Every couple I meet with says the same statement in the first session, "We have no idea where to even begin."
Most of the time they say this because they have been disconnected or fighting for so long that there is SO much to tell.
I usually ask them to think back to their most recent argument or moment of disconnection.
I throw in "moment of disconnection" because I actually have couples who tell me they don't really fight.
That may seem confusing.
It wouldn't surprise me if the thought that just went through your head was, "well then why are they even there?"
I used to ask myself that same question in grad school, before I understood that couples don't have to fight to feel disconnected.
I always begin each couples counseling journey by trying to identify the type of cycle they have fallen into.
Essentially, what's happening between them when they feel disconnected.
What I often find is the same thing happens over and over and over again, no matter what the "issue" is.
There are three different types of cycles, or patterns, couples can fall in to: Protest-Withdraw, be loud to be heard, and avoid conflict at any cost.
This is the most common cycle couples find themselves in.
In this cycle, one partner typically gets louder and presses the issue at hand while the other partner tries to keep the peace and begins to withdraw into themselves.
Protesting behavior can include complaining, questioning, criticizing, and even blaming.
Withdrawing behaviors can include reasoning, defending, trying to smooth things over, or avoiding. Avoiding can take on many forms like not responding, yelling to shut the conversation down, or even walking away.
The loop takes over by the protesting partner getting louder or more insistent when the withdrawing partner starts to shut-down, which causes the withdrawing partner to get quieter and more shut down, making the other partner protest even more, and around and around it goes.
Be Loud To Be Heard
This pattern typically happens when both partners tend to protest in the cycle. Neither partner withdraws into themselves or away from the situation.
Most couples describe their interactions as escalating quickly. Anger is readily shared on both sides and fights happen frequently.
One partner might interrogate their loved one in an angry tone of voice and the other responds with angry accusations. The more they interrogate, the more they accuse, and the cycle continues, sometimes to explosive levels.
Avoid Conflict At Any Cost
This cycle typically has two people who both engage in withdrawing behaviors.
Basically, neither partner feels comfortable with conflict and they freeze each other out.
One partner might be worried to make waves in the relationship and cause conflict. They don't want to upset their partner and so they constantly try to smooth things over when ripples come up. The other partner might see this as placating and may feel they aren't trusted enough to confide in. This is too painful so they get busy to avoid feeling that way. The cycle perpetuates itself by neither side ever feeling comfortable enough to share how they feel.
Most of the time I can identify a couples cycle simply by starting with their most recent fight. From there, we can peel back the layers and discover what they are really feeling and how they act once those emotions come up. Change begins to happen once those vulnerable emotions like fear and sadness are talked about and shared with one another.
Think about the last hard moment you had with your loved one. Can you identify your cycle?
If you can, you just took the first step!
If not that's okay! Call me and I can help you figure it out.