“Why do we keep having the same argument over and over again? How do we move past this?”
As a marriage counselor, I hear this all the time. Whether I'm sitting with a couple in my office for marriage counseling in Broomfield, or meeting with a couple for online marriage counseling, the struggle is real: Couples get stuck in predictable cycles of conflict, and once there, it's hard to get unstuck.
I'm here today to give you a roadmap for how to stop the cycle of arguing, and improve communication in your relationship.
First, let's talk about predictable cycles of conflict. A predictable cycle is when you know that the conversation or the action taking place leads to “the conflict zone,” and yet feels impossible to stop. These moments are not unfamiliar, and often in my couples therapy sessions, these conflict patterns show up in dialogue between partners.
Know that you are not alone; Your relationship is not broken. These cycles of conflict are common, but they are also an opportunity for personal growth and growth within your relationship.
Research-Based Couples Therapy For Real-World Relationships
Dr. Sue Johnson, the primary developer of Emotionally Focused Therapy (an evidence based approach to marriage counseling, and the one I practice), wittily describes these communication patterns as “Demon Dialogues.”
Dr. Johnson shares that we most often fall into these ways of communicating when we are feeling disconnected from our partners. I bet that is true for you, too.
To interrupt and overcome this pattern within your relationship, you will both need first to understand what it is, and how you can work through it together to cultivate a healthy relationship and connection.
Here's a real-world example of what happens when a negative cycle of conflict takes over your relationship:
Joe and Angie sought couples counseling with me after months of “miscommunication,” frequent arguments over reportedly small matters, and lost intimacy. Joe would shut down and withdraw, and Angie would try and try to get him to talk, and get increasingly angry with him when he didn't seem to listen or care.
Angie voiced in their first session the struggle she had getting Joe to communicate within the relationship. She was really frustrated by the lack of emotional intimacy they shared. She felt really disconnected, and she was hurt and angry because it seemed like Joe didn't care or understand her. Angie felt like she was the only one fighting for the relationship.
Joe felt differently; it wasn’t that he didn’t care about the relationship. He cared a lot, and was inwardly upset when Angie was upset (even though you couldn't always tell from the outside).
He felt as though his efforts were overlooked and even when he tried it was never enough to make Angie happy. Deep down he was worried that he didn't even know what would make her happy, or that he would ever figure it out.
Joe found it easier to retreat from his wife’s complaints than to get drawn into an argument that neither of them could win. So he shut down, in part to protect himself but also to protect the relationship.
However, as Joe retreated, Angie became more persistent, which led Joe to withdraw further, which made Angie more upset… creating an unending negative communication cycle. This cycle, or dance, continues to grow stronger the more frequently it occurs. (And it occurred more and more frequently as time when on.)
Can you relate? Has this happened between you and your partner?
If you have, you know that when you are in this dance with your partner, it can feel like a revolving door – one that you both get stuck in and that whirls you around and around. It feels like everything happens so fast, and before you know it you're in that same argument again.
What we often forget when we find ourselves in these patterns is that a revolving door can slow, and we can exit. When we exit this dance with our partner, we can create a new one fostered by empathy, compassion, and connection.
Five Steps to Improve Communication In Your Relationship
Interrupting this dance and creating one that is increasingly harmonious, liberating, and compassionate is possible for you and your partner. Here are five practical steps you can take together to move into new healthy patterns within your relationship.
1. Name It to Tame It
In order to improve communication in your relationship, you must first see how what you say and do impacts your partner. We cannot change or heal that which we are not aware of. Begin working to notice and increase your awareness of the moves you make in the dance so that you can create a path out. Once you are aware of the dance, you can deliberately choose to not proceed in the usual pattern.
Once you are clear about what YOU usually do when you're heading towards an argument with your partner, you can say so. This way, you can signal to your partner when you notice the conflict cycle, and instead of getting wrapped up into the dance, you can work together to move in a different direction.
Need help identifying your dance? Try completing the following exercise by Dr. Johnson: “The more I _____, the more you _____, and then the more I _____, and round and round we go.”
For example, once Angie had more self awareness around the feelings that came up for her when Joe shuts down she was able to own them. She could say, “I know I'm getting angry, and I can see that this is shutting you down. The more you shut down, the more upset I get. Let's do something different this time.”
She broke the pattern, and they could finally have a different conversation. (Instead of a conflict!)
2. Stay Present Focused
I know, you hear this all the time but staying focused on the present will allow your relationship to evolve with time. If you remain rooted in the past, you will continue to struggle with past conflicts. If you want to interrupt this destructive dance, then you have to open yourself up to what’s happening at this moment and share it with your partner.
If our friend Joe said, “You always yell and criticize me!” in a moment when Angie is calmly talking about her feelings… that's just not helpful. Staying rooted in the present moment gives you the chance to notice when your partner is trying. Let them be different, and your relationship can change for the better.
3. Be Specific
When you speak vaguely about what is happening in your relationship or expect your partner to pick up on subtle cues (maybe even read your mind) you are not setting yourself up for success.
Being explicit about your experience and your needs when speaking to your partner will give them a helping hand in understanding what it is that you need. It can feel overwhelming when we are unsure of what our partners are asking of us – which often leads to a disconnect or emotional shutdown.
When Angie started to ask Joe things like, “I would like to tell you about my day and have you ask me questions (but not give me advice.) That would help me feel more connected with you.
Can we do that even for just fifteen minutes?” Joe was very happy to sit with her and listen. That was a much better strategy for both of them than her slamming cabinets in the kitchen.
4. Dig Deeper, Go Beneath the Surface
Anger and frustration are the most readily voiced emotions my clients share in our sessions. I often say that anger is the low hanging fruit – it’s easily accessible, it can protect us, and it signals to others that something is wrong.
While anger serves an essential purpose, it often is a sign that other emotions are lingering beneath the surface. These emotions are known as primary emotions. When you identify and share these emotions with your partner during the conflict, you can often grow closer and strengthen your bond.
It changed everything for Joe and Angie when Angie could say, “You know, I'm not even angry right now. I'm actually hurt. I feel so sad when it seems like you're not interested in me, or you don't seem to care about how I feel.” Joe had a completely different reaction to hearing Angie say she was sad. It made her seem softer, and more approachable. And Joe really loved Angie, and cared that she was hurting. When he could communicate that to her, in a moment of softness, their relationship started to heal.
5. Give Yourself Time and Patience
Above all else, permit yourself to be human and to error as you work hard to interrupt this pattern. This process takes time, patience, continuous effort, and vulnerability. But I believe it is worth all the hard work because it is possible to find a new way to be in a relationship. I believe you can find your way out of a dead end and back into a meaningful connection.
Wishing you peace, love, and connection
Brittany Stewart, M.A., LMFT