating them to each other. To begin with this is best done out of the heat of the moment, when things are relatively calm. It can be helpful to set up a specific place and time to do this together. It is vital to cultivate an atmosphere of simply listening to the experience of the other. This can be much more challenging than it at first appears. The partner may say things which trigger strong emotions in us, or which don’t seem true to us. Again, what is important is not what is objectively true, but what is true for the other, the fact of their experience.

Using the established cycle, again go slowly step by step through what occurred. For each person at each stage search for the emotion beneath the one being expressed. Every aspect of the cycle provides a rich possibility for creating understanding and intimacy. The focus is on finding the vulnerable feelings which are present but harder to express. Note that this could be a range of feelings including anger, for some people anger there is a lot of vulnerability about expressing their anger.

Take the beginning of the example interaction:

Beneath Sarah’s irritation at Tim being late home she recognises that she feels he is staying away from her because he doesn’t like her company. She feels unlovable.

When Sarah questions Tim for being late, he feels she is pointing out that he has been working long hours without anything to show for it. He recognises that he feels like a failure and ashamed that the time he spends on his business is not showing financial reward.

Go through the whole cycle this way and share the underlying emotions and each part of the cycle.

SHARING AND RESPONDING TO THE UNDERLYING EMOTIONS

In the negative interaction cycle, it is often the interaction between partners’ surface emotions which create the cycle and dictate the course of the interaction. When people share their underlying feelings, it gives their partners a chance to respond to the deeper and more vulnerable emotion rather than the surface reactive and protective emotion.

Sarah expresses that she feels unlovable and that Tim doesn’t want to spend time with her. This gives Tim an opportunity to let her know that he cares about her and is away for long hours because he is desperate to make his business work, not because he is avoiding her.

Tim expresses that he feels like a failure because his business isn’t succeeding. This gives Sarah an opportunity to let him know that she appreciates all his efforts for the family, and that she is much more concerned about spending time together than if the business is bringing in money.

It can also be helpful at this stage for partners to share parts of their history that are relevant to the vulnerabilities they feel. Family of origin, intimate relationship and other life experiences have usually been part of creating our vulnerabilities and patterns of reaction. When people share the events that have shaped them, this allows their partner to have more understanding and empathy for how they react.

CHANGING THE PATTERN

It can take time to unwind the patterns of interaction; the wounds which cause them can run quite deep. Even after having shared underlying emotions, the negative patterns often continue. Partners need to take ongoing responsibility for sharing their underlying feelings, especially when the pattern is triggered. When people have their deep patterns triggered and manage to respond in a new and healthier way, deep change occurs.

Real magic also happens when partners move from being against each other within the pattern to working together to unwind the pattern. Knowing and having empathy for the underlying vulnerabilities allows each partner to support the other when they are triggered and reacting. They can see through the surface reaction and truly be there in empathy for the pain of their partner.

Tim comes home late and as he walks in the door Sarah orders him to take out the rubbish. Having worked hard all day but feeling like he has done nothing, Tim reacts with defensive anger to her tone of voice. He sees her withdraw and comes to awareness at this point that the cycle is in motion. With some difficulty he remembers that when she withdraws she is not deliberately ignoring him like his ex-wife did, but she is feeling deeply overwhelmed by his anger. He knows her father was violent with her and that withdrawing was the best thing she could do as a child to avoid his anger. Tim takes some deep breaths and doing the best he can to work with his own feelings of defensiveness, he gives her a hug.

RELATIONSHIP AS A VEHICLE FOR HEALING AND GROWTH

Intimate relationships bring up our deepest insecurities and fears. Because of this, they are a rich source of potential for personal healing. Working with the communication cycle becomes not just a way to make the relationship better, but a way towards healing the core wounds that we carry in life. Consciously working within relationship allows us to support each other in our personal healing, transformation and growth.

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