In a recent yoga class, I heard the teacher say ‘feel tension, the point of connection,’ acknowledging that tension is a component of connection/relationships. A lot of couples I see pursuing couples therapy are navigating relational tension. So much of the time they are longing for connection but expressing it in ways that seem to repel the other without knowing why. I’ve seen the frustration, despair, and conflict in couples when one partner is listing their needs and the other partner shrinks away. This is the classic pursuer-withdrawer dynamic many of us find ourselves in. Neither partner is ‘wrong’ in their ask or reaction, rather it is an invitation to look deeper at the source of what is driving these negative patterns of communication. This is a breeding ground for hope as well.
Have you ever found yourself in the same argument (‘why are you bringing this up again?!’) or found yourself going round and round with your partner, talking in circles so mind numbing that it seems better to abandon the whole conversation and forgo connection or feeling heard? You are not alone. Observing our own reactions and communication cycles is crucial. However, it is not the whole story.
A helpful tool when we find ourselves locked in this way of communicating is to ‘Understand the Negative Cycle’. This is a practice from Douglas Tilley, LCSW-C. There are 7 reflections to explore when you and your partner are arguing.
1. I often react by (describe behaviors)…
2. My partner often reacts to me by (describe behaviors)…
3. When my partner reacts this way, I often feel…
4. When I feel this way, I see myself as….
5. When I feel this way, I long for or need…
6. When I react the way I do, I guess that my partner feels…
7. Describe your repeating negative cycle (include how you and your partner trigger each other’s feelings, thoughts and behaviors)…
Here is an example:
1. I often react by yelling and passionately expressing my needs
2. My partner often react to me by shutting down i.e. avoiding eye contact, not speaking
3. When my partner react this way I feel angry
4. When I feel this way I see myself as someone who has too many needs, a difficult partner
5. When I feel this way I long for connection with my partner, to know I’m not “too much”
6. When I react the way I do, I guess that my partner feels caught off guard
7. I am often the more vocal one and will raise my voice in an attempt to be heard, my partner gets overwhelmed and physiologically has a hard time hearing me in this way so they shut down, I get angry, they retreat, etc.
The simple act of this reflection and exploration takes us out of the negative cycle and gives language for us to express unmet emotional needs, not just surface level frustrations (i.e. ‘I do everything in this house!” vs. “I long to be seen by you and appreciated for my contribution”). Take some time to reflect on your negative cycle – there is a better way to communicate that allows both you and your partner to be heard.
-Rachel Lehr, LCSW