Transform Your Vicious Cycle Into Positive, Loving Connection
This blog is for any couple or family members who feel caught in negative patterns of disconnection and distress with the people they LOVE. It IS possible to improve your relationships. Read on to learn how.
Do you and your partner (or family member) feel stuck in the same argument and feel there’s no way out?
Do you both feel that the problem is the other person’s fault? If only they would change… then the problem would be resolved?
In this blog, I will help you and your partner/family member:
- See that your “cycle” is the enemy, not you or your partner/family member, and help you join together to transform the “cycle” to experience positive loving connection.
- Learn several different strategies in de-escalating your cycle of disconnection & relationship skills that will strengthen your connection with your loved ones.
- BE the CHANGE you wish to see in your relationships.
You can also find more practical and effective strategies for ending painful cycles and re-establishing positive connection with your loved ones in my other blog, “How to have hard conversations that go well“.
Seeing your “cycle” as the problem & joining together to transform it is empowering and unifying
EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) trainer, Michael Barnet has found that:
Couples [& family members] unintentionally co-create a toxic pattern that maintains relational distress and erodes trust and closeness. Partners are both unwitting victims and authors of their “cycle”.
The result of this cycle is that both partners/family members end up suffering and ALONE.
“What causes this toxic pattern?” The MOST common cause underlies the content~
Both people are indirectly hearing “NO” to universal relationship needs…
“Do you care about me?” and
“Do you accept me for who I am?”
We all need to feel that our partner/family member is there for us and loves us unconditionally. When couples and family members get stuck, I typically hear a partner complaining that their loved one is NOT meeting one or both of these needs.
What I typically don’t hear is SELF-REFLECTION about their need to change their behavior and show more care and greater acceptance for their partner/family member. I also don’t hear about each person’s inner world (thoughts, vulnerable feelings, and body sensations) that can be either unconscious barriers or catalysts to behavior change.
Our (human) blind spots and lack of knowledge about how we co-create our toxic cycles preclude us from being able to see OUR part that maintains relationship distress and disconnection.
The MOST important concept of this blog is that~
You are both the victim and AUTHOR of your vicious cycles with your loved ones.
The solution to having more positive, loving connection is…
BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN YOUR RELATIONSHIP!
If you’re wondering, HOW can I be the change I wish to see? Read the steps below…
Step 1: Understand Your Cycle- your outside moves/protection
One of the most powerful tools for helping couples and family members get UNSTUCK is to reframe your conflict or disconnection as a “cycle” or “dance” that BOTH people can change!
Using an Infinity Symbol, imagine mapping out this COMMON pattern of a couple’s negative cycle…
Partner/family member #1 shows anger and criticism on the outside (but feels aching loneliness and hurt on the inside) because they view their partner’s outside behaviors to mean, “You don’t care about me & maybe don’t even like me!”
Partner/family member #2 shows little emotion (shut down) and withdraws on the outside (but feels hurt and rejected on the inside) because they view their partner’s outside behaviors to mean, “Nothing I do (in your eyes) is ever good enough!”
When people who love each other are in a negative cycle, they feel massive panic and alarm bells, and it does NOT feel safe to be vulnerable in large part because they and their partner are ONLY expressing their outer PROTECTIVE survival moves:
fight, flight, freeze, hide, or please
The reason that even the “please” survival move can sometimes trigger their loved one is that often underneath it is fear, hurt, or anger that may come out after the conflict.
On the other hand-
The most natural and effective survival move that calms our nervous system & strengthens our bond is~
Seeking proximity with a loved one & receiving COMFORT, REASSURANCE, SOOTHING and CONNECTION
Unfortunately, the “CYCLE” hinders partners from seeking closeness, conceals partners’ inner experience~ deeper emotions, thoughts, & body sensations, and blocks our intuitive desire to see and respond to our loved one’s pain.
During the cycle, both individuals UNINTENTIONALLY send each other “SCRAMBLED SIGNALS”, which prevents them from creating safety and getting their needs met.
Instead of expressing what they both are feeling in their hearts and longing for, they only show their “outer” protective moves, which trigger their family member/partner to respond with their outer protective moves and the CYCLE of:
“The more I ___________, the more you ____________” continues.
