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Negative Interaction Cycles…

Many of the couples I work with tell me that they feel they are stuck in negative cycles of interaction in their relationship(s). When working with couples, I assist them to:

  • identify destructive patterns that exist in their relationship
  • understand each person’s role in maintaining these patterns
  • replace negative interaction cycles with more positive, healthy ways of relating

Circular patterns are indeed an integral part of relationships…although these patterns can be positive or negative in nature, many researchers agree that negative interaction cycles can have detrimental effects on relationships. Both distressed and non-distressed couples are likely to engage in negative interactions; however research indicates that distressed couples generally assign more negative intent to their partner’s behavior and react in a more negative manner. As a therapist, it is important to understand these negative cycles and determine the effect they are having on my clients’ relationships.

An essential part of unraveling negative interaction cycles involves helping each partner to uncover his/her underlying emotions. As an example, often I find that a primary emotion of hurt or fear is often masked by anger or defensiveness. As I have discussed in my post on defensiveness (which can be found here: http://www.synergeticpsychotherapy.com/2012/01/23/defensiveness-in-your-relationships/), anger or defensiveness has the potential to trigger a negative interaction, because instead of responding to the hurt or pain, the other partner senses anger and responds accordingly (and thus the cycle begins).

As a result, each partner formulates his/her emotions and reactions based on his/her perceptions of the other’s behavior (anger/defensiveness), as opposed to the true underlying emotions (hurt/fear/pain). This can escalate and fuel the negative interaction pattern.

In a study done by Geist and Gilbert (1996), they provide a nice description of how negative interaction cycles can escalate. They write, “…the less one feels heard, the more anger, whining and sadness one expresses, and the more anger, whining and sadness one expresses, the less one is able to listen effectively.” As these patterns occur over time they often become firmly rooted in the foundation of the relationship. As a clinician, I look for ways in which to raise couples’ awareness of what is happening. Here is an example:

A wife who is being critical may feel hurt and sadness, but rather than expressing this hurt/sadness, she decides to use criticism instead in her interactions with her husband. Upon receiving this criticism, the husband may feel hurt, but instead of sharing these feelings of hurt, he responds by withdrawing from her and going into his shell. This response in turn may create more sadness and distance in the relationship, lessening the chances of effective communication and increasing the chances of more criticism and distance.

It is important to realize that each person in the relationship plays a role in maintaining the negative interaction pattern(s). When you find yourself engaged in a negative interaction, try to pause for a moment and think about which underlying emotions might be masked by anger/defensiveness or criticism. Try to slow down these interactions to uncover any emotions or cognitions that may be influencing behavior. If you are feeling anger, try and ask yourself what is underneath this anger (could it be hurt/disappointment/resentment/sadness)?

Here is an example of an analysis of a negative interaction cycle to help get you started:

“Partner A feels angry, confused and disappointed because she thinks that Partner B doesn’t respect her. These feelings often lead her to try harder to get Partner B’s attention. Partner B reports that these attempts for attention make him feel trapped, and he tries to escape. This in turn reinforces Partner A’s fears and causes her to pursue Partner B even more, until a point is reached where both partners get so upset they give up.”

Source(s): Geist, R.L. & Gilbert, D.G. (1996) Correlates of expressed and felt emotion during marital conflict: Satisfaction, personality, process and outcome. Personality and Individual Differences, 21, 41-60. 

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