Art of Relationships

Breaking dysfunctional, cyclical patterns in relationships

Relationships aren’t easy, and the closer the relationship, such as that with a spouse, the more difficult it gets. Conflict is inevitable in relationships, however, how a couple deals with conflict forms a key contributor to the overall health of a relationship. Each couple in a relationship plays out its own dynamic when dealing with conflict and the starting point is to recognise whether the dynamic or pattern is healthy or unhealthy. Let me illustrate this through a case study. A couple (details masked) came into therapy with both husband and wife presenting the problem of a near breakdown in  communication. The husband’s complaint was that he found his wife to be very controlling. Each time they would fight, he felt put down and criticised by her. Her complaint, meanwhile, was that each time there was a problem that needed to be addressed, she would be the one trying to raise it with him in order to resolve it. She felt that she ended up doing all the work, while he avoided taking initiative by escaping into his own world and refusing to engage with her.

Thus, both husband and wife felt that the other did not care about their experience. Both felt unloved and disconnected from each other. For the husband, in times of conflict, his wife’s criticism and controlling tendency felt like a threat. In response, he felt anxious and overwhelmed and believed himself to be inadequate. And so, his way of coping with these intense emotions was to try to keep himself safe by shutting down and stonewalling her.

The wife, on the other hand, carried a deep fear of abandonment and so, each time she felt him pulling away, she became even more controlling. Propelled by fear, she resorted to criticism as a way of getting him to stay and engage with her and also as a way of masking her own feelings of rejection and hurt.

With every fight, this pattern repeated – both parties invalidating each other’s experience and too scared to be vulnerable in front of each other. Thus, what followed inevitably, was a breakdown in communication with both parties fixated on blaming each other and no healthy resolution to their conflict in sight.

What would a healthy resolution look like? For the couple mentioned above, it would mean recognising and interrupting their cyclical pattern, holding space for each other’s perspectives and fixing the problem together as a unit, instead of fixing the blame.

Breaking the pattern would entail both learning the skills to regulate their emotions. It would also mean the wife recognising her partner’s feelings of overwhelm and need for space, and loosening her grip, and the husband recognising his wife’s fear of rejection and need to repair and coming back into the conversation to engage with her.

This takes a lot of work and it can be hard to do this work by oneself as patterns are often a function of long held thoughts, beliefs and attachment styles that we may have acquired in our childhood.

Individual and couples therapy work are needed for both parties to become aware of their respective patterns, understand how they feed into the overall cycle and build the skills needed to intentionally and consciously interrupt them. It also becomes important for the couple to reflect on whether both value the relationship and each other enough to commit to the work. It is then that  both parties  can be open to appreciating that the best thing about knowing they have a problem is the chance to fix it.