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How do we stop our Negative Relationship Dynamic?

What is the Negative Cycle (Negative Relationship Dynamic) that my couples therapist keeps telling us we are stuck in? How do we stop it?

The negative couple is a communication dynamic that gets in the way of emotional safety or emotional connection when couples try to talk through or resolve difficult conflicts. In other words: It’s the same fight over and over again. Couples tend to fight about the same things repeatedly. This can go on for weeks that turn into months and that turn into years.


Sometimes a couple know their moves so well that they can fight from the other person’s position. It goes like this, “I say _______ and they say______”. You can tell you are in your negative cycle when you hear things like:

  • “Here we go again”

  • “It’s always the same thing with you!”

  • “You do this every time we…”

  • “You always yell!”

  • “You always walk away!”

Other names for the negative cycle are: Negative Feedback Loop, Negative Dance, or Negative Pattern. Some couples of my couples name their cycle: The Tornado, the Spiral, That thing we do, The White Squall, The Vortex and so on, you get the picture.


Aren’t these just communication problems?

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These conflicts frequently come up when couples reach to each other emotionally or sexually and when they try to solve typical problems like finances, child rearing or co-parenting, or sharing workload responsibilities.


In short, couples can’t talk about their different perspectives until they deal with the negative cycle.


Couples come into therapy saying they have “communication problems” or “compatibility problems”. Truth is that I have never met a couple that truly has communication problems, in fact most couples communicate quite well. They just aren’t communicating at a deep enough emotional level.


The issues of compatibility can’t be addressed until these communication breakdowns or negative cycles get addressed.


How does the negative cycle begin?

At the beginning of a relationship, there is usually a lot of trust, love, and respect. As the relationship matures couples most deal with their differences, and these can turn into conflict, if they don’t know how to resolve these in a healthy way. This is where the negative cycle is born.


At first, they may let the conflict go and ignore it in service of the relationship or they may start to push for their way. One can see purse/withdraw dynamic is beginning here. There are typically four common couples dynamic or negative cycles.


Once this pattern has started, the fights get worse and worse and the harder for the couple to come back together. This negative cycle is circular, because it both reduces the closeness and relationship safety due to the unresolved problems, and can contribute to sexual problems, because of the lack of emotional closeness.


As the negative cycle takes hold the couple can fall into a blame trap where they blame the other for the relationship problems or they start to believe they aren’t right for each other or they worry they aren’t attracted to their partner. For most couples this isn’t the truth. The problem isn’t their partner rather the problem is the negative cycle, the negative cycle is the enemy, the real bad guy!


What are ways to manage this negative cycle:

Understanding your negative cycle is the first step in managing it.

Ask yourself these questions to get deeper into understanding yourself.

When my partner and I are not getting along:

I often react by (describe behaviors)...

When my partner reacts this way, I often feel...

My partner often reacts to me by (describe behaviors)...

When my partner reacts this way, I often feel...

When I feel this way I, see myself as....

When I feel this way I long for or need...

When I react the way I do, I guess that my partner feels...

Describe your repeating negative cycle (include how you and your partner trigger each other’s feelings, thoughts and behaviors)...


Some final thoughts

Remember that the negative cycle is the problem, not your partner.


Talk about how you are feeling on the inside, meaning share what you don't usually share. Share your vulnerabilities by showing more than just your anger. Underneath anger is usually something softer if you share that it will pull your partner closer to you. Example: “I am starting to feel inadequate when you tell me what I do wrong.”

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