“It’s like we get in this spiral; once it gets started we don’t know how to stop it. And at the end I’ve done all these things I regret. I know it hurts her. We’ve tried the obvious stuff. We’ve tried communication strategies, time outs… they don’t change how we feel on the inside. Something triggers us, and we go right back into it...”
You know that feeling when you find yourself having the exact same conversation for the millionth time. Most couples and families I’ve worked with feel understandably powerless about the problems in their relationships, because the same dang thing happens over and over again. It feels as though the fight has an energy of its own. That’s because in a way, it does. While it may feel as though something specific your partner is doing is the problem, typically, these patterns consist of habitual, learned patterns of reaction and counter-reaction. It’s hard to tell where the fight started. Was it because she came home late from work, or did she come home late because he seemed distant on the phone at lunchtime? Or perhaps he was distant because he was stressing out about a new bill he found buried under a pile of her stuff. He feels angry and insecure when she hides things from him. Perhaps she didn’t want to bring up that bill because, well, she knows how he gets about money. He gets scary, just like her Dad did.
You get the picture. A systems-oriented couple therapist might call this kind of pattern a negative homeostasis. Psychodynamic types tend to focus on each individual’s inner experience and the underlying emotions that drive the pattern, such as feelings of loneliness or shame. In Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapy (EFT), one of the most empirically-supported couples therapy modalities, we are interested in both patterns and emotions. In EFT, this kind of toxic pattern, repeated over time in different formations, is often referred to as a dance. The weight is shared, and each partner is responding to the other’s subtle cues.
One of the first things I want to do with a couple is figure out and explore in more depth what the dance is, and what habitual moves they each have within it. Developing more awareness of where and how you get stuck can give you breathing space, a little bit of room to do something different. When you notice you’re in the dance, you can try and do something different - almost anything will help! In fact, some couples therapy modalities are based almost entirely on learning how to do something different that brings better results. However, as you probably know it’s not always that simple, because as I hinted at in my example above, the cycle is driven by powerful emotions running under the surface. The EFT approach seeks to address what drives the pattern, and shows excellent and lasting results in clinical research.
The good news is that most every couple has a positive dance too, which helped them build and maintain a trusting connection. It’s how you fell in love in the first place. I always want to learn about that as well.
Need some help getting past your vicious cycle with your partner? Reach out today and let’s get started.