How to Break a Negative Relationship Cycle, and Fix Your Marriage
If you answered yes to any these questions, don’t worry, you’re not the only one! As a marriage counselor and couples therapist (as well as a married dad) I know that all couples have interactional cycles that get triggered by what partners say and do, and all couples have disagreements from time to time. But when you're focusing on the wrong things, arguments are never resolved so they keep coming up over and over again. If that's happening in your relationship, it's likely that you're stuck in a negative relationship cycle. Learning how to identify and communicate about primary emotions can help you break free.
Why Couples Get Stuck in Conflict
What usually happens when couples try to work through things after a fight is that discussions around disagreements usually only
center on the topic of the disagreement, or the behavior and anger surrounding it. That is the only the tip of the iceberg, though — the true emotions and needs often lie beneath the surface and rarely get discussed, and that’s why the negative cycles are so hard to break out of! One of the most well-researched, evidence-based approaches in couples counseling is called Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (the type of marriage counseling that I specialize in). This form of marriage counseling centers around helping couples be able to communicate the deeper issues and primary emotions so that they break negative cycles and build better connection and safety.
What is a Primary Emotion?
Here’s a hint; a primary emotion is not anger or frustration! Those two emotions, while very real, are
often secondary emotions, which are reflections, or by-products, of a deeper emotion beneath the surface.
Primary emotions, on the other hand, usually center around softer feelings – fear, vulnerability, pain, love, and other,
deeper needs. These softer emotions often are based on our needs for emotional safety, connection, and wanting to feel loved and respected by our partners. But when these needs go unmet in our relationships it can lead to anger and negative behaviors that push couples away from each other and destroy trust.
Often in arguments, however, usually anger and frustration are the only emotions that are communicated and talked about afterward, and primary feelings are not recognized or addressed. This leaves the true core issue unresolved, and ripe for another conflict. This dynamic leads to repetitive arguing, and makes couples wonder why they keep having the same fights over and over again. To change the cycle, couples need to learn to access and communicate primary emotions safely. [More information about practicing emotionally “safe” communication here: How to Communicate With Someone Who Shuts Down]
Tapping in to Primary Emotions
Notice How You're Feeling: One way to start accessing the softer primary emotions is to pay attention to what you're feeling – where is the emotion showing up in your body? Emotion always manifests itself somehow in our body, whether through muscle tension, quickened heartbeat, stomach discomfort, or any other bodily reaction you might think of.
Secondary emotions are easier to access – anger in the body can often be accessed before or after is triggered, but primary emotions such as fear or pain will likely manifest some other way. Try to become more aware of your body when you become emotional and begin to match different bodily reactions to different emotions – you’ll notice the difference faster than you think.
Practice Naming Your Feelings: Some people have an easier time accessing primary emotions in the body, but have a more difficult time assigning a name to the primary emotion. This can be especially true for men (but many women can struggle with this too). [For more on this topic check out my “Understnding Men” podcast.] An emotion wheel, or “feelings wheel” (available readily online,) can help put a name to an emotion than a general “fear” or “pain” that may not accurately describe what you are feeling in that moment.
Remember, if you can access and name your primary emotions, then you are taking the first step in communicating those emotions that can help break a negative cycle. [Learn more about how being in touch with your feelings can help you improve your communication in, “Empathy: The Key to Communication and Connection”]
Communicating Your Real Feelings
Get Support: Learning how to communicate primary emotions safely usually should be done with the support of a couples counselor or relationship coach, as many people can find this surprisingly challenging, especially in the beginning. A marriage counselor who is trained in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy will have the most skill and experience in helping couples get in touch with their feelings, and communicate them in a productive way to their partner.
Create Safety: Communicating primary emotions in a way that is safe for the sharer and listener can feel challenging, especially in cases where couples have had bad experiences when expressing their authentic feelings. However, this type of couples counseling can lead to more effective, longer lasting relationship repair than types of marriage counseling that feel like more of a “band-aid” than a healing process.
Avoid Blame: Someone with a history of not feeling safe expressing emotion will need assurance and trust that they will not be hurt doing so, and that can be difficult to find. Sharing primary emotions in a safe way requires the sharer to own their emotions and share them in a way that is not blaming to the listener.
Focus on Listening: Accepting primary emotions requires the listener to not judge or try to “fix” the pain that sharer is revealing, only to listen, accept the emotion for what it is, and validate the sharer. It sounds easy to do, but it is not, which is why couples counseling or coaching is highly recommended to learn how to and practice communication in a way that provides safety for both the sharer and listener.
Why Change The Way You Communicate in Your Relationship?
Yes, learning how to communicate differently can be challenging but the benefits of safely communicating primary emotions and needs can be relationship-changing. All people need connection and attachment, and couples often feel more connected and trusting after communicating fear and hurt rather than anger. Feeling safer with communication will often also reduce triggering behaviors such as withdrawing/stonewalling, criticism, defensiveness, and trying to “fix” problems, and reducing the frequency of those will also being a couple closer together!
More to the point, learning to communicate softer primary emotions will help break negative interactional cycles – you’re no longer just communicating anger and going around in circles; you’re getting to the root of your anger and frustration, and trusting your partner to hear your authentic feelings. What could bring a couple closer than knowing they can talk about their deepest feelings, and knowing that they will be validated and accepted?
Those deep feelings and primary emotions are already part of all of your arguments, whether or not you're currently aware of them or talking about them. When you learn how to communicate them directly, you’ll see your relationship change in ways you might not imagine, replacing resentment and anger with understanding, trust, and connection.
I hope this relationship advice helps you stop fighting, start understanding, and find your way back together again.