Understanding the Cycle
Friday, July 23, 2010
By: Jennifer A. Olden, LMFT

A relationship is a dance - and the rhythms and habitual steps of the dance have their own momentum - can take over. In EFT we look at the dance you are caught in and how it leaves you both hurting and frustrated. We help you step out of your negative dance and create a new dance that is safer, closer and more satisfying. We talk about emotions a lot because they are the music of the dance - we help you understand the signals you send that might make it hard for your partner to come close and help you send new emotional signals that pull your partner towards you and help you dance together - in harmony.

-Sue Johnson, Originator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy

The first step in EFT couples therapy is identifying the cycle, or looking at the dance. What do you do that helps to shape your partner’s overarching stance toward you and what does your partner do that contributes to your reaction? Let’s take a look at Phillip and Macy, a couple married for fifteen years and deeply distressed.

“My wife hates me,” Phillip states.

I look over at Macy and she noticeably tenses and looks away. She shakes her head and tears stream down her cheeks. “He doesn’t give a crap about me at all.”

They are in the middle of a cycle, dancing familiar steps, apart and alone, both wanting more than anything to stop the fight and be close and happy again. They just don’t know how to get there. Macy talks about the incident that sparked this particular fight.

“Yesterday we were crossing the street and even though the cars were three blocks away he starts running like he’s afraid he’s going to get hit. He is afraid of everything.”

“It was oncoming traffic,” he snaps.

“You’re such a weakling,” she snaps back.

He looks at me for validation. “See, this is what I get. Abuse. My wife hates me.”

She explains, “If he was so concerned that the cars were going to hit him why wouldn’t he grab my hand and protect me, too?”

He shoots back at her, “You’ve got legs. Why can’t you protect yourself?”

She screams now because she is an independent person and “It’s not about whether or not I have legs, it’s about whether or not you care, which you clearly don’t. I don’t know why I bother.”

On the surface this may seem like a silly fight. You might be thinking that she is crazy or that he is selfish and uncaring and that he needs to just make a mental note to grab her hand when they cross the street or that she needs to just “Let it go.” As a therapist I hear them both expressing very basic attachment needs such as “Are you there for me? Am I worthy of your love and attention? Am I enough for you?” Underneath the contempt and volatility are fundamental human needs and when these are made explicit things start to get better. But before these needs can be excavated we need to slow down the reactivity so that we can have the space, time and clarity to dig; this is identifying the cycle. Couples tend to have the exact same fight repeatedly and though the content might change, the roles, feelings and behaviors don’t vary much.

You may not be able to see it from the above excerpt, but Phillip tends to withdraw when there is conflict. He tends to feel sad and angry and perceives that he can not get it right with Macy, and so in order to protect the relationship and himself from her anger he pulls away. He might walk outside in the middle of a red-flag discussion to smoke a cigarette, or possibly work late, or deflect with jokes when an important topic is introduced. When the fight has escalated he tends to believe, “My wife hates me.” His withdrawal, which is sometimes pre-emptive, leaves Macy feeling abandoned, alone and hopeless; she perceives that when push comes to shove Phillip will walk out the door every time. She tends to react with anger and contempt: “You’re such a weakling.” His withdrawal fuels her anger which incites his withdrawal and like any vicious cycle the power of it intensifies as the years pass so they begin to see the other as just basically flawed. He’s selfish and she’s mean and they each believe that their only choice is to “put up and shut up” or get out. But they both have a similar motivation behind their emotion. They both want to experience love and acceptance from each other.

Once Phillip and Macy recognized the cycle, they were better able to break it. Eventually Phillip was able to look at how his withdrawing behavior actually shaped Macy’s blaming stance and Macy recognized that her blaming attitude resulted in his withdrawal. This awareness helped them join together and say, “Let’s not let this cycle break us down. We are too good for this, our love too great and the stakes too high. We can beat this thing together.” So, when an incident like the crossing-the-street-fight arises, Phillip and Macy are able to recognize the oncoming train wreck and veer away, and although everything may not be perfect in their marriage, knowing they have the ability to avoid the train wreck is empowering and signifies to me they are ready for the next step—identifying the raw spots.

Get out your journal or just a piece of paper. Think about this cycle in your own relationship. Write down three categories: Feelings, perceptions, and behaviors. What do you feel in the middle of a fight (or cycle), what do you perceive and how do you behave? In response how does your partner feel, perceive you, and what do they do. A word of caution: When you are talking about feelings, be careful not to say a perception. These are often fused and the perception emphasized when a situation gets heated. For example, “I feel like he is a jerk.” That’s a perception and the corresponding feeling would probably be anger or sadness.

Be a scientist of your cycle and without judging yourself or your partner how does this thing get going and rob you of the intimacy and love you so deserve and crave. This takes a paradigm shift. It involves assuming the best about you and your partner and viewing the situation from the standpoint of a compassionate witness, like a loving parent. As soon as you start to blame your partner or shame yourself, you’ve stepped out of this compassionate witness point-of-view and into the cycle. I love the Albert Einstein quote: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” By identifying the cycle you are changing your consciousness and from that plateau you will be able to solve the conflict and connect again.

Author : Jennifer A. Olden LMFT
Jennifer A. Olden practices in Sacramento, CA. You can learn more about Ms. Olden here on the Find-a-Therapist.com Directory.