It is so common for relationships to go through ups and downs where one or both partners feel like they can’t connect with each other. If you have been feeling this way for an extended period of time, perhaps it might be time to dig a bit deeper and figure out what may be underneath this feeling of disconnection. In the next few paragraphs, we will explore a bit more about what might be going on when it feels like you and your partner can’t communicate.
In my last post, which you can read here, I mentioned that sometimes recurring arguments can be called a negative cycle. But what exactly is a “negative cycle”? According to Dr. Sue Johnson, a negative cycle is simply a self-reinforcing pattern of interaction that, when triggered, leads to both partners feeling as though their partner does not understand or care for them on an emotional level. The good news is that essentially all couples have their own negative cycle, so you’re not alone in this feeling. The bad news is that you often end up feeling stuck, alone, and disconnected from your partner. The difference between secure and insecure couples is that secure couples recognize when this cycle is starting and are able to repair the relationship to maintain their connection. Insecure couples, on the other hand, often get stuck in these negative cycles with little or insufficient repair. Over time, this cycle can erode trust in the relationship and lead to couples feeling disconnected from each other.
These negative cycles are so common that we know that there are at least three predictable patterns that often happen for couples – pursue-withdraw, pursue-pursue, and withdraw-withdraw. I will explore each of these patterns in the next blog post. For now, we will focus on the pursue-withdraw pattern because it is the most likely culprit underneath the feeling that your partner won’t communicate with you.
So, what might be happening when you feel like you cannot get a response from your partner? Imagine the following scenario:
You and your partner have just finished eating dinner. As you put away the leftovers, your partner loads the dishwasher. You come over to help out and notice that your partner has, once again, put a couple of large pots and pans on the bottom shelf, leaving no room for other dishes. You notice yourself getting annoyed and thinking about how frustrated you are with your partner and thinking that things in your relationship never change. In that moment, you say to your partner: “Really?!? How many times have I told you that we hand-wash the pots and pans? You always do this and I end up having to rearrange the entire dishwasher! I wish for once that you would just believe me when I tell you the best way to load the dishwasher.” Your partner looks at you, makes a snarky comment, and leaves the room, leaving you to just that – reload the dishwasher the way you want it. Later on that evening, you try to ask your partner about their day, but they barely look up from their phone. You try all your moves – asking questions, talking about an event you’re both going to that weekend, begging your partner to just engage with you. Finally, your partner explodes in anger, and stomps off to bed, leaving you feeling like they just aren’t interested or just don’t care.
What might be going on in this scenario? Let’s look first at your moves: No doubt you started out frustrated and annoyed (reactive emotions) because of how the dishwasher was being loaded (trigger). When this happened, you tried to get your partner’s attention to try to let them know that you were feeling let down or like you weren’t on the same team (how you coped), but it came out critical. Later on, when you noticed your partner continuing to withdraw and continued to feel as though you couldn’t get their attention (trigger), you tried asking more questions (coping), which your partner may have also read as critical or nagging. The more you try to get their attention (pursue), the more they move away or clam up (withdraw). This withdrawal may look to you like a refusal to communicate, but, quite often, this may be your partner’s way of protecting themselves, the relationship, or both. By not engaging, your partner may be attempting to avoid an argument. This pattern is your negative cycle. If you’re interested in learning more about what the pursue-withdraw negative cycle might feel like from your partner’s perspective, click this link.
But now you might be asking, “How can we even stop this from happening? All I want to do is for my partner to be able to talk to me!”
You’re right, this cycle may seem automatic and difficult to stop once it has started. However, here are a few tips that can help you stop engaging in the cycle and approach your partner in a way that leaves them feeling less defensive and shut down:
- When you notice yourself starting to get irritated, pause and ask yourself what might bring on this irritated feeling. Take a few slow, deep breaths before saying anything.
- Ask yourself, “ What am I actually feeling (deeper emotions)? Why am I finding this so irritating right now?”
- When you do say something to your partner, try using “I-statements”. This often sounds like: I feel __(emotion)___ when ___(situation happens)___. What I need is _____. Using “I-statements” can help your partner from getting defensive and shutting down.
- Along with #3, avoid using “you-statements” and black-and-white statements, such as “You always…”, and “You never…” These types of statements are a sure-fire way to get a defensive response.
Over time, this negative cycle can get exhausting. Understanding more about the negative cycle and what it looks like for you and your partner is the first step toward stopping it and creating a pattern where you both feel more secure and loved. When you understand your moves in the cycle, it may help you understand a bit more about your partner’s response (or non-response). If you are finding that you and your partner are having difficulty figuring out your moves in this cycle, or if you would like help in discovering how to create a relationship pattern where you and your partner can express yourselves and feel more connected to each other, please give us a call
Johnson, S. M. (2019). The Practice of Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy: Creating Connection (3rd ed.). Routledge.