Disruptive Relationship Cycles In Distressed Couples
Carlos Durana Ph.D., M.Ac. offers couples and relationship therapy in Washington, DC, Reston, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland.
Traps and Exits
We all have vulnerabilities, sensitivities or wounds that are inevitably triggered in intimate long-term relationships. For example, for one person, it may be feeling criticized; for another it may be not feeling adequately cared for, and so on. Those sensibilities emerge and develop from woundings in family relationships with parents, siblings and important others. When triggered, vulnerabilities can at times manifest like allergies; even a small dose can trigger a reaction, a defensive or protective response. There are different types of defensive responses, for instance, blaming, withdrawing, sarcasm, acting like a victim, and so on. Invariably our protective maneuvers also trigger our partner’s vulnerabilities. In highly stressful conflict situations, partners mutually trigger each other’s sensitivities in disruptive and painful escalation cycles. During this cycle, we hope (consciously or unconsciously) that our partner will understand our predicament, and that he/she will soothe our disappointments and our wounds, and satisfy our unmet needs.
But the mutual and simultaneous triggering of wounding and defensive responses in these repetitive cycles makes it more challenging to meet each other’s needs. By reacting defensively, we unwittingly attract the opposite of what we want. Yet, within these cycles there are exits from the emotional entrapment and pain; there are opportunities for growth, healing, and the enhancement of relationship satisfaction.
In couples counseling and marriage counseling in Reston, Va., we work with these challenges, and the opportunities that they offer for relationship enhancement.
During these disruptive cycles, there are different exit strategies that can be employed for resolution. There are communication and conflict resolution approaches that are useful; self-responsibility and empathy are two of several important ingredients.
What our partners need the most during these difficult moments is often what we have the most difficulty in giving, and yet it is one of the things we need to do in order to improve the relationship.
An example of a sequence of behaviors might be the following:
Rob may feel quiet and reserved. Mary assumes that his distancing is about her. This triggers her vulnerability, and she doesn’t acknowledge or convey this appropriately; instead she expresses herself defensively through frustration or criticism (step 1 and 2). He perceives (unconsciously) her expression as an attack that may feel as profound as earlier wounding by significant parental or other important figures. Her expression triggers his vulnerability to criticism, and he reacts defensively through further withdrawal (step 3); this in turn heightens her vulnerability to feelings of abandonment (step 4). Each of them is behaving in ways that attract the opposite of what they desire. Other variations of this cycle may then manifest and escalate into similar painful sequences of behaviors.
Let’s take a look at the scenario for this couple:
He sees her being irritated. He assumes it is about him. He goes into his defensive coping and withdraws further (step 1). She perceives his behavior (unconsciously) as a painful attack that is a reminder of wounding by significant parental or other important figures. This triggers her vulnerability to feeling abandoned (step 2). She reacts defensively by getting angry or blaming/criticizing his distancing behavior (step 3) which in turn further triggers his vulnerability to feelings of criticism and control (step 4). Other variations of the cycle may emerge from this set of interactions.
This disruptive relationship cycle can be exited from at different points. For this couple, there are several ways that they can help each other heal. She can help him heal by learning not to blame/criticize and by expressing her vulnerability and her needs in healthy ways. Paradoxically, the conscious revealing of our wounds and vulnerabilities – rather than blaming, raging, withdrawing – enables caretaking behaviors in ourselves and our partners. He can help her heal her vulnerability by not withdrawing or acting in a passive/aggressive manner. He also needs to learn to convey his needs in healthier ways. What she needs the most is what he has the most difficulty in doing, and it is what he needs to do in order to grow. Likewise for her. This healing process, however, takes time and commitment and must not be based on the expectation of waiting for the other to start the process; it is an ongoing effort where each must take responsibility for his/her own needs, use good communication, and express empathy and understanding for each other. By knowing ourselves and our partners, and by empathizing with our partners’ wounds, we can learn to recognize, acknowledge, and even enjoy our differences rather than seeing them as threats or attacks.
Dr. Durana can be seen for couples counseling and marriage counseling in Washington, DC, Reston, Va., and Bethesda, Md.