Building Your Dream Relationship: Step 2: Understand Your Cycle

Building Your Dream Relationship:

Step 2: Understand Your Cycle

Most couples who I work with during couples retreats and marriage counseling in Wake Forest, NC are smart enough to understand that they get trapped in some sort of a negative cycle, yet they don’t know how to escape it.

When you feel flooded by emotions, you’re not able to think or act rationally. That’s why it is very important to slow down and pull yourself together during arguments and fights. In addition, slowing down is important because it allows both you and your partner to pause and understand your cycle or pattern of interaction.

Identifying Your Negative Cycle

A negative cycle is an unproductive pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that cause stress. Canadian psychologist Susan Johnson, Ph.D., the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), believes that recognizing your negative cycle consists of looking at certain layers that exist behind your conflicts.

Conflicts usually happen in a cycle format: you and your partner fight for some time, then everything goes back to normal, and then the conflict escalates again and again, with no resolution. Once created, a negative cycle is hard to break – when you get lost in it, you cannot see yourself clearly but usually do things that worsen the negative cycle, such as saying hurtful things, withdrawing from your partner, and attacking him/her.

These negative patterns and traps in our relationships Dr. Johnson calls Demon dialogues and breaks them up into three categories:

1.     Find the Bad Guy

This is an attack pattern of interaction where both of you are blaming each other: the more you attack-the more dangerous you appear to your partner-the harder he/she fights back. This dead-end pattern is based on mutual attacking and soon leads to the second interaction pattern called “the protest polka”.

2.     Protest Polka

This is the most common negative cycle pattern, also known as demand/withdraw. Studies by Dr. Gottman show that many of couples who develop this pattern early in their marriage do not make it to their fifth anniversary. Unlike the “find the