In the Grip of the Cycle

It’s hard to adequately describe the poignancy and pain of people who are locked into a chronic, demoralizing, soul-sapping cycle of conflict in their intimate relationships. John Gottman observed that couples enter relationship counseling, on average, after they have experienced serious problems for six years. That’s a lot of painful grinding on each other. No wonder the couples we help in couples therapy start out so painfully estranged that they are all but hopeless when they sit in our offices for the first time. And yet, I have no doubt – none – that unions that are challenged, with wrenching conflict, can be healed, set right and made stable for good. It doesn’t happen overnight and so people who engage this process need to be patient, courageous and kind to themselves. The first step, as Dr. Sue Johnson describes in her brilliant work setting out the approach of Emotionally Focused Therapy is to recognize and then get control of the cycle of conflict that is sparked automatically with distressed couples. It is amazing to be in the room with people who go from zero to 100 mph (emotionally speaking) in a millisecond. To witness this instantaneous transition is to respect forever more the power of the amygdala and emotional circuits of the brain. Time and again, I see this sad and painful drama spark in my office – one partner will say or do (or not say or do) something that will have deep attachment significance to the other and the reaction will be instantaneous and explosive. Both people are swept up into an agonizing dance. Each is reacting to the other – and reacting from a deep, frightened, exquisitely human place within. To the outside world – and to their partner – this pain is seen as anger, judgment, withdrawal, defensiveness – so many things that make it hard to reach out and provide the comfort, assurance and safety that both people hunger for at their core (especially when the connection with their partner seems shaky). The first step in good relationship therapy is de-escalation of conflict. Understanding those triggers that sweep each of us, instantaneously, into this cycle is the first step. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the relief it brings is as palpable as the heat generated by the conflict.