In a previous post, Bonding in Adult Romantic Relationships, I wrote about "vicious" cycles in relationships and how couples get stuck in them. Today, I will expand on this concept to tell you more about what these cycles are, why they occur, what happens when they are activated and a few tips on how to minimize them.
What is a (vicious) cycle?
A (vicious) cycle is basically a pattern or a habit that you and your partner become stuck in an attempt to overcome a stressful event. Some therapists have called the vicious cycle "vulnerability cycle". The use of the word "vulnerability" serves to explain that when cycles happen, it activates "sensitivities" or "raw spots" in each of the partners. These sensitivities are the result of our temperament, of our experiences with previous important people in our lives and of negative experiences within our current relationship. These sensitivities activate fear, which unwittingly leads each partner to adopt specific roles during the argument (i.e., criticizing and blaming, defending and withdrawing, or shutting down). When the cycle is activated it affects both partners, not just one. Cycles activate reactions in the body as well as in the mind of each person.
What happens to your body when cycles are activated?
After a strong argument, people tend to feel confused, hurt, and drained. This happens because arguments are stressful situations to be in. When people experience a stressful situation, the HPA system (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) or commonly know as "fight-flight-freeze" response is activated. This response is a self-preservation mechanism, the same that was activated when our ancestors lived in the woods and had to run away from a dangerous animal! When the "fight-flight-freeze" response is activated, our bodies quickly produce high levels of hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones suppress other systems, namely the digestive and immune system, as well as sexuality and emotions, because it directs the energy towards self-protection. From a practical point of view, you will see this play out during an argument when you and your partner are not able to communicate calmly because your bodies and minds are preparing to defend yourselves. This process is initiated when the "raw spots" are triggered, activating the stress response, resulting in you and you partner behaving in one of three ways: fighting, fleeing or freezing. Fighting does not mean to literally physically attack the partner (although in some extreme situations one can attack their partner. But that is a topic for a different post). Fighting can take the form of pursuing the partner in a way that comes across as shouting, being critical or blaming. Contrary, the fleeing response takes the form of a partner becoming defensive and wanting to remove themselves from the argument. Finally, the freezing response happens when someone freezes and gets increasingly overwhelmed, and mentally remove themselves from their bodies and minds, or even passes out. This last response is more common when someone is unable to fight or flee the situation. When unable to move, people freeze. This is observed in people who have suffered some sort of trauma. The more often the "fight-flight-freeze response" is activated during interactions with your partner, the more memories will be created of conversations with your partner that were not safe, setting you up to become more reactive towards your partner and maintaining the vicious cycle.
What happens in your mind when cycles are activated?
Because our bodies and minds are interconnected, there is also something that happens in our minds, specifically in the emotional and attachment systems: fear. When we have an argument with our partners, we experience stress and fear, which activates our need to be soothed by them; however, at that exact moment, our partners are also the source of stress. So, as one can imagine, this is really confusing and disorganizing. When the person we love is also the person with whom we are embroiled in such negative cycles, it can cause insecurity in the relationship. This insecurity is the result of the activation of the "raw spots". Raw spots can be as many as people, such as fear of not being loved, fear of not being capable or good enough, fear of failing, fear of being rejected, fear of not being accepted, fear of being alone or abandoned, amongst many others. The life circumstances surrounding the couple can also have an impact, in terms of causing them stress, and limiting their capacity to effectively support one another. Thus, triggering vulnerabilities on each other. Moving to a new country, being newly weds, becoming a parent, losing a job and social status, developing a disability or a mental health issue, such as depression, anxiety or burnout, are all examples of situations that can cause stress in a couple.
How to de-escalate a vicious cycle?
As humans were are programmed to seek support from trusted ones when we experience insecurity. That is how we calm ourselves down: by receiving care and love from loved ones. When arguments become intense and vulnerabilities become activated, leading to vicious cycles, it becomes increasingly more difficult for partners to provide support to each other and to feel close. Indeed, couples who are more satisfied in their relationships are those who are able to calm themselves and their partner down during an argument. This give and take of support and care is what helps couples deal with difficult moments in their relationship, and to create an environment of closeness and safety. That being said, what are some of the steps to help you and your partner to de-escalate the cycles and create more closeness? The first step is to learn which is your typical survival response when you feel scared or hurt: is it to fight? To flee, or to freeze? Pay attention to what happens in your body: do you feel compelled to blame? To leave the situation? Or, to freeze? The second step is to learn what are your vulnerabilities or raw spots. These are not always immediately accessible to everyone. You might need to start paying more attention to your thoughts as well. What are you telling yourself during and after an argument? Which fear might be underlying your feelings and thoughts? Fear of being rejected? Fear of not being loved?... Finally, take the bold step of reaching out to your partner, gently, and open up about those vulnerabilities and help one another heal from that argument. The more you and your partner learn to soothe each other's pain or raw spots, the safer and trustful the relationship will be each time you try.
Take me to the article: Bonding in Adult Romantic Relationships,