When couples are learning to recognize the pattern of behavior and emotions that catch them in a cycle of arguments it is often frustrating that the arguments don’t stop immediately. Using Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy I work with couples to help them to understand this driving force and to develop the skills to notice the pattern before it catches them unawares.
When a couple comes into my therapy practice, they are most often unaware of the feedback loop that they are caught in. We begin our work together by identifying the dynamic that seems to hijack the loving relationship that they hope to recreate. We create a picture of the negative cycle in behavioral terms- what does each partner do in reaction/relation to the other that contributes to the cycle. As we continue to review this each partner begins to understand his or her distinct part in the cycle and to see the other partner differently. Couples learn that they are not enemies but instead are being seized by this negative feedback loop.
In time, defensiveness decreases, and trust begins to develop. Couples can begin to identify the cycle when they are at home but are not always able to stop it. This is the tricky part of couple’s therapy. Couples come for a session and are discouraged and some begin to feel hopeless “Will this ever end, we got into an argument again.” I validate the fact that they were able to see the negative cycle and explain that it takes time and practice to be able to change the established pattern and create a new, positive cycle. Being able to identify the negative cycle is a powerful first step in breaking its hold on the relationship.
After being able to notice the cycle, the next step is learning how to disengage so that the cycle doesn’t take hold. We develop strategies that each partner can use so that they don’t get caught in the cycle but can also feel that they have stated what they feel in a clear way. Couples are often uncertain about how to re-engage after they have stopped a negative cycle from overtaking them. They have successfully stopped a full-fledged argument but still are feeling disconnected. While this can be discouraging, I find that couples have much more hope and a sense of relief at this point.
Learning how to reconnect after a bump is the foundation of a healthy relationship. We all get into arguments or situations in which we don’t feel fully connected with our partner. Developing the skills to be able to soothe yourself and then reach for your partner creates a new, positive cycle based in love and mutual respect.
Tips for reconnecting with your partner:
- Check in with yourself to be sure that you are feeling calm and are aware of your thoughts and emotions about the dynamic that just happened
- Invite your partner to join you in a dialog about the incident
- This is not a time to review the details of the incident but to help each of you to understand what your intentions, perspectives and feelings are about the situation
- Practice active listening skills. Listen when your partner speaks and focus on your own thoughts and feelings when you are responding.
- Focus on the dynamics of the cycle rather than blaming each other and falling victim to it
- When each partner feels that they have been heard, and can understand the others perspective, check in to see if there is anything that has not been said.
- Thank each other for taking the time to strengthen the relationship in a loving way
- Do something nice as a couple. Take a walk, work together on a project, go to a movie. What you do together is not as important and taking the time to spend with each other.
With practice you and your partner will be able to notice the negative cycle as it is happening, be able to stop it and find loving ways to reconnect. You can have the happy, loving relationship you both desire with some patience and practice.