Most relationships can be described as a cycle. What one person says or does influences the other person’s emotions and reactions...and so on. These reactions contribute to the continuation of the relationship cycle. In a positive relationship cycle, partners will feel closer and more connected to each other. On the other hand, continuing to invest in a negative cycle will cause distance between partners.
Think about the last time your partner complimented you. Most likely, you had a positive reaction. Maybe you gave a compliment back or even just said, “Thank you”. Now, think about the last time you had an unresolved argument with your partner. You may have felt uncared for, unimportant, misunderstood, disconnected, hurt, neglected, unattended to, or any other negative feeling. You may notice that you start to argue more and more which continues to fuel your negative feelings toward each other. No matter how much you argue, you never reach a resolution. So, you find yourself bringing up arguments from the past when arguing about anything in the present moment. This is your cue that a negative cycle has developed in your relationship.
Too often, when we encounter a challenge in our relationships, we try to fix them in the best way we know how to. So you might be wondering, why do couples get stuck in the same negative relationship cycle with each other where they both end up feeling dissatisfied, despite how much they love each other? First, let’s look at how those negative patterns look like in relationships to better understand them and why they happen. Then I will give you the secret that will help you get unstuck.
Consider Jon and Sofia’s relationship. They are constantly arguing about little things, feel dissatisfied in their relationship, and on the verge of separating.
Jon, as a child, never got his needs met by his mother. His mother was a strong woman who always focused on helping him improve which caused a lack of validation and support in their relationship. Jon spends his adulthood looking for the validation he never got as a child. Longing for connections that have a similar dynamic because that is what he is familiar with. As an adult, Jon tends to seek strong women, like Sofia, who may not criticize him but her accomplishments alone leave him feeling emasculated. Initially, he admires her, but with time he comes to resent her because he feels invalidated and not good enough. On an unconscious level, Jon attracts the same kind of women because of his early emotional experience. He is seeking to master the relationship so he can feel validated and good enough. This is how he ends up getting stuck in a negative cycle.
On the other hand, Sofia had an absent parent as a child. The absent parent wasn’t abusive, however, they were always at work and never around. As an adult, Sofia tends to be attracted to men who are emotionally unavailable or aloof. At first, the relationship is great, but then it takes a turn. Sofia suffers from the emotional damage that came from the absence of validation and the love she needed from her parent as a child. She didn’t get that validation simply because the parent was not around to give it. Like Jon, she is seeking to master the relationship so she can feel loved and validated. This is how she ends up getting stuck in a negative cycle.
Now, let’s look at how negative patterns show up in arguments and why they happen.
Sofia starts arguing with Jon because he was late. Sofia feels neglected and frustrated. Deep down she fears being alone. She starts saying things such as, “You are always gone,” “You don’t care about me,” or “You never listen to me.” She is crying for attention and validation from Jon.
Jon fears to be inadequate and helpless. He feels sad and nothing he does is ever good enough. He just wants the conflict to end. So, he becomes defensive and says things like “I didn’t mean it that way,” “What do you want from me?” “I can never do anything right for you.”
It is an endless loop. This cycle continues until eventually Jon leaves and they are both left more frustrated and hurt. The longing and soft emotions never get expressed or seen. This negative cycle happens so fast and strong it is hard to recognize when one is embedded in their emotions.
To shift the negative cycle to a positive one, each person has to get in touch with the underlying emotions and unmet needs and communicate those to their partner. To be vulnerable, not just expressing part of what they feel but the whole experience. This will help break the negative cycle and truly express the emotion beneath the surface and what is actually going on. So what is the underlying message behind what Sofia and Jon said to each other:
What is said vs What is meant:
“You are always gone” / “I miss you”
“You don’t care about me” / “I want to be loved by you”
“You never listen to me” / “I want to know I matter to you”
“I didn’t mean it that way” / “I want to know you love me”
“What do you want from me?” / “I don’t know what to do”
“I can never do anything right for you” / “Please accept me”
By slowing the negative cycle down, you allow your mind to calm down the emotional part of your brain and invite the rational part of your brain to reach a state of balance. You create a possibility for new reactions to be more open to each other. When couples see the vulnerable side of one another they can understand and reach a deeper connection. They start to see each other in new ways, forming a lasting secure connection. That’s the secret! To overcome the negative cycle in your relationship - slow down and allow your self to be vulnerable so you can foster a positive cycle.
If you struggle to do this alone, talk with a therapist. The therapist will help you explore the negative cycle in your relationship, recognize the patterns you are repeating, and guide you to build positive responses to break that negative cycle and help you heal.
I hope this provided you with some insight and awareness on how to improve your relationships and make them thrive.
About Sam Nabil
Sam was featured in many prestigious publications. Check out his interview with Aljazeera English
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