The same old arguments … the same old cycle. In the marriage counseling world, we call these negative interaction cycles. The topic or concern or issue may change but it’s usually the same pattern: one spouse is more demanding or trying to get a response and the other avoids or dismisses or withdraws. And then it escalates from there. Today, we’re going to help you get started on breaking out of this pattern!
The Three Cycles
There’s really just three kinds of cycles. The most common is where one spouse is pursuing or demanding or attacking; the other spouse is avoiding, dismissive or withdrawing. Sometimes called the attack-withdraw or demand-withdraw cycle. The second is where both spouses typically go on the attack. The third is where both spouses avoid. Let’s break these down a little bit.
The Demand-Withdraw Cycle
In this form, one spouse (classically the wife, although occasionally I see this in reverse) tries to engage in a discussion about an issue that is important to him or her. They will typically make demands or apply pressure. The automatic response of the other spouse is to avoid, dismiss or withdraw from the discussion[i].
This often leads to escalation, as the demanding spouse feels ignored or unheard and so has to resort to increasingly strong forms of attack in order to try to break through the defenses. Unfortunately, the withdrawing spouse, in the face of an intensified attack, will often double down on the defense and withdraw even more, often stonewalling the attacker.
This will continue until either the attacker gives up which is a profoundly lonely moment for him or her, or until the withdrawer explodes.
This style of conflict is not good for marital satisfaction (no surprise there).
The Mutually-Hostile Approach
In this approach, typically both spouses are pursuers or attackers. You respond to criticism with further criticism and with a conscious or subconscious agenda to provoke an angry response. As you might expect, this often escalates and usually just becomes an anger-venting, cathartic experience rather than one that actually solves problems and resolves conflict[ii].
While this may be a more frightening approach to conflict, and certainly doesn’t do much good for either of you, it is at least easier to break out of than the common demand-withdraw pattern. Simply because both spouses want to express themselves (which is helpful) and work on the issue at hand. It simply becomes a matter of figuring out a more productive way to do so[iii].
The third pattern is where both spouses are avoiding or are naturally withdrawers. In this situation, there’s no major overt conflict and no screaming matches but typically nothing ever gets resolved. Unfortunately, this leads to a buildup of resentment as all these unresolved issues grow and grow[iv].
Now it is important to note that your style may change. For example, if you started out your marriage avoid-avoid you may eventually find one person transitions to pursuing. Or both of you get so frustrated that you become mutually hostile.
One shift I see more commonly is in the demand-withdraw cycle (the common one we began with), the pursuer gets burnt out. Then they often come in as an avoid-avoid situation in therapy and when we do our history and assessment work at the start I soon begin to see that it used to be demand-withdraw but then eventually the pursuing spouse got burnt out.
All of these cycles are more common in couples whose marriage is distressed: if things are going badly and there’s a lot of tension and unresolved anger then falling into a negative cycle is much easier. As you’d probably expect, each of these cycles creates further distress in the marriage[v].
Breaking the Pattern
If you want to drill down into some detailed tactics on breaking out of these patterns then our bonus guide for today’s episode will show you how to do that. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
How To Break Out of Conflict Patterns
Ok, now let’s talk about how to break out of these cycles. First by looking at the wider context of marriage then with some specific skills.
Equalize Power Imbalances
A study done in 1993[vi] argue that the demand-withdraw cycle of conflict is particularly likely if there is an imbalance of power within the marriage. For example, if the husband has more decision making power in the marriage then he will not be motivated to change anything, so will naturally withdraw when the wife raises an issue she wants him to change. He does not have to fight for his position because he already feels he owns it.
On the other hand, if your wife has less power this means that trying to engage you in conflict may be the only way she can get her needs met. Developing a more equal relationship and a collaborative mindset can help resolve this.
Resentment and Unresolved Issues
If there are many grievances that have been left unresolved or if one spouse perceives the marriage as unfair in some way, then resentment is likely to build. Resentment itself is likely to make you as a couple use more negative conflict styles[vii]. Addressing these past issues and solving minor complaints before they build up can be an effective way to avoid unhelpful cycles. Just keep on top of things: don’t let them build.
We’ve talked about how attributions or interpretations can affect your marriage before. The meaning you attribute to your spouse’s actions has an impact on what kind of conflict interactions you are likely to use. Interpreting their actions negatively can increase hostility and the likelihood of using negative conflict styles.
