relationship conflict

The Relationship Conflict Cycle Keeping You Stuck

When I work with couples, so much of our work is focused on seeing and uncovering the inner workings of how partners have learned to relate to one another. That is, there is always more to the relationship dance than couples are often able to see – such as the rupturing in communication, which can lead to partners feeling disconnected or not feeling heard.

Kelly came to see me because she wanted her partner to learn how to express his feelings and not shut down when they tried discussing an issue.

The Lead-Up To Kelly And Chris’s Relationship Conflict Cycle

Chris had an important work event, and he wanted to feel prepared. Kelly was happy that Chris invited her along and was making plans for their seemingly built-in date night together. When Chris found out that Kelly had made dinner plans, he immediately felt panic. “Dinner plans!” He blurted out. Chris began worrying about not having enough time to get situated before his work function began and that having dinner plans would likely throw off the schedule he had been going over all week in his head. His stress had reached an “insurmountable” level.

If Chris was able to express his needs, he might have shared with his partner that this event was important to him. He might have shared some of the concerns he had about attending his first big work function since taking a new position at a different law firm. He might have shared with his partner how she could best support him.

When Kelly and Chris try to process a fight, Chris tends to shut down and not know how to put into words what he is feeling. Chris has learned to hold things in until he reaches a breaking point. When this happens, Kelly tends to analyze the situation. Because Chris feels guilt over his momentary outburst and like he disappointed his partner, he will become apologetic and acquiescent. Chris is not able to discern the underlying reason that might be causing him to feel a particular way—that is, the deeper feeling that he may be experiencing. This is a defense mechanism that Chris learned to do when he experienced similar feelings in the past. That is, Chris wants to smooth things over and be the “cool” and “even-keeled” guy who knows how to make everyone happy.

Kelly and Chris are not aware of how they have created a dynamic that actually perpetuates Chris’s tendency to move away from emotional discomfort and Kelly’s tendency to pursue validation by looking for an explanation.

The very thing that Kelly complains about — that is, Chris not being in touch with his emotions — she, inadvertently, helps reinforce when they get into a disagreement. Neither partner can see the cycle that they keep repeating.

Chris’s Story

Chris didn’t like seeing his father upset with him. Chris never wanted to disappoint his parents. So he learned to adapt to what, he believed, he needed to be in order to keep the peace and be “likeable.”

The Cost Of Having This Belief

Chris has learned to identify with himself through the lens of what others think of him. He cares about being liked by everyone. Hence, he is not able to discern or honor his deeper needs.

The “holding in” ultimately causes stress to build up until it only takes one more small disruption to throw Chris off kilter. When this happens, Chris experiences guilt and shame. To avoid these negative feelings, Chris quickly finds his way back to calm-and-cool Chris. He never has a chance to get to the root of his issue and bring understanding to his deeper feelings.

Kelly’s Story

Kelly suffered a traumatic childhood and felt bereft of any understanding that could help her to make sense of the longstanding abuse she endured. Kelly learned to seek validation by distilling other’s actions into a sense-making experience. Kelly tries to protect herself from having to feel that she has done something “bad” or having to feel defective — this is a feeling that she experienced in the past.

The Cost of Having This Belief

Kelly has a deep fear of not being lovable. She has a proclivity to fight to feel seen and worthy of love.

Breaking The Cycle

Chris and Kelly have learned to address their unresolvable issues at the surface level. If they do not become aware of the cycle that they keep entering, they will not be able to gain understanding or find resolution.

During couples therapy, Kelly and Chris were able to become aware of the cycle that they kept entering. Both partners needed to feel safe enough to grow in their relationship. Chris was afraid to let Kelly know that he needed her to stop telling him how he felt. He was afraid that he would upset her. Kelly needed to know that she did not need to “fight” to matter in this relationship and that Chris genuinely loved and cherished her. The common ground that both Chris and Kelly shared in their relationship was their deep desire to understand and offer emotional support to one another.

Chris was able to communicate his need for Kelly to refrain from labeling his emotional experiences. Instead, he needed her to “not know” and be interested in learning about what he might be feeling. Kelly began asking questions like “Did I get it right?” And providing statements like, “It makes sense that you would feel this way given your experiences.” This helped Chris to connect with his feelings.

During a follow-up session, Chris was able to affirm that he felt “judged” when Kelly would provide her own assessment without checking in with him to see if this was true for him. When Kelly was able to seek understanding rather than offering an explanation, Chris was able to feel “heard.” Kelly said that she felt like Chris could be more open. It was hard, she admitted, for her to refrain from having a rebuttal, but she noticed that Chris was able to make more connections when she did not try to inject, prematurely, her own rationalization.

Chris needed to feel safe in the relationship so that he could learn to be more open and express his needs. Kelly needed to work through her negative core belief that she was defective and that Chris would find something about her not to love.

NOTE: Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

~ Amy-Noelle