The key to figuring out and CHANGING your couple or family cycle is to KEEP IT SIMPLE and focus on the process or interactional pattern. I am continually working on this because couples and families often bring a lot of content or stories to sessions that they believe is important, but easy to get lost in. Here’s an example of a simple cycle summary:
Person #1 On the outside, I show you criticism, anger, and disappointment. On the inside, I feel lonely and hurt.
Person #2 On the outside, I show you either happy, shut down/indifference or anger. On the inside, I feel not good enough and rejected.
“The MORE I criticize you, the MORE you withdraw. The more you withdraw, the more I criticize you” and they cycle goes on – until BOTH partners CHOOSE new moves.
No matter how FRUSTRATING and INFURIATING your loved one’s behavior, your RESPONSE can perpetuate a negative cycle that will cause you MORE PAIN or you can CHOOSE a different response to shift to a positive cycle of connection.
For ideas on new “connective” responses, scroll down to “Putting it all together”
Also, just to make clear- no matter what behavior your loved one chooses (consciously or unconsciously to cope), it is never a justification for an individual to engage in the most harmful behaviors in couples’ relationships:
For example~ abuse, infidelity, addictions, threatening to leave, stonewalling (shutting out for long periods of time), contempt, unrelenting criticism, & other painful behaviors.
When I hear a partner say, “The more she nags me, the more I drink”, I realize that this is a negative cycle AND the latter partner CAN choose a different coping response if they wish to be in a positive, loving cycle of connection.
Reflecting on a cycle you’re having with a partner or family member, ask yourself,
- “Are my behaviors attracting or repelling the people I love most?”
- “Are my behaviors influencing the people I love to meet or dismiss my needs?”
- “Am I fully aware of the impact of my behavior on my loved ones?” (If you’re not sure, ask your significant others about your impact.)
If you conclude that your behaviors are not bringing people closer to you and/or not enabling you to get your needs met, see steps 2 & 3 below to learn how you can choose new moves & learn a little about attachment theory.
Attachment theory can help family/partners reframe or make sense of each other’s “protective” moves since you’ll better understand what’s happening on the inside.
Without holding an “attachment frame”, it can be extremely difficult to have compassion or understanding and not be triggered by a loved one who is engaging in one of the 5 protective moves (fight, flight, freeze, hide, superficial please).
Seeing your loved one’s behavior through an attachment lens can offer you these reframes:
For the “pursuing” partner who tends to start the “fight” through attack, criticism, complaining, or even when making a vulnerable request, an “attachment” view of their behavior is that:
- They are fighting for connection or protesting the loss of connection. They LONG to be closer to their loved one and feel valued and important because this will allow them to feel emotionally safe and less fearful of abandonment or emotional deprivation.
For the “withdrawn” partner who tends to use flight, freeze or hide, which can look like withdrawal, shut down, indifference, or dismissiveness of their partner’s needs, an “attachment” view of their behavior is that:
- They are protecting themselves and their relationship from further escalations/fights and criticism. They stay silent or withdraw to not further upset their partner. They LONG to be seen as good enough and accepted and appreciated for who they are because this will allow them to feel emotionally safe and less fearful of being rejected and left.
Learning more about attachment science (in the first 3 chapters of Hold me tight, the powerful video below, any work by John Bowlby, the “father” of attachment theory- just to name a few sources) can help you and your partner increase your sensitivity to each other’s vulnerabilities (that originate in childhood) related to disconnection and increase your understanding of how you can strengthen your bond.
To learn more about attachment theory, watch “Lovesense: From Infant to Adult” (a powerful 14 minute video on Youtube) with Dr. Sue Johnson and Dr. Ed Tronick.
Step 2: Go deeper~ explore your thoughts, messages from your body, softer, authentic emotions & vulnerable needs that fuel or change the cycle (“by changing the channel”)
The creator of the EFT model, Dr. Sue Johnson uses the phrase, “Change the channel” to move from…
- obsessing about “the trigger” for the fight- “My partner (what they did wrong this time)…!”
