Today I’m going to write about the dynamics of arguments in romantic relationships. Specifically, I’m going to refer to a particular book I read a long time ago that I found very helpful. The book is called, “Hold me tight” by Dr. Sue Johnson. Dr. Johnson writes about how couples tend to behave in almost predictable patterns of behaviour when they argue. She says that couples can get stuck in these cycles, without being aware that they’re in them. Dr. Johnson argues that with awareness of your typical argument pattern, you can notice when you are stuck and, together, choose to step out of it.
Oh, that sweet connection…
Before I speak about argument cycles, I just want to think about why we get into relationships in the first place. So, typically there is some sort of spark that develops between two people. An attraction, a pull, a feeling of, “I want to be with this person”. We feel connected.
Sometimes the connection wears off as quickly as it began, but other times, it lasts longer. Movies, romance novels and sitcoms often make it seem like this connection magically stays around forever – effortlessly keeping the two of you glued together. Sweet thought, but delusional. Without the investment of time, energy, and positive interactions, connection fades. Novelty wears off, routine sets in, and if you’re not careful, you could end running a home with a flat mate. The problem is that society often gives the impression that if your spark doesn’t effortlessly last, then there must be something fundamentally wrong with the relationship…or even worse, maybe there’s something wrong with you… yikes.
When arguments get heated
With the increasing responsibilities that most couples face as they go further into the partnership, most find that they argue more, and this is great! It is good to argue because you’re defining what you’re okay with and what you’re not okay with and you’re making your self clear to your partner. Disagreements that are contained within the intention of understanding each other, are healthy.
But sometimes, arguments take on a nasty tone. Insults fly across the room, tempers flare up, we play the blame game, and act like nothing we did could possibly be wrong. Essentially, we behave like children. And what’s worse than the temper tantrums, is when partners don’t own responsibility for their actions, and don’t repair the damage they’ve caused.
We didn’t see that coming 😮
Early on in romantic relationships, these sort of tiffs can be exhilirating. They can serve as good “foreplay” and it can all feel a bit like an episode of Sex in the City. But when these arguments continue, coupled with the decrease in sexual excitment, you’re left with two bitter, disillusioned people, who have very little awareness of what went wrong, and see no way of making it better.
When you look beyond the behaviour of human interaction, you will find that arguments in adult relationships are typically protests against emotional disconnection. Remember that spark I mentioned? We want it back. We’re hurt when our partner takes it away from us, and we tend to take it personally.
I fight you because I love you!
Just like toddlers, we react to the fear of separation, by clinging on or pushing away. We experience fear, we don’t think clearly, and we go into fight or flight mode. Dr. Johnson says we either anxiously try to draw our partner back to us by shouting, insulting or criticising, or we withdraw by removing ourselves because we don’t know how to deal with the situation.
Experiencing your partner in an angry state or a cold withdrawal, may work to gain your attention at the beginning of the relationship. But as time goes by, the likelihood is, it will stop drawing your attention. The relationship will become “stuck” in a pattern where direct communication doesn’t occur. Without direct communication, change can not happen.
Can you relate to any of these cycles?
Dr. Johnson describes three kinds of negative cycles that couples often get stuck in:
Each partner gives several detailed examples to bolster his/her point that the disconnection they are experiencing is the other partner’s fault. Each partner tries to win but there never is a winner. This blame-game blocks the ability to reconnect and is difficult to maintain over time.
This is the most widespread and ensnaring of cycles. In this cycle, one partner criticises and demands, and the other partner withdraws and avoids. The pushy partner may say things like, “I am the one carrying the burden of this relationship” or “I’m dying in this relationship.” The avoidant partner may say things like, “I can’t do anything right” or “You’re too demanding.” The avoidant partner may also find that they space out and freeze during confrontations.
This cycle usually occurs after “Demand-Withdraw” has gone on for a long time, and the persistent partner gives up trying to gain connection from the withdrawn partner. Both partners end up unconsciously numbing their emotions and denying their connection needs. If this cycle goes on for too long without repair, it’s possible that the couple may separate.
Awareness + Time + Practice
Gaining awareness of your typical relationship argunment pattern does not work like a magic wand. You will not suddenly stop falling into the cycle. The cycle is an ingrained way of being that you both bring to the relationship. But, knowing about the cycle makes you able to catch yourselves in it. With time and a conscious intention to notice these patterns, you will be able to feel when you are falling into a cycle before you get there. The difference that comes with awareness + time + practice is = you can choose to step out of the cycle. I.E. You can choose to change your behaviour and therefore change your dynamic.
Changing the cycle, is only possible, if you are willing to adapt the way you respond to this primal fear of disconnection. You can choose to no longer take it personally (to see the struggle for connection from your partner’s end). You can choose to not fly off the handle. You can find methods of calming yourself, and communicating without blaming, or finding a way to stay without running away.
For more about healthy relationship interactions read “Relationship Conflict Sucks: How to have an awesome relationship”.
As always, sending you love,