For example, when your husband comes home late and misses dinner, if you as the wife interpret this as “he is thoughtless and doesn’t care about keeping his promises” this makes falling into a hostile conflict cycle much more likely. Conversely, interpreting the same situation as “he was probably caught in traffic” is much less likely to lead to conflict[viii].
Working on challenging your negative attributions and trying to interpret your spouse’s actions more positively can help you break out of negative cycles and choose different ways of responding. The idea here is to just mentally “pause” yourself for a minute before you respond, stopping to see if you’re really assessing the situation fairly, or whether you’re heading in a direction that will lead to conflict.
Use Conflict Resolution Skills from EFCT
Emotion Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT) is the treatment methodology of choice at OnlyYouForever for our marriage therapists. In fact, this approach is so effective I will not hire a marriage therapist unless they are trained in it. EFCT is very effective in helping couples identify and break out of these negative interaction cycles. Here are the key points as to how that works[ix]:
- Identifying the cycle and seeing it as the problem, rather than each other.
- Identifying and expressing the underlying emotions and unmet needs which are trying to be expressed through the conflict
- Each spouse accepting the other’s experience and perspective.
- Express needs in relation to the original conflict, in order to restructure the cycle of interaction based on new perspectives and emotions.
- Form new ways of dealing with conflict based on these new perspectives
As we touched on earlier, these are covered in more detail in today’s bonus content or if you really wish to learn how to do this on your own in your marriage head on over to our website and go to the marriage counseling link at the top of the page and one of our specialized marriage therapists would be happy to work with you.
Essential Problem Solving Skills
An alternative or complementary way to break out of negative cycles comes from a CBT perspective. This involves learning new skills to express your own needs more effectively, and getting better at supporting your spouse rather than making things worse for them. Some key points include:
- Learning ways to express stress and frustration more effectively, without coming across as hostile or blaming. Eg I/You statements: “When you do X, I feel Y”
- Learning to observe and recognize your spouse’s emotional state: paying attention to verbal/nonverbal cues to identify when they are stressed or when you have upset them.
- Learning individual and joint coping skills: such as learning how to calm your spouse down/relieve stress when they are upset. Also learning how to manage stress yourself, so that you can respond more calmly during conflict and de-escalate situations.
- Becoming more aware of your thought processes. Learning to examine your assumptions, interpretations and emotions before you speak and act based on them. This gives you the choice of whether to act based on impulses which might escalate conflict, or whether to prioritize the marriage (i.e., the sense of ‘us’ vs. ‘me’)
So those are all pretty useful things to be working on too. A study back in 1985[x] examined which of these approaches to conflict resolution (EFCT or CBT) was the most effective. They found that both are effective in reducing marital discord and conflict, and increasing intimacy, but that EFCT was significantly better.
So learning to spot the cycles and understand the underlying needs/emotions is the best way to resolve conflict, but learning communication and coping skills can help too.
[i] C. L. Heavey, C. Layne, and A. Christensen, “Gender and Conflict Structure in Marital Interaction: A Replication and Extension,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 61, no. 1 (February 1993): 16–27.
[ii] Lynn F. Katz and John M. Gottman, “Patterns of Marital Conflict Predict Children’s Internalizing and Externalizing Behaviors.,” Developmental Psychology 29, no. 6 (1993): 940.
[iii] Heavey, Layne, and Christensen, “Gender and Conflict Structure in Marital Interaction.”
[iv] Frank D. Fincham, Steven R. H. Beach, and Joanne Davila, “Longitudinal Relations between Forgiveness and Conflict Resolution in Marriage,” Journal of Family Psychology: JFP: Journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43) 21, no. 3 (September 2007): 542–45, https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3126.96.36.1992.
[v] Frank D. Fincham, “Marital Conflict: Correlates, Structure, and Context,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12, no. 1 (February 1, 2003): 23–27, https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.01215.
[vi] Heavey, Layne, and Christensen, “Gender and Conflict Structure in Marital Interaction.”
[vii] Fincham, “Marital Conflict.”
[ix] Alan S. Gurman, Jay L. Lebow, and Douglas K. Snyder, Clinical Handbook of Couple Therapy (Guilford Publications, 2015).
[x] S. M. Johnson and L. S. Greenberg, “Differential Effects of Experiential and Problem-Solving Interventions in Resolving Marital Conflict,” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 53, no. 2 (April 1985): 175–84.