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Recognizing negative cycles

Published 24.02.2022 - Produced by Väestöliitto the Family Federation of Finland in collaboration with the Finnish Association of Couple Therapy , psychologist Lotta Heiskanen , Family Federation of Finland
When the connection between partners begins to crack or breaks, the couple begins to react. Some people cope by seeking connection. They do this by getting angry and making demands. Others withdraw and detach in an attempt to reduce their need for closeness. This episode examines the kinds of cycles you get into in your relationship when you find yourselves in a difficult situation.

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Recognizing negative cycles in a couple’s interaction

When things aren’t working well in a relationship, both partners react to the lack of connection in their own way. This can easily lead to a vicious cycle that may be difficult to get out of. It’s important to learn to recognize these cycles and to try to avoid getting stuck in them.

When things are not going well between you two, how do you usually react? Find the behaviors in the list below that best describe your reaction. Share them with your partner.

  • I complain
  • I criticize
  • I blame you or point out your mistakes
  • I yell
  • I get angry, I blow up
  • I pressure you to adopt my point of view
  • I express my frustration in an angry way
  • I express my disapproval
  • I see you as the problem
  • I demand your attention
  • I tell you how you need to change
  • I issue threats
  • I provoke you
  • I leave the situation
  • I stay calm and justify my actions to you
  • I shut you out
  • I stop the conversation and start doing something else
  • I don’t listen
  • I change the subject
  • I defend myself and prove to you that you’re wrong
  • I say you’re “hysterical”
  • I get lost in my own thoughts
  • I retreat into my shell like a clam
  • I become distant
  • I refuse to talk
  • I give up and withdraw
  • I say something mean to make you stop talking

Outline a negative cycle that you think is typical in your relationship. Take your time and use simple action words (verbs such as “withdraw”, “pressurize”, etc.) to describe the way you and your partner act. Try to fill in the gaps in the text:

  • The more I ____________, the more you ____________
  • And then, the more you____________, the more I ____________, and this leads to our negative cycle.

Compare your answers and, based on them, try to compile a shared version that you both think sounds right.


For discussion:

What do you think your partner thinks of you at a moment like this? After answering yourself, check what their answer is.

Has this negative cycle always been a part of your relationship, or did it start at a specific point?

Have you learned to act the way you do in a previous relationship with someone else? Has this approach been helpful to you?

The most common negative cycles

Usually, negative cycles are difficult to identify. It’s common to blame either your partner or yourself. People may also explain problems with sweeping statements such as “we’re just not made for each other.” Often, it’s easier to see what your partner is doing in a problematic way than what you yourself are doing. That’s why it’s important to stop and think what role you play in the creation of the negative cycle.  What does your negative cycle look like?

Below are some of the most common types of negative cycles. One is usually more obvious or common, although they can all be present in one relationship:

Find the Bad Guy

In the Find the Bad Guy cycle, both partners blame each other. They compete over who is right and who gets to say the last word.

“The more you verbally attack me…

…the more threatening you seem.

…the harder I work to cover my back.

…the more I verbally attack you back.

…and the more you verbally attack me.”

Protest Polka

This is one of the most common and difficult cycles of interaction couples face. In it, one partner demands and criticizes and the other withdraws and defends. Neither one expresses their own needs directly.

“The more I feel like you’re dismissing or rejecting me…

…the more I complain, criticize, demand, control.

The more dangerous I seem…

…the more you defend, shut down, distance yourself from me.”

Freeze and Flee

In the Freeze and Flee cycle, both partners withdraw to protect themselves. Neither one dares to reach for the other, take any risks or take the initiative:

“The more I withdraw and shut down emotionally…

…the more reserved and withdrawn you get.

The more distant you are…

…the more I go into my shell and stop trying to reach for you.”

Was this helpful for you?

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