Updated: Nov 16, 2022
You are responsible for that thing your partner does that hurts the most.
You know that thing your partner does when you’re fighting that makes things go from bad to worse? That thing that sends you from frustrated to angry, or from sad to hopeless?
What If I told you that you are just as responsible for this harmful behavior as they are? When you can understand this, you will be able to handle conflict in ways you never believed.
When couples come to me for therapy, they show up stuck in a feedback loop: a pattern of reaction to each other that becomes cyclical. Being stuck in this negative cycle can feel so frustrating and impossible to control! Therefore, our first task of therapy is getting to know this negative pattern and giving it a name: “your cycle”.
What is Your Cycle?
You react to your partner, your partner reacts to your reaction, and you respond to that reaction. And around it goes…
Yet, there is a way out! But it requires opening yourself to a new perspective of what is happening here. When you can start to see this in a different way, it can completely change how this pattern happens.
The way you are interpreting your partner’s behavior is not only misunderstanding what is happening for them but is also causing you to respond in a way that is making this behavior a fixture in your relationship.
We all tend to view our partner’s behavior and responses to us as a reflection of how they feel about us or our relationship. So when our partner is critical, it means we are inadequate and we are disappointing them. Or when our partner doesn’t talk to us or withdraws entirely, it means we don’t matter to them, and our relationship isn’t important.
When you attach meaning to this behavior, you respond accordingly.
If your partner is critical, you avoid saying or doing something wrong. You avoid making things worse! When your partner withdraws, you pursue them and fight to keep them connected to you!
BUT, this is a trap!
And if you fall for it, you end up reinforcing this pattern that causes so much pain. To avoid this trap, you need to understand something fundamental about human attachment.
What Is Human Attachment?
Attachment is a survival mechanism. We form bonds with a partner to create safety and security. This is a universal human need. So, when an attachment relationship feels threatened, our nervous systems respond with survival instinct: fight, flight, or freeze.
Depending on your and your partner's attachment styles, you tend to respond to conflict by either pursuing connection (fight) or withdrawing to restore calm (flight/freeze).
When you are in conflict with your partner, you both are reacting to signals from each other that say “our relationship is in danger”. Both of you get anxious. And both of you are reacting to that anxiety with self-protection.
So what does this mean?
That thing your partner does that feels so threatening, is actually their way of coping with the fear that your relationship is at risk. They are not attacking you, they are protecting themselves and your relationship in their own way.
Defensive Reactions are the Glue That Keeps you Stuck
The types of emotional walls you and your partner use to protect yourselves are what keep you stuck in a negative, reactive pattern. So finding opportunities to share vulnerability in marriage or partnership is the key to breaking your cycle. This starts by, first, reframing your perspective on how your cycle happens.
If your partner withdraws from you, it’s not because you don’t matter. It’s because you matter so much that they don’t want to risk disappointing you by saying or doing something wrong! So when you get angry and pursue them to bring them back into the conversation, you are confirming their fears that they are inadequate and reinforcing the behavior that they ought to step back because they don’t know how to make you happy.
If your partner pursues you with anger or criticism, it’s not because they think you’re a bad partner. It’s because they value you so much that they feel so overwhelmed when they don’t feel secure that you feel the same way. So, when you move away from them or disengage, you are confirming their fears that they don’t matter to you and reinforcing their instinct that they need to pursue you and get you to understand them.
Vulnerability is the Key to Freedom!
The importance of vulnerability in marriage or partnership cannot be overstated. In every conflict, there is a vulnerable conversation happening, even if it isn’t being spoken out loud. When you are both communicating from a protective stance, however, these messages get distorted and can cause damage.
If you can start to see your partner’s behavior within your conflict as a survival response – a reflection of their attachment fear – rather than a reflection on you, you can respond to the vulnerable needs that are driving that behavior. When you react to these types of emotional walls from your own fear, these protective reactions tend to confirm to your partner that their fear is justified.
Moreover, if you can recognize your own vulnerability underneath your reactions, you can communicate with emotional openness. You can send a clearer message that is less likely to confirm your partner’s fears.
One of the benefits of vulnerability is that these signals evoke empathy and care from those who love us. These feelings draw people in. Defensive reactions, on the other hand, tend to push people away.
When you can recognize the vulnerable conversation underneath your cycle, you both can communicate with more emotional openness. You will see the importance of vulnerability in ending hurtful behavior and getting your attachment needs met.
Couples Therapy is a Great Place to Start
While the benefits of vulnerability for maintaining healthy relationships are obvious, communicating with emotional openness is easy to write about but more complicated to put into practice.
First of all, it is not always clear what emotions underlie our reactive patterns, especially when your negative cycle has been a part of your relationship for a longer period of time.
Secondly, even if you do have a sense of the softer emotions underneath your protective reactions, the idea of communicating these feelings to your partner may feel very risky. Remember, your self-protection is there for a reason – your relationship is not feeling secure or safe. Sharing your vulnerability takes a lot of bravery!
For these reasons and more, couples therapy can be a tremendous resource to begin to repair your patterns with your partner. I have supported numerous couples taking on the challenge of breaking their negative cycle pattern together.
Check out my website for more information about whether therapy could be helpful for you.