- surface level emotions (anger, frustration, irritation, numb, indifference- “Everything’s fine.”)
- blaming thoughts- “stories” partners are telling themselves (“My partner doesn’t appreciate me.”)
- content- you’re fighting about (can be anything & isn’t the real issue)
…To the body sensations, vulnerable emotions and attachment needs to get to the HEART of the MATTER- the relationship you LONG for.
“Changing the channel” is one of the MOST effective strategies in moving out of vicious cycles into positive loving connection.
If, on the other hand, you’re focused on what your significant other did WRONG, have your ARMOR on or WALL up by showing anger or silent withdrawal, you CANNOT get your needs met.
Relationship wisdom by Dr. Brene Brown~
Storytelling helps us all impose order on chaos—including emotional chaos. When we’re in pain, we create a narrative to help us make sense of it. This story doesn’t have to be based on any real information.
Our stories are also about self-protection… [Instead of feeling vulnerable or inadequate, our stories can allow us to feel anger and blame at others.]
But this unconscious storytelling leaves us stuck. We keep tripping over the same issues, and after we fall, we find it hard to get back up again.
… [Resilient people] can recognize their own confabulations and challenge them. The good news is that we can rewrite these stories. We just have to be brave enough to reckon with our deepest emotions.
Brown believes that the phrase that’s become a LIFESAVER in her marriage, parenting and professional life is: “The story I’m making up is that you…”
THOUGHTS or “stories” family members and partners tell themselves can perpetuate the cycle. Some clients tell me that their fight was caused by (a thought), such as, “I’m not important to him”, “I can NEVER make her happy”, etc., in other words, something that could NOT be captured in a video. If this happens to you, try using Brown’s phrase above or “The story I’m telling myself is…”
Messages our BODY gives us to help us “change the channel”~
EFT Trainer, Dr. James Hawkins taps into the wisdom of his clients’ bodies so they can connect with and express their deeper, more authentic emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Here are just a few of the questions he asks:
- What do you feel is happening in your body right now?
- What does your body want to do with that energy? Turn toward your loved one to talk, turn against, or turn away?
- Why do you think your body want to make that move?
Just fyi~ Some examples of vulnerable “attachment” needs that partners and family members are able to more fully identify and express when they move into stage 2 work of EFT are: feeling like (in their partner’s/family member’s eyes), “I am enough”, “I am lovable”, “You accept me for who I am”.
Here’s an example of a negative cycle BEFORE a couple “changed the channel”~
- A “pursuer” (of connection) criticizes their partner- “You never initiate affection!” → This triggers alarm bells for their partner, “the withdrawer” to get defensive or counterattack and say, “Just last week, I _________” or “Well, you never __________!” (fill in the blank) and then the withdrawer pulls away, which triggers fear and hurt of further loss of connection. The sad result is that BOTH partners end up suffering alone.
And here’s the positive cycle AFTER this couple “changed the channel”~
- The “pursuer” can express their “primary” or underlying emotions and change their attacking statement to a softer, more vulnerable request, such as “I’m feeling lonely and I would really love for you to put your arm around me.”
By the pursuer expressing their need in a clear manner that doesn’t contain any critical message about the withdrawer, the withdrawer is more likely to respond to the pursuer’s request for affection.
Expressing one’s primary emotions and attachment needs is TRULY COURAGEOUS and may require some support from a therapist- if you’ve been in a negative cycle for a long time or being vulnerable is a new way of being in your relationship.
Step 3: Identify the blocks to changing your moves, try new moves, reflect on what’s working & fine tune what’s not
Oftentimes, even when family members or partners genuinely want to exit their negative cycle and engage in positive connection, they experience (unconscious or conscious) BLOCKS (ways we protect ourselves) to changing their moves to experience more connection and can benefit from their loved one or a therapist’s help in exploring the block with them in an open and curious way.
Sometimes these blocks are rooted in childhood wounds or messages from your parents, ex. “Emotions are weak”. Other times, they are related to an attachment injury (a breach of trust) or a painful, vicious cycle with their loved ones that blocks their vulnerability because the message their body or mind tells them is “It’s not safe to open up your heart”.
