Do you ever feel in your relationship like you’re stuck in a loop or a negative cycle? It often looks like this: I feel hurt – (so) I hurt you – (then) you feel hurt – (so) you hurt me – (and again) I feel hurt… round and round.
Why does this happen?
If you’ve ever had an experience of not being cared for, of not being able to rely on others, or if you’ve felt abandoned or worthless – you’ll never want to feel that vulnerable again. You want to feel strong, you want to feel in control – and you don’t ever want to be hurt.
So what do you do to feel strong and to protect yourself from getting hurt? You create mechanisms of defense and survival to feel tough and not vulnerable. You believe they will protect you. Along the way, you hurt the person who hurt you.
These survival mechanisms are found in many relationships. Here are four of the most common ones that you may turn to when you feel pain approaching:
- Criticism – you put down the other person, use sarcasm or judge
- Distance – you withdraw, close up, detach or tune out
- Aggression – you attack with anger, threats, arrogance, sarcasm or mockery
- Victimhood – you defend yourself and are insulted, wounded, or sad
Which one is most familiar to you?
Take a few quiet minutes to reflect and to respond to a few questions in writing (and then later you can share it with your partner).
o Think of an incident in which you used one of the survival mechanisms – in order to feel better about yourself, to avoid pain, or to take control.
o Which one did you use?
o Describe what it looked like and how long it lasted.
o What helped you to get out of the state?
o How would you want your partner to help you in this situation?
Is it possible to break the cycle?
Yes! You can shorten your time in these survival states by being aware of your usual reaction and by practicing alternative responses. Over time, you might find that you don’t use these mechanisms any more.
Here are four healthy alternatives:
- Find a new interpretation – when your partner says or does something, before jumping to define it as an intention to hurt you, pause and consider another way to interpret their words or action
- Apologize – when your partner accuses you of doing something hurtful, before turning around and blaming them in return, take responsibility for your own action(s)
- Empathize – when your partner is negative or critical, consider the pain they may be experiencing and respond with empathy (‘it must be hard for you’) rather than a new round of criticism
- Show curiosity – when your partner acts in a way which distances or judges you, consider their perspective and be open to different possibilities
When you meet anger with love and warmth, when you come closer and show interest, you can replace the cycle of hurting with a cycle of giving. It looks like this: I give ( show love, openness, compassion) – you receive (feel safe, loved,open to new feelings) – you give (are able to be generous) – I receive (graciously) – I give… round and round.
It’s never too late to change the negative relationship patterns that are bringing you and your partner down. By noticing when you’ve activated your default survival mechanism(s) and then opting for one of the healthier alternatives, you’re opening up a refreshing and open new cycle. It’s a gift to yourself and to your relationship that just keeps on giving.