Here at Colorado Counseling Center, we work with a lot of couples who seek help with their relationships. With marital problems, certain topics tend to surface more than others—like sex, finances, parenting, division of labor within the home, etc. In reality, the actual topics don’t matter as much as how you resolve (or don’t resolve) these issues. This is what matters most in the grand scheme of things. Let me elaborate.
What happens when you argue can be compared to a fire. There are three elements needed to create a fire: fuel, oxygen, and a source of heat, such as a spark. In your arguments, a similar dynamic is at play.
If you look at the cycle pictured above, you’ll notice a pattern that is very common to couples. It has many names: a dance, negative cycle, or cycle of disconnection to name a few. Typically, your negative cycle will begin with a trigger or spark, a source of heat that potentially can start a fire. The spark that begins the arguments in your marriage can be three different things:
- Words (you are always late)
- Tone of voice (you are always late!!!!!)
- Non-verbal behaviors (someone stamping their feet, pointing at his/her watch impatiently).
Everyone has different triggers. An important first step is identifying the triggers in your marriage, so that you can be aware of your own sensitivities and not purposely trigger your partner.
Your Emotional Reaction
A fraction of a second after the trigger, you’ll have an emotional reaction. This is usually a quick and non-cognitive process. This means that you don’t have to think “Hmm, I think I’m going to get angry now. Logically what he/she said is offensive and I’m going to choose anger as my response.” Your emotional reaction is often visceral and immediate—and you’ll usually show this in the form of anger, frustration, irritation, etc. Your emotional reaction may not be immediately noticeable to yourself, but your partner usually notices it right away.
Your Inner Dialogue
In the next step, you have an inner dialogue, also not immediately noticeable to yourself. It usually consists of saying things to yourself like: “I can’t believe he said that!” “What a jerk!” “That is so unfair. Why would you say that?” “That’s not what I meant! You always twist my words.” Your inner dialogue—the blame and shame laden story you tell yourself—when combined with your emotional reaction, leads you to what happens next in your marital conflicts.
Your Behavioral Reaction
This is how you react to or cope with what just happened (the trigger, your emotional reaction, and your inner dialogue). When caught in your negative cycle, you will usually react/behave in one of three different ways:
- You become defensive (I am not ALWAYS late!)
- You counter-attack (Well I wouldn’t be late if you would be a little bit more considerate and give me a heads up sooner!)
- You withdraw from your partner (Whatever, I’m outta here.)
Typically, your behavioral reaction will then trigger your partner, leading him/her into his/her side of the cycle…and around you go, again and again. And just to be clear, this whole process can happen within seconds. It’s practically instantaneous.
You can see how easy it is to get stuck in this vicious cycle.
- This is why your arguments can escalate out of control over seemingly trivial matters.
- This is why your arguments often feel eerily similar, futile, and rarely lead to resolution.
When caught in this negative cycle in your marriage, you and your partner grow more and more distant from one another, feeling less and less emotionally safe and less and less able to approach one another about anything. You gradually accumulate more and more “unsafe” topics that you dance around with one another. You walk on eggshells more and more often, afraid to broach a specific topic for fear that it will lead to another argument. This is how your connection with your spouse begins to unravel.
How do we make things better?
- In Part 2, we’ll explore how your pursuing or withdrawing position can keep you stuck in your arguments, as well as the importance of turning to each other with your primary emotions and needs—so you can get to the heart of the matter together.
- In Part 3, we’ll go into greater detail about how you can begin to repair the trust and heal the hurt in your marriage / relationship.
For now, a big first step is seeing yourself and your partner as BOTH being caught up in this cycle, TOGETHER. When your’re in the negative cycle, it’s about being “right”, attacking and defending—you see your spouse as your enemy, rather than as your partner. When you begin to see that you’re both stuck in this cycle together, the finger-pointing can stop and the blaming can come to an end. This is a necessary first step to improving your marriage relationship.