Couples Therapy and the Conflict Cycle

Photo by Külli Kittus on Unsplash

By Josh Lozano, LPC

Couples seek counseling for a variety of reasons, and in all stages of their relationship. Perhaps they are engaged, and hoping to understand each other better before saying their vows. They might be freshly married and hoping to get ahead of things that they worry could get out of hand. Maybe they are at the very end of their rope, and are giving things “one last try” before calling it quits. Wherever they are, one common theme that I spend the most time on during couples counseling is talking about how they fight. These fights, no matter the topic, tend to take a similar shape over the course of a relationship. Working to understand the “how” and the “why” can pay dividends in future sessions. 

In couples therapy, I will regularly point couples back to their “conflict cycle” and its parts. Conflict often becomes a feedback loop: the very things you do to try and protect or defend yourself are exactly the messages that hurt your partner, which then causes them to respond in an attempt to protect or defend themselves, which then hurts you, causing another move to defend or protect, and so on. At this point, what the conflict was originally about takes a back seat and gives way to this cycle until someone makes the move to end things. The more this happens, the more we expect things to go the same way. We even recall other situations where the conflict played out similarly.

Let’s break this down, as the cycle is made up of identifiable parts: 

Attachment wound: These are ways we have been hurt in life, often many times by various people, that inform much of how we understand relationships with others. Attachment theory understands humans in the context of relationship with others, and the necessity of the bonds we make, and that the damaging or breaking of these bonds is traumatizing. See Attachment Theory in Practice by Dr. Sue Johnson (2019) or look up more on attachment theory to understand this in greater detail.

Primary emotion: The emotion that arises because of our attachment wound.  These wounds can leave us with emotional scars such as fear of failure, abandonment, or loss of love, to name a few. These are often not emotions we are immediately aware of, but we find with a closer look that they are very present, and are emotions we have experienced perhaps numerous times, which serve to reinforce the wound.

Defense mode: In order to protect this wound and the associated emotion we go into defense mode, which presents as the fight, flight, or freeze response. It’s important to emphasize here the felt need to protect ourselves, as it becomes a key component in driving the conflict.

Protective move: This is the thing you see on the surface, taking the shape of how we defend ourselves as determined from defense mode. To give some examples, a fight response might look something like pleading with your partner to “just share how you feel,” making jabs to get them to engage, or criticizing. A flight response looks like checking out, agreeing in order to go along and end the fight, or being emotionally distant. A freeze response can look like denying that you are bothered or need the other. It is a detachment taking place because you are too hurt to risk fight or flight anymore. 

Putting these back together in the context of a fight helps to better see the various pieces in action. Something along the way gets at one person’s attachment wound perhaps feeling similar to a moment of abandonment earlier in life. The associated feelings arise, though we may not recognize them, and our brain wants to protect this sensitive area, sending us into defense mode.

From here, perhaps this person lashes out at their partner: “you never listen and something else is always more important.” This then can hit the attachment wound in the other, perhaps fear of failure. The feelings and shame associated with this rise up and send them into defense mode, where they check out to avoid what feels like unavoidable failure. Yet this checking out further presses upon our fear of abandonment, and so we make another move to defend ourselves, “see, there you go again, always checking out.” This presses upon the other’s fear of failure, and so they respond, “fine, I’ll listen, tell me what you want to tell me.” Then, “no, I want you to want to listen,” followed by, “I just said I will listen.” On and on this will go as the conflict escalates. Then on another night, an entirely different conflict happens, but it still presses on the same attachment wounds, and so similar reactions pop up. 

By working to see and understand how both you and your partner experience the different pieces of this cycle, you can then begin to do things differently. Speaking with a counselor allows additional help in understanding what is there. You can also check out Hold Me Tight by Dr Sue Johnson (2008) for more help.