• Relationships are complicated by the lifetime of experiences that contribute to individual attachment styles

  • Author of Secure Love Julie Menanno explores how insecurely attached couples can overcome negative communication cycles

  • Welldoing has relationship and couples therapists available here

As a couples therapist, one of the most common questions new clients ask me is “is this a communication problem or are we just incompatible?”

Incompatibility between partners is real. Some couples who can’t make it work do ultimately have different lifestyle and family goals, incompatible value systems, or are just not a good personality match. However, in my years of experience, what I’ve observed time and again is that it’s usually not incompatibility that brings couples down. Most of the time what brings couples down is negative communication cycles. And even if incompatibility is a significant problem between the two of them, this can never be fully evident until they can talk about sources of potential incompatibility (sex, finances, family goals, ways of connecting, etc) outside of negative cycles. 

What is a negative cycle? 

In short, a negative cycle is a feedback loop where partners go back and forth with words and behaviours that push each other away, make each other mad, and ultimately leave each of them feeling hurt and alone. Negative cycles start when partners attempt to talk about a difficult topic, big or small….anything from a disagreement about what to have for dinner, to parenting decisions with real consequences. 

You might ask, isn’t this just called a fight? Well yes, but the word fight is vague. The idea of a negative cycles not only explains the problem as an organised set of interactions that can be understood and worked with, it also helps couples externalise a mutual enemy (the negative cycles) instead of getting stuck blaming each other as the problem. 

In a typical negative cycle one partner will lead with heated protests (“you never!” or “you always!”), or with a blaming, critical tone (“why can’t you just?”). The other partner then reacts with defensiveness or counter-blame (“you’re missing the point,” or “you’re one to talk!”), or sometimes even appeasement (“fine, we’ll do what you want”), all strategies which backfire and end up leaving the first partner feeling more unheard and frustrated, prompting them to get even hotter and maybe louder (yet still committed to keeping it going until some sort of resolution is found). 

The second partner eventually takes on the role of turning down the heat in the only way they know how: disengaging altogether. Eventually the energy fizzles and partners set off to separate corners to soothe their wounds. Hours, days, or even weeks later, they make their way back to each other. Depending on the distress level of the couple, they might come back together with false hope: “we’ll never do that again,” or by pushing the whole mess under the rug.

Watch our interview with Julie Menanno

Why do we get stuck in negative cycles?

Nobody engages in negative cycles without good reason, and insecurely attached couples are particularly vulnerable. To start, while some topics couples conflict over are stand-ins for deeper issues, some real life problems matter…how you raise the kids matters, having a happy sex life matters. Important issues create tension and tension needs to be resolved. It’s appropriate and healthy for partners to advocate for what they’re needing in life and in the relationship.  

The problem with negative cycles is that neither partner knows how to navigate their real problems with emotional safety. This is due to a combination of past childhood experiences and past relationship experiences (including those which occurred in the present relationship) which have contributed to insecure attachment both within and between each partner. Insecure attachment, for a variety of reasons, serves to polarize partners into rigid positions, which often show as the anxious attached partner attempting to “close the distance” and get the problem resolved, while the avoidant partner takes on the role of “turning down the heat” and keeping things from getting worse. 

Both are, in their own ways, attempting to protect the relationship. Neither are coming from a place of taking responsibility for both missions: resolving the problem and doing it with emotional safety. Again, this is because they don’t know how. They were never taught or had healthy conflict modeled to them. Understandably, they find themselves stuck in negative cycles whereby they not only don’t find solutions to their problems, but they inadvertently reinforce their already standing insecure attachment. The good news is that if words and behaviour can reinforce insecure attachment, words and behaviours can also reverse insecure attachment: couples can learn how to navigate conflict in a way that creates security. 

For now, here’s an example of how a negative cycle might play out between a real couple. Darla and Scott, an insecurely attached couple, are planning a vacation. When Darla mentions something specific she’d like to do on the trip, Scott responds unenthusiastically. Darla has experienced moments in the relationship where she doesn’t feel as if her needs matter to Scott. She also grew up in home with chronic messages that her needs were irrelevant. Understandably she feels triggered by Scott’s response. 

Unfortunately, Darla doesn’t know how to reach to Scott with her hurt in a healthy way, and even if she could do so in the most perfect way possible, Scott has his own blocks to taking in anything he perceives as a criticism. Neither of them know how to navigate the situation healthily, so the topic of vacation quickly switches to the relationship itself, but in a way that is out of both of their conscious awareness. When Darla gets triggered, she comes in hot and accuses Scott of being selfish; Scott feels blindsided and reacts defensively, telling Darla that once again she’s painting him as the bad guy for no good reason. Darla feels invalidated for her concern, gets even more upset and tells Scott she doesn’t even want to go on a trip with him. Scott feels compelled to get the situation under control before it gets worse and implores Darla to “calm down, you’re just stressed out and overreacting.” Darla feels dismissed and tells Scott he’s being patronizing. Scott feels defeated, gives up, and disengages. Darla feels abandoned. 

Managing the negative cycle

The first step in dealing with negative cycle is to recognise it. If you notice a conversation is heating up, you feel tension in your body, you recognise painful emotions such as anger or overwhelm, you have an urge to defend yourself or go on the attack, these are all reliable signs you’re in a negative cycle. When couples are new to learning how to manage negative cycles, damage control is often their best option. In other words, they need to do something new so they don’t reinforce the problem. I encourage couples to call out their cycle and frame it, not each other, as the real enemy. That might sound like “OK hold on, this is our negative cycle and it’s getting the best of us. Let’s not let it win.” Often that alone can be enough to take some of the edge off, and it’s this type of communication which creates and reinforces secure attachment. 

