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Conflict Cycles

Identify Your Common Conflict Cycle

I believe we’re going to find that respect and affection are essential to all relationships working and contempt destroys them. John M. Gottman

All couples have a common conflict dance, even if they take to the dance floor only occasionally. This is because we can all have our buttons pushed sooner or later, and the way we manage this and the way our partner interacts with us sets up a dynamic which Emotionally Focused Therapists call The Cycle.


Have a look at the options below to see if any of these are familiar to you. Possibly your dance is not quite any of these but similar to one of them. Detecting, understanding and then stopping The Cycle is the first goal of therapy and this book.Check below to see if any of the conflict patterns described here are similar to your own. Detecting your Cycle is an essential first step to bringing love back into your relationship, and putting the ego battles to bed.

Conflict Avoiders

“We don’t want to rock the boat.”

  1. Conflict avoiders put a great deal of energy into being nice to each other. There will be a tendency to over-ride feelings and related needs in order not to rock the boat. They will like the calm within their relationship, and may well think their relationship is good because it is mostly chilled out.

  2. Conflict avoiders risk being a Victim to not expressing their own needs or getting them met, and in Rescuing their partners or conflict situations so as to maintain connection and general agreement.

  3. There is a risk also that this will mean they will be skewed towards independence rather than interdependence. The latter would require high levels of negotiation which is not a feature of those who wish to avoid disagreements.

  4. Because each can have Recuing tendencies, they can be quite good at getting on well whenever they practice interdependence. They have a high level of respect for each other usually, and respect the other’s needs, wants and desires.

  5.  In general, their relationship will be good enough, until one realises that they compromise their own interests and needs too much, and they feel a Victim to this aspect of their dynamic. When they turn up for therapy, it’s because one partner at least wants to get more real about what they want from life and their relationship.

  6. Some variants to this description occurs when one person is more strongly doing their own thing, perhaps a little self-focused, and the other is backing down and compromising too much leaving themselves feeling resentful that it is they who seem to do most of the compromising. This is common when one party feels burned out through living out their chosen role.

  7. This could be the anxious insecure person feeling tired of doing all the caring, or the breadwinner (most likely avoidant insecure) who feels tired of doing all the working. Their dilemma is that these roles create calm cooperation, but also possibly burnout and/or unmet and even unexpressed needs.

Debating couples

“We simply can’t stop arguing about who is right”

  1. These couples love to argue. They both want to be right, and can be very emotional in the process of determining who has the logic high ground. They seem to want the other to acknowledge that they have the facts sorted correctly, so there’s a lot of insecurity in regards to being correct.

  2. Ironically, there is a desire for honesty here, because being correct requires that the correct facts do the talking.

  3. This anxiety about how ‘right’ they are may stem from fears about being good enough, being adequate, being successful, not failing. Otherwise, shame will be exposed, and so there’s anxiety that this must not happen. If their partner does not acknowledge how right they are, either or both partners can slide from insecurity into anger.

  4. This couple want to persuade their partner to adopt a different viewpoint. Different isn’t good for them. Everyone agreeing with one another would be good, despite the impossibility of achieving this. This couple sees difference as something that must be resolved, not as something to embrace, celebrate, and work with.

  5. Frequently they argue respectfully, with no nastiness, but boundaries are trampled over. The other’s opinion instead of being honoured as a viewpoint, gets corrected, talked down, diminished. At worst, if tempers raise enough, nastiness may be thrown by one or both partners, but this is a last resort because what matters to this couple is that they agree about who is right.

  6. This couple don’t recognise that being right rarely matters, and that their desire for good connection is about feeling good with one another, and not about being better.

  7. Sometimes just one partner gets caught in having to be right, while the other has given up on this game and refuses to engage in such unproductive conversations.

Hostile conflict, lots of cooling both partners

“It’s not me, it’s you …”

  1. This couple is desperate to be heard but seems to have few skills by which to hear the other.

  2. There tends to be a high level of defensiveness from both parties. Although affection to some degree may still be present.

  3. Blame, accusation, fault-finding, often mutual, creates distance here because each has learned to prioritize self-protection.

  4. The way to take control of this situation is to make your partner look bad. So each points to the ‘bad guy’ in the other.

  5. Commonly the anxious insecure person (usually the woman) has put up the shutters and becomes avoidant soon after conflict begins.

  6. The avoidant partner may push being right but will back off when s/he fails to engage his/her partner.

  7. I believe that Sue Johnson would call this the Freeze and Flee pattern. Both partners eventually withdraw exhausted at the stalemate this hurtful pattern creates. One or both put their emotions and associated needs in the freezer.

  8. 8. The result is a couple who have backed away from the wounding that connection brings, and so they close down to each other, sometimes for long periods.

Hot conflict – cold withdrawing warfare

“We can fight really hot and dirty.”

  1. This couple is the archetypal battlers, where the anxious insecure person becomes very volatile (usually the woman), while the anxious or dismissive personality, usually the man, may try to appease and calm the situation, only to give up in anger or withdrawal when he has no success in calming her.

  2. This produces a lonely and painful standoff, where neither want to surrender to the power of the other.

  3. Usually, the anxious insecure partner and sometimes also the avoidant is adept at sniping, nagging, complaining, criticising or blaming. “You always …” and “You never …” comments may abound.

  4. The avoidant insecure or dismissive partner usually gets worked up more slowly. Eventually, they may snap when they’ve had enough ‘irrationality’, and then they can either give back as good as they got, or withdraw even further. Contempt, patronising comments, criticism, and stonewalling can all be seen here to a greater or lesser degree.

  5. Emotional regulation is difficult for the anxious insecure partner, especially anxiety about the relationship disconnect which slides into anger.

  6. The avoidant insecure/dismissive partner will find the emotion difficult or pointless to try and deal with, perhaps even thinking of their partner as ‘crazy’.

  7. Usually, the final result is a standoff in which each feels defensive and disengaged from the other. This cold/icy standoff can last many days, during which snide comments may fly occasionally.

  8. Sue Johnson calls this interaction “Find the Bad Guy”, because both want to blame and pull down the other.

The Engager – Withdrawer Waltz

“We shuffle back and forth but rarely meet up..”

  1. Both John and Julie Gottman and also Sue Johnson note this pattern which operates in more subtle ways than the examples above.

  2. One partner steps towards the other, often in a defensive or somehow negative way, and the other withdraws while offering a defensive comment.

  3. This triggers the initiating partner to try again to get a better response, especially in the early stages of this relationship dynamic.

  4. The partner that is trying to connect is usually not seen as doing this, and the partner who withdraws rarely sees that s/he is closing down the relationship when s/he protests any implied criticism.

  5. The partner who has been trying to connect, usually the anxious insecure person (usually the woman) eventually objects by being critical of the response and stonewalling they are facing.

  6. Usually, the anxious insecure partner is aware they are trying to connect, but the avoidant or dismissive insecure individual (usually the man) may be too emotionally closed down to recognise that they are repeatedly withdrawing either engagement or possibly even affection. This person though may feel bad, or even at fault in some way for ‘causing’ a problem when his partner gets emotion.

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