Vicious cycles in relationships

It is a common problem for couples in long-term relationships to get stuck in vicious cycles of conflict which are characterised by negative behaviour patterns and poor communication. Couples get locked into rigid and inflexible styles of role playing (e.g. breadwinner, carer, wife/husband, mother/father, victim/perpetrator and bill-payer), they are unable or unwilling to change. Or, they may find themselves taking up positions and defending roles that are no longer working for them. After years of neglect, complacency and resentment the intimacy can dissolve away and couples are left at the centre of a vicious cycle that has taken them unawares.

Most couples’ counsellors focus their attention on helping both parties unwind recurring cycles of negative interaction and behaviour. Couples are encouraged to change hostile or frustrating communication patterns by first breaking the cycle, acknowledging their part in the process and owning the need to change. They then seek to repair the damage done with more empathetic ways of communicating. This is especially true of emotionally abusive behaviour which may have become nasty, uncaring and controlling. How can you tell the difference between being stuck in a vicious cycle and being in a relationship with a vicious partner?

A counsellor's experience teaches them to observe and attune to the signs of a vicious emotional cycle that couples generate as they try to deal with their personal differences, frustrations and disagreements. Some people may be highly emotive and outwardly expressive, while others are more withdrawn, avoidant of conflict and find it difficult to express themselves. After the intoxication of falling in love "you are my soulmate" most people realise the person with whom they are intimately involved, is not the person they originally connected up with. Idealising that person may have changed from euphoria, to indifference, or even anger and resentment. No matter how compatible your partner is at the beginning, couples soon discover there are significant disagreements in the way they think, feel and behave.

A typical problem, which is often faced by couples is how to deal with feelings of anger and resentment, by managing conflict in a way that both people find tolerable and constructive. What appears to be one person's aggression and hyper-emotional style of communication, is a problem for the other person who constantly reacts by seeking to dismiss, downplay or withdraw from conflict at all costs (even to the point of denying they ever actually feel angry). But feeling anger, showing anger and swallowing anger are three very different things.

Though many differences between couples may be negligible, some may create really divisive tensions if left unresolved or unspoken about. If they cannot be repaired, many people resort to controlling behaviours and become defensive or try to change their partner by being dismissive or critical. They may react to conflict by withdrawing from intimacy or emotional contact as a way of punishing their partner. As feelings get hurt and a reflex reaction takes place, the couple set-up a cycle of counter-criticism and withdrawal. What starts as a small disagreement, can quickly become a vicious cycle of attack, alienation and defensiveness that never ends. If this is left unchecked for too long, couples begin to perceive their loved ones, not as partners, friends or lovers, but as the enemy within. As romantic attachments fail to resolve disputes, the relationship disintegrates - craving turns to repulsion.

Signs of a vicious cycle:

  • ping-pong arguments going back and forth without resolution
  • long periods of punishing silence and disengagement
  • constant negative criticism and accusations rather than constructive requests or agreements to change
  • a lack of emotional boundaries
  • inability to acknowledge problems, apologise or repair relationships
  • sweeping problems under the carpet
  • frequent outbursts of emotion or emotional withdrawal
  • someone always has to be right
  • each person has a list of grievances
  • hair-trigger reactions and defensiveness
  • inability to make mutual decisions
  • frequent petty squabbles escalate into full-scale arguments
  • inability to listen or take on board the other person's opinion
  • undermining the other person's values, opinions and beliefs
  • controlling behaviours (both aggressive and passive-aggressive)

The solution to a vicious cycle is a simple one, but difficult to accomplish in practice - the couple must agree to break the vicious cycle as soon as it is identified and before it threatens to undermine communication. It depends very much on enacting behaviours characterised by acceptance, mutual agreement and boundary-setting. this means learning to tolerate change. That is each person has to try to stop the vicious cycle, the moment it begins, rather than reacting to being hurt, criticised or disappointed. This must be done by setting mutual boundaries in a prior agreement, negotiating those boundaries openly and providing a safety mechanism by using a time-out clause to de-escalate the rising tide of hostility. It also means improving listening skills and using empathy to appreciate each other's point of view.

The problem is that for many couples, acting in this way during an unceasing cycle of argument and personal vendetta feels like giving in. Worse still, it can often feel like you've allowed yourself to be victimised by the other person, or have allowed their negative behaviours to go unnoticed without being challenged. Someone always feels like they're on the losing side of the struggle. Couples are often afraid of showing weakness. However, the truth is that by de-escalating conflict we are putting the relationship first, rather than prioritising one person’s rights over another. Only then can couples listen to each other and make informed decisions about how to repair the relationship.

On some level, acceptance and putting the relationship first comes at a huge emotional risk. What if as you begin to change and act in a more empathetic, caring way, your partner continues to attack, devalue or undermine you? What if they continue in the same vicious cycle? What happens if they cannot repair, apologise, or acknowledge their behaviour? Now there seems little excuse for their ignorance. Either they change too, or you may have to accept that the relationship has broken down irrevocably. If you have managed to step out of the vicious cycle but your partner’s behaviour remains the same, it may mean you have to end the relationship and that's scary.

Ways couples counselling seeks to resolve vicious cycles:

  • to step out of the cycle long enough to de-escalate immediate tensions or conflict
  • to identify triggers and destructive patterns of behaviour and communication
  • to improve attentive listening skills and empathy in communication
  • to learn new ways of building intimacy and expressing emotion
  • to acknowledge one's own negative behaviours and take responsibility for them
  • to give-up the need to be right all the time
  • to forget lists of grievances and focus on positive need for change
  • to prioritise the relationship and not the individual's demands
  • to understand how patterns of communication were set up in childhood
  • to practice acceptance and forgiveness when changes are not immediate
  • to openly experiment with new ways of interacting
  • to continue open negotiation in decision-making, rather than instructing the other person or making demands
  • to try not to attach conditions to changes in new interactions and behaviours

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

I am Greg Savva. An experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, EnduringMind. I believe in a compassionate, open-minded approach to counselling as the best way forward for my clients. I focus on helping you make sense of erratic thoughts and emotions. Offering you a chance to gain self-awareness and change for the better.… Read more

Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

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