A third cause of blocks are addictions and untreated mental health conditions (ex. depression and anxiety). These issues unintentionally create a wall between loved ones and also disconnect the partner with the condition from themselves, which precludes their ability to understand their inner world and share it with their partner and/or respond empathically to their partner’s needs.
A few strategies that I’ve found to be the most helpful are~
- Slowing down… to openly and curiously explore the block together and find out “What just happened there? I noticed that you…”
- Staying in the present to help couples/families work through a block (protective behavior). “And, what’s happening inside you right now?” (body, thoughts, emotions, behaviors) Let’s explore this together…”
- Seeking specialized help for the partner(s) who has not been able to experience enough relief from their mental health symptoms and/or break out of their addictive coping cycle through couples therapy. There are many different paths to healing and growth (ex. individual, couples and family therapy, DBT groups, addiction treatment, yoga, etc.) and every clients’ journey is unique.
Below are a couple of examples of partners encountering blocks and how they can work through them.
In the example above (at the end of Step 2), imagine if the “withdrawing” partner did not respond or dismissed their partner’s request…
One new move the “pursuer” could do to try to get back into a positive cycle is explore the BLOCK by asking, “I’m curious… What’s happening for you now? I really want to understand.” (in a soft tone of voice) Or, the withdrawer can reassure their partner by saying, “I would be happy to do that if my shoulder weren’t hurting. Would it be okay to hold hands instead?”
Another example of how the couple above can change their pattern to a positive cycle of connection~
- The withdrawing partner could initiate affectionate touch (without being asked) if they know how much this makes their partner feel safe, secure and loved.
In other words, there are multiple pathways into a negative cycle as well as many options out of a negative “cycle” and into a positive connection with your loved one.
Step 4: Review Conversation 3~ (7 steps for de-escalating disconnection) in Hold me tight by Dr. Sue Johnson
This chapter has clearly articulated steps of how to de-escalate your cycle of distress or disconnection between you and your partner (or family members).
Here are the steps:
1. Stop the game (your cycle)
2. Claim your moves
3. Claim your feelings
4. Own how YOU shape your partner’s feelings. I think this is the MOST powerful step in de-escalation and possibly requires the most effort. According to Sue Johnson, PhD,
We need to recognize how our usual ways of dealing with our emotions pull our partner off balance and turn on deeper attachment fears. If we are connected, my feelings naturally will affect yours.
But seeing the impact we have on our loved ones can be very difficult in the moment when we are caught up in our own emotions, especially if fear is narrowing the lens.
In the fight, things happen so fast and [partners] are so upset that [they cannot see how their behavior hits their partner’s raw spots and triggers their partner’s defensiveness]…
Johnson summarizes this most important step in de-escalating a couple’s negative cycle:
To really take control of Demon Dialogues [the cycle] and soothe raw spots, both partners have to own how they pull the other into negative spirals and actively create their own distress.
5. Ask about your partner’s deeper emotions.
6. Share your own deeper, softer emotions.
7. Stand together
Step 5: Become more A.R.E. (accessible, responsive, and engaged) to strengthen your relationship
Demonstrate the skills (be the change) that you wish to see in your partner to increase your relationship bond. A.R.E. is a cornerstone to EFT work. It stands for “Are you there for me?” You can find all of the A.R.E. statements in the chapter “Emotional Responsiveness: The Key to a Lifetime of Love”. Here’s a brief review:
Accessibility~ “My partner can get my attention easily.” & “My partner can share their deepest feelings with me and I will listen [with compassion & without criticism, lecture, problem solving, etc.]”
Responsive~ “If my partner needs connection and comfort, I will be there [with compassion & without criticism, lecture, problem solving-unless requested, etc.]” & “If my partner needs assurance about how important they are to me, they can get it.”
Engaged~ “My partner knows that I care about their joys, hurts and fears.” & “My partner feels confident, even when we are apart, that we are connected to each other.”
I recommend that you change all of the A.R.E. questions around in Hold me tight (as I did above) so instead of assessing your partner’s level of A.R.E. for you, reflect on YOUR level of A.R.E. for your partner. This is where the CHANGE can happen since we can only directly change ourselves.