In the big picture, however, damage control will only get you so far. To avoid negative cycles long-term, you need to have new, healthier skills to replace the old coping mechanisms keeping you stuck. Partners must begin the process of learning how to shed their protections when they feel triggered, move away from blame and disengagement, and move toward vulnerability. Admittedly, this work is easier said than done, but with access to the right kind of self or professional help, all partners can learn how to work through their problems not always comfortably (conflict is never comfortable), but safely. This happens when each partner becomes adept at the skills those with secure attachment regularly put into practice: 

  • emotional validation
  • expressing understanding and empathy for each other’s feelings and perspectives
  • co-regulation
  • everything else that supports a foundation of emotional support

How to create an attachment friendly environment

Another layer of negative cycle management is the background work, creating what I call an “attachment friendly environment.” Learning to interrupt active negative cycles is about developing skills, while attachment friendly environments are about creating lifestyle shifts in which the interactions between partners are overtly or subtly responsive, validating, empathic, and understanding. It takes conscious intention for partners to maintain a relationship in this way, but in the big picture this approach to conflict management is far less time and energy consuming than constantly fielding negative cycles, and feels infinitely better – just ask any securely attached couple, especially those who’ve tried it both ways. 

No couple, even the most secure can completely avoid negative cycles. Sometimes you’re up against issues you don’t yet know how to navigate….dealing with a chronic illness or job loss, for example. Partners get tired, hungry, or lack the inner resources to be their best selves in a moment for a multitude of reasons. 

Further, brains which have been wired from a young age to get reactive during conflict don’t instantly rewire. Nothing about working on your relationship is perfect or will always go smoothly (although sometimes it will!). This work is about the long-game, and when things go off-line, you’ll have the opportunity to repair and keep moving forward. 

Why repair is so vital

The ability to successfully repair negative cycles are ultimately what will make or break a couple, and this is the area where securely attached partners shine. Repairs create opportunities for couples to uncover and share their deepest vulnerabilities, for example feelings such as fear, despair, and self-insecurities they might not be used to sharing. When couples can hold each other in these “darkest” of places it can be profoundly bonding. 

The purpose of a repair is for couples to regain the closeness they lost during the negative cycle, and to re-establish trust (or to at least set the stage for trust to rebuild in its own time). For this to happen each partner needs to feel understood for how they were emotionally impacted by the other during the cycle. They need to understand the unmet attachment needs which fueled their protests, blame, defensiveness, insults, stonewalling, and anything else that harmed their emotional safety and left each of them feeling wounded and alone. 

It's important for couples to be mindful of doing repair work without going into another negative cycle. This is best accomplished by setting some ground rules, whereby each partner gets a chance to share their experience without being interrupted or contradicted. The goal is for couples to share their perceptions and feelings, not necessarily to agree about details or intentions. Securely attached couples understand this as a journey to meet each other emotionally, not intellectually.  

As a guideline, the first partner shares what painful messages they were getting from the other, how they were emotionally impacted by the messages, what attachment needs had gone unmet, how they attempted to deal with their pain, and how they believe their words or behaviours impacted their partner, along with a sincere apology. For the repair experience to be successful, each partner needs to be able to open their hearts and feel into their words. And what about the original topic that initiated the negative cycle to begin with? Usually when couples are able to make a full repair, they experience a felt sense of closeness that will support their ability to go back into the topic with more safety. 

Going back to Darla and Scott, here’s how Darla’s reparative process might sound: “I know it’s hard on you when I come in hot like that. When I get the message my needs don’t matter to you, I feel scared, devastated, and alone. Knowing my needs matter to you is what helps me feel safe and close. I came into the conversation with my protections up, desperate to reach you, and not quite knowing how. I can see how the way I reacted to my pain left you feeling attacked and hurt, and I’m so sorry for how I impacted you.”

Scott’s reparative process might sound like: “I know in the past I’ve done and said things that have left you feeling like your needs don’t matter, so it makes sense to me you would be on edge when you bring things up. What happens for me in those moments is that I get overwhelmed and get the message that I’m failing you. I need to know you see me as “the good guy” to feel safe and when I don’t, that’s when I want to defend myself or just shut it all out. I can see how that leaves you feeling even more scared and alone, and I’m sorry I impacted you in that way.”

If none of this sounds easy, that’s because it’s not. While some couples will read this article and immediately be able to integrate the information in a way that dramatically improves their negative cycles and transforms their relationship, many will not. As I mentioned, if you didn’t grow up learning how to navigate conflict outside of negative cycles, safer dialogue will take some time and practice. It’s a one step forward, two steps back process. 

Securely attached relationships, just like all the other good stuff in life, are a work in progress for most of us. If you’re finding that you need extra guidance, I encourage you to read my book Secure Love, which is meant to help couples find success in managing and repairing their negative cycles. 

If you need professional support, find a couples therapist here.

Julie Menanno is the author of Secure Love: Create a Relationship that Lasts a Lifetime 

Further reading

Navigating mismatched desire in relationships

Conflict in relationships: How to manage when someone is angry with you

Why do I push away the people I love?

What is intimacy anyway?

Your partner is struggling with their mental health – don't forget about yourself