If you’ve ever wondered why some couples seem to have never-ending problems, most likely they are stuck in a problematic cycle that continues to escalate each time the issue surfaces. 

For instance, what begins as a wife’s distress with her husband working late becomes suspicions of adultery months later. If she feels as if she’s losing him, in her desperation to hold on to him, she might shout attacking words that usually mask a cry for longing and connection. Her desperate pursuit leads to his slow withdrawal and a vicious cycle sets in if either one of them doesn’t see beneath the surface response.

The truth is, most negative responses hide a deep need for reconnection in romantic relationships. So why is it so difficult for couples to see through this? Well, the reasons vary from person to person. It could be pride, a lack of an awareness of how to practice emotional intelligence, or simply defaulting to the way they’ve always responded to such conflict in the past. Unfortunately, though, some people struggle with moving through problems more than others.

What we usually think is that when people can’t fix things, they don’t have enough love to fight for each other which is often not true. 

Even people who love each other deeply can get stuck in negative ways of interacting because of a lack of relational tools to fix things. This seeming inability to bond even in a fight slowly overpowers the love beneath. It’s why even the unhappiest of couples keep trying to fix things in the same unhelpful ways. The love is there somewhere deep. It’s just hidden under layers of hurt, pain and betrayal.

How Cycles Develop

From day one, all couples set in motion a way of interacting that is reciprocal. They contribute to what goes on between them by how much one puts in and how much the other response back. 

In a couple, you might notice that one pursues and the other withdraws; one over-functions and the other under-functions; one controls and the other rebels. Once these cycles set in and create dysfunction, some couples stay stuck in them and can’t find their way out. 

The good news is that either of the two can change his or her part in the pattern and change starts to happen. When one person changes, the relationship changes. Having this simple understanding of how cycles develop can give enough motivation to try something new to unbalance then rebalance the couple’s system.

How to Break the Cycle

If caught early, any couple can arrest a negative pattern and actively look at how it developed, understand their contribution to it and then start doing things differently. Take John and Mary. Mary says John’s always complaining. John’s complaining is only one part of the mutual interaction.

We can perceive John’s nagging by saying that Mary hasn’t given him room to share his complaints, so not being listened to by Mary makes him feel upset and unsupported. John therefore can’t help but seem like a nag. John and Mary’s vicious cycle then looks like this: “the more John nags, the more Mary ignores him. And the more she ignores him, the more he nags.” If however, Mary how John feels before he complains, he will feel cared for and seen. 

John and Mary’s illustration is a simple one but shows how cycles develop and are maintained. The reality is as long as two people interact consistently over a long time, they develop these patterns. It’s a normal process in all relationships and usually works well unless the cycle becomes dysfunctional and damages the relationship.

Balance, Unbalance and Rebalance

The thing to know is that no matter how much one feels marginalized in a relationship, it takes two to tango. Instead of blame (which by the way is what we usually want to do), befriend your cycle, look at it as an observer and appreciate that this is the way your relationship is currently balanced. The balance actually works to keep the cycle in place which is why some couples can manage in dysfunction for years.

Once you know what’s maintaining the vicious cycle, do something different to change it or change yourself and how you usually respond. (Get professional help from a Coach or Therapist if need be). This is when you unbalance the system. Unbalancing is the hardest part because it means breaking a hardened cycle. 

It takes commitment and courage to keep up with the new efforts. It’s important to note that when in this stage, either of the couples can resist change even though they want better. It’s simply because change is painful even when it’s good for you.

Finally, rebalance the relationship by creating a new fluid cycle which you can adjust if the scales are tipped again in the wrong direction. It takes great self-awareness and relational intelligence to maintain a beneficial loving interaction. You might have to learn new skills for this, but when your awareness is available to you, you will create the relationship of a lifetime.

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