The more de-escalated cycles become and the more A.R.E. partners demonstrate, the greater chances couples/families have for more BONDING MOMENTS, which entail:
Seeking proximity with a loved one & receiving COMFORT, REASSURANCE, SOOTHING and CONNECTION
Give yourself and your partner some GRACE~ NO ONE needs to be A.R.E. 100% of the time.
Not even the most devoted parent with their newborn baby. Fortunately, the research on building secure bonds has a much lower requirement for A.R.E. (than 100%) and shows that the MOST important skill in relationships is REPAIRING a bond after a misattunement or rupture occurs.
If you’d like ideas for how to successfully “repair” with your loved one, check out tip #6 in my blog, “How to have hard conversations that go well“.
Putting it all together~
- Understand your cycle– begin with a SIMPLE one mapping just the outside moves to see “the more I _______, the more you _______” & learn a little about attachment theory.
- Go deeper~ explore your thoughts (“stories we tell ourselves”), messages from your body, softer, authentic emotions & vulnerable needs that fuel or change the cycle.
- Explore the blocks to changing your moves, try new moves, reflect on what’s working and fine tune what’s not.
- Review the 7 steps of how to de-escalate disconnection in Conversation 3 (in Hold me tight)
- Become more A.R.E. (accessible, responsive, and engaged) for your partner- demonstrate the very skills that you wish to see in your partner to increase your relationship bond.
What are some behaviors that foster cycles of positive, loving connection?
- Expression of love and appreciation for your significant other
- Honest and vulnerable conversations (speaking from your heart about your deeper emotions, body sensations, longings, and needs- these can be about difficult topics)
- Safe and engaged body language (a calm, friendly look on your face, relaxed body language, eye contact, and if welcomed- close proximity & respectful touch)
- Genuine curiosity (“What’s happening for you right now?” “Help me understand why ______ is hard for you? I really want to understand.”- seek to understand others)
- Attunement & Empathy (Show you can see, feel and care your partner’s emotions)
- Validation (“That makes sense that…”- showing understanding of partner)
- Responsiveness to other person’s emotions and needs
- Respectful expression of boundaries (“I can do this for you because… and not that because…”)
If you’ve reached this point in my blog and still feel stuck… you have 4 options:
1. Change your situation
a. Get professional help to understand what’s impeding you from being the change… most people struggle to see how they unintentionally pull their loved ones into negative cycles and actively create their own distress.
b. Ask your loved one to JOIN with you in trying new strategies.
c. If you feel you’ve tried everything possible and your significant other is NOT willing to change, and you’re NOT willing to settle for an abusive or unhealthy relationship, set BOUNDARIES. These limits can range from~ limited contact until your loved one is willing to get help/make some changes to permanently ending your relationship.
2. Change your perspective (Brene Brown’s “The story I’m telling myself is…”)
3. Radical acceptance (of your loved one being imperfectly human)
One of my favorite relationship nuggets of wisdom is by Michelle Obama:
What happens when a solitude loving individualist marries an outgoing family woman?
The answer I’m guessing is the best and most sustaining answer to nearly every question arising in a marriage, no matter who you are or what the issue is-
YOU FIND WAYS TO ADAPT! If you’re in it forever, there’s really no choice.
4. Don’t change anything (through relational and personal work) and stay miserable.
EFT (Emotionally Focused Therapy) provides the tools for most loved ones to de-escalate their vicious cycles and experience positive, loving connection once again. Learning to use and master these tools requires hard work, lots of practice, openness to new ideas and behaviors and a willingness to change.
Even Dr. Sue Johnson admits that she can’t do this 100% of the time with her husband and children! Progress, not perfection is the goal. In many cases, participating in couples or family therapy can help loved ones get unstuck because it is nearly impossible to see what’s happening and how to change your dynamic when you’re in it.
Finally! Couples and family members can feel HOPE about their relationship~ With these relationship tools, they can have increased confidence in their ability to take charge of moments of disconnection and transform them into positive, loving connections, and most importantly, they can possibly have the relationship they have always longed for.