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Identifying and overcoming attack-attack couple dynamic behavior patterns

Sometimes this cycle is called "Find the Bad Guy" or the "Bickering Couple". This negative couple dynamic is noted when couples engage with both people are defending themselves and attacking their partner, thus aptly named the attack-attack cycle.


Of course when a person feels attacked, it's a natural response to go on the defensive. This can be a good thing, if it’s in response to an actual attack, but not so great when it happens in your most meaningful love relationship.


This negative cycle is hard to maintain as it takes so much constant energy. This type of cycle shows up most with partners who have more assertive and strong personalities. That said, long term, as one partner burns out, it begins to looks like one of the other couple dynamics.


This emotional behavior pattern can, at times lead to abusive relationships and coercive control. Attack-attack cycles can also lead to deepened resentment that only serves to create further conflict.


Identifying attack-attack patterns

To identify an attack-attack pattern, notice the quick nature of the escalation. As one partner accuses, the other blames back. As partners fight to be right, they continuously point fingers and bring up evidence about who’s more wrong.


Usually this pattern starts out like the Pursue-Withdraw dynamic and then the withdrawn partner turns into a reactive withdrawer. The purpose to encourage the pursuing partner to back off. Unfortunately, it becomes counter-productive and serves to make the pattern worse.


What do attack-attack behavior patterns look like?

Attack-attack behavior patterns are one of the easiest couple dynamics to recognize. Unfortunately, this kind of abusive relationship usually results in even worse outcomes than just verbal abuse. This can often escalate into name-calling, hostility or other negative reactions. This constant finger pointing seems to say, “It’s all your fault."

People often refer to couples who are stuck in an attack-attack pattern as "the bickering couple" or "the name-calling couple," especially when they get stuck in the third aspect of the cycle (both people get angry at each other for defending themselves).


The following are common behaviors in an attack-attack cycle:

  • Both parties start out feeling hurt and angry.

  • One person starts making accusations about how the other person has been treating them.

  • Both people become defensive and try to justify what they did or said.

  • Both people get angry at each other for defending themselves.

  • The cycle continues until both people are exhausted and frustrated with the situation.

The intensity is great with these couples. Long-term relationships with this pattern are very tense. The couple feels like they are walking on egg shells and exhibits a heavy silent anger. The couple can be aggressive and reactive. Both parties feel quite unsafe, neither feels the safety of being on the same team. There is a constant blaming the other for what can go wrong due to increased feelings of frustration without any possibility of a productive conversation. This dynamic can be seen in both heterosexual couples and homosexual couples.


What to do if you notice that your pattern is exhibiting signs of attack-attack behavior


If you notice your relationship is falling into the attack-attack behavior, it's important to take action to protect yourself and get help if it starts to feel like there may be physical abuse.


It's also important to remember that these behaviors are difficult to break out of on your own because they have been conditioned over a long time. There may be some underlying trauma that causes the partners to avoid feeling blamed. Couples counseling is usually recommended for overcoming such negative interactions between partners.


Common attack-attack behaviors that may be fall into a type of abuse:

Sometimes this attack-attack dynamic can slip into abusive behavior, there are several warning signs:

  • Verbal Abuse: Verbal aggression and/or verbal abuse includes threats, insults, name calling, and sarcasm. It is usually used when someone feels threatened or attacked.

  • Physical Abuse: Physical aggression involves hitting, pushing, shoving, grabbing, pinching, or slapping. It is usually used to intimidate others or to defend oneself against physical abuse.

  • Sexual Abuse: Sexual assault or sexual abuse is defined as unwanted sexual contact such as kissing, fondling, or intercourse without consent.

  • Emotional Abuse: Emotional abuse is defined as verbal attacks or intimidation that causes emotional pain or distress. These include humiliation, belittling, isolation, and control.

  • Financial Abuse: Financial abuse may include controlling how much you spend or domineering behavior on how money is spent.

  • Neglect: Neglect is defined as failing to provide adequate care or attention to someone else.

If you notice that your partner has exhibited any of these behaviors, it's important to address the issue.


Overcoming an Attack-Attack Behavior Pattern in Your Relationship

The best way for couples to break out of these destructive patterns and start having more productive arguments is by learning how to stop attacking each other. The best way is to seek out professional guidance from an experienced therapist.


Evolve Therapy helps couples resolve their relationship issues by addressing underlying emotional patterns. Schedule an appointment today. We can help you work toward having a healthy relationship.


Additional Resources

There are a number of resources available for couples who are experiencing escalated attack-attack behavior. If you are a victim of abuse, or if you want to help someone you know who is being abused, there are hotlines and domestic violence shelters that can provide assistance.


The National Domestic Violence Hotline provides crisis counseling and 24/7 support for victims of domestic violence. You can call the hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).


The National Sexual Assault Hotline provides 24/7 support for victims of sexual assault. You can call the hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

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