Transform Your Relationship, Step 2: Map Your Negative Cycle


What if you had information you could trust to help you transform the most important relationship in your life? Would you invest time and resources if you were sure it would pay off? In this series, we’ll share with you 10 steps to becoming happier, healthier, and stronger together.

You Need to Know This

Perhaps like you, I was taught to be independent and self-sufficient, and understood these to be valued qualities. Unfortunately, or fortunately, this flies in the face of a large body of scientific evidence that suggests neither women nor men outgrow the need for belonging, comfort, acceptance, and support. We are inherently social creatures, with extensive brain systems dedicated to detecting and coping with threats of abandonment or rejection.

Even if we don’t know it, our bodies do. Our health, well-being, and success is dependent on having others there for us: to understand our thoughts and feelings, and to provide empathy, encouragement, support, and protection. Decades of research and hundreds of studies now support this.

The most powerful and well-researched couple therapy, Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, is based on the premise that couples are bonded in much the same way as infants and parents. The difference is, as couples, our need for each other is equal—it goes both ways. Couples get in trouble when they don’t understand this, and often the signals they send to each other in distress are far from as clear as a baby’s cry.

Negative Cycles Emerge Naturally

Negative Cycles naturally evolve in relationships when one person knows the relationship has the potential to be closer and more supportive, but has good reasons to fear their desire for more closeness might not be reciprocated. Meanwhile, the other person has good reasons to fear that increased closeness will bring negative feelings rather than positive ones, and so has a tendency to maintain more distance. Woman tend to pursue greater closeness, while men tend to withdraw, but these roles are often reversed.

As an adult woman, if I’m not getting the closeness and connection I long for from my partner, I’m not likely to cry about it. Nope. I’m going to try to accommodate and take care of myself as much as possible, and when that doesn’t work, try everything under the sun to get my partner to be more caring. I’ve heard so many women (and men) say, “I’ve tried everything, and nothing works.”

Unfortunately, the various ways pursuers try to bring their partner closer typically backfire. Instead of being seen as vulnerable and open to comfort and support, pursuers are seen as critical, demanding, judgmental, or manipulative. This makes perfect sense. Most of us were taught to be independent and to not seek out emotional comfort and support. Withdrawing partners inadvertently confirm the view that we should be happily independent and not need, making it even more difficult, if not impossible, to reach out vulnerably. Out of desperation, pursuers make sideways “moves” to get their partners to respond, but these sideways signals are alarming or confusing to the withdrawers.

Withdrawers respond defensively, backing up further, further fueling the pursuer’s sense of aloneness and desperation. Both partners become trapped in a painful, potential-sapping dance.

The pursue—withdraw cycle is a destructive spiral that frequently arises when partners have learned to be self-sufficient or have unhealed wounds from childhood. The problem is not whether a couple has a pursue—withdraw cycle, but whether they can learn to rise above it and replace it with new, positive cycles of mutual caring and support.

To identify your negative cycle, complete the following exercises with your partner.

Identify Your Moves

1. Each person circles all of the pursuer moves in the list below that you relate to—that you use personally. Each of these moves is an attempt to increase the emotional connection between the two of you (circle all that apply):

Pursuer Moves2. Now, circle all the withdrawer moves that you use. These moves attempt to decrease the intensity of the emotional connection between the two of you (circle all that apply).

Withdrawer Moves3. Personally, my main move is to “point out” what’s bothering me. I also can “stay calm,” and “shut down.” But my initial impulse is to “point out,” and identify myself as a pursuer. Now, work on your own to summarize your responses. Do you see yourself as more of a pursuer, withdrawer, or do you more evenly take both positions? Pick one or two responses that seem to be your “main” move when there is tension between the two of you. Then work together to see if you can both agree on each partner’s main move and terms for those moves.  Write each partner’s main move here:

a)________________________      b)_______________________

4. See how these moves go together in a dance between you. Repeat these words to see if they make sense and resonate: The more I _______ (a), the more you _______ (b). And it goes both ways. The more you _______ (b), the more I _______ (a).

5. Both partners are stuck and suffer in negative cycles, which is frustrating, anxiety-producing, and confusing. Next, see if you can each identify a descriptor below that describes the emotion you most feel on the surface as you do your main move in your negative cycle:

Protective EmotionsWrite each partner’s surface emotion here:

c)________________________      d)_______________________

6. In negative cycles, partners often misread each other. We know our partner is making a “move” toward us or away from us, and we pick up our partner’s frustration or other surface emotion. See if you can find words from the list below that reflect the message you get during your partner’s move in the cycle:

Negative PerceptionsWrite the main message each partner hears here:

e)________________________      f)_______________________

7. In this exercise, you’ll work to put all these pieces together into your negative cycle.The negative cycle in my own relationship goes something like this: When I point out what’s bothering me, I’m upset and he gets the message I think he’s doing a bad job. That frustrates him, and he defends himself rather than come to my rescue, which I think means he don’t care about my feelings. That upsets me more and has me more likely to point things out to him that are bothering me.

My partner’s perspective is equally valid and is a mirror image of my own: When he gets rational and explains himself, he’s frustrated, and I interpret that as meaning he doesn’t care about my feelings. That upsets me, and I’m more likely to point out what’s bothering me rather than see what he’s doing right, which he takes as meaning I think he’s doing a bad job. That makes him more frustrated and more likely to explain himself.

Now put the pieces of your negative cycle together to flesh out the diagram below. Can you see how both your moves make sense, and how your negative cycle fuels itself?

Congratulations! It’s a big step to realize that your relationship is being undermined by negative cycles of emotional disconnection, rather than disagreements about the subjects you are talking about.

8. Take some time to reflect about and discuss your negative cycle. When  do you think this pattern began? Was it there from the beginning, did it emerge over time, or start at a certain point in your relationship? Do you recognize your move as something you learned in childhood? In a previous relationship? How did your move help you in earlier relationships?

Next time, we’ll explore the vulnerable, raw spots hidden beneath our typical moves.

Would you like more information or support? We recommend Dr. Sue Johnson’s books Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (2010) and Love Sense (2014). We offer low-cost, money-guaranteed Hold Me Tight® couple workshops, as well as regular, weekly couple counseling and intensive couple counseling services. Here is a longer listing of recommended couple therapists in Montanacouple therapists around the US and internationally, and Hold Me Tight® workshops.