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In the previous blog post, we took a look at the importance of creating secure bonds and the need for two people to be able to share their “inner worlds” in a safe way. In this second part we will look at some ways that couples can begin to change some of the patterns of interacting that damage the relationship. We’ll also look at some specific strategies for change and how to go about this.

In order for any long term committed relationship to survive there has to be a sense of trust and commitment. Most all marriages start with a commitment to stick it out until “death do us part”. Sometimes this commitment gets tested when couple run into conflict or when trust is broken. Trust can be broken in many ways. It might be from withholding information or being dishonest. It might be some sort of betrayal such as criticism of the partner in front of someone else. It might be lack of follow through on something a person promised to do. Or in the worst case scenarios, some sort of infidelity.

Be quick to repair when you have hurt…

When a couple experiences a breach of trust, whether it is a little thing or big thing, it is important for the couple to know how to quickly repair that with each other and reestablish a secure bond. Anytime we take the risk of loving another, we risk getting hurt. When trust is broken, the bottom line is that we are hurt. Every relationship is subject to having some hurt at one time or another. The hurt may or may not have been caused intentionally. Nonetheless, healthy relationships are quick to repair the hurts. Healthy relationships also do their best to avoid doing things that might hurt to begin with.

In the case of Joe and Celia mentioned in the previous post, the couple had been stuck in a pattern that seemed to provoke one hurt moment after another. The reason for this was the fact that they both had been operating in a defensive mode. They were both quick to criticize the other which just started a cycle of defensiveness. Neither of them could seem to get past the hurt they felt in order to get to that safe place where they could both share their inner worlds and feel connected again.

End the destructive patterns…

For destructive interaction patterns to end, it requires both people to change what they are doing that contributes to the lack of emotional safety. Dr. Sue Johnson refers to these as the “demon dialogs”. Dr. John Gottman, another leading researcher into marriage, calls it a pattern of criticism and defensiveness. One of the best approaches to ending this problem is for the couple to team up against the “demon dialogs” and the criticism/defensiveness patterns.

The first step in changing these destructive patterns is learning how to recognize the patterns. If you could imagine yourself watching the drama unfold, like you were watching a movie, what would you notice and see? One of the keys to recognizing the patterns is for each person to recognize their own role in the pattern as it unfolds.

Does one person withdraw or both withdraw? Does one person try to settle things and the other run away? Do you both get caught in the trap of “I’m right!” trying to prove how bad the other person is? Do you both get consumed with getting your point across without really listening to the other person?

Recognize and acknowledge your part in it…

Another key to recognizing the patterns is to begin to pay close attention to what is happening for you internally. What are the thoughts and emotions that came up for you when the conflict started? What did it feel like in your body? What triggered those feelings for you? Do the feelings point to some deeper issue that might need to be resolved with your partner or within yourself? What hurts the most for you internally?

By recognizing how things get started when there are conflicts in a relationship are truly the key to ending the destructive patterns. Once a couple recognizes how the patterns begin and perpetuate themselves, they can then begin the work of reconnecting and securing the bond with each other.

7 Tips for ending the negative patterns:

  1. Recognize your own role in the negative patterns; what are YOU doing to keep it going?
  2. Create a culture of affirmation and acceptance rather than one of criticism and defensiveness.
  3. Make requests rather than offer criticisms
  4. Respond with curiosity rather than defensiveness
  5. Quickly repair when you have hurt
  6. Accept your partner’s influence; don’t always insist on doing it your way
  7. Always strive to handle whatever you partner hands you with kindness and compassion

Post by L. Gordon Brewer, Jr., MEd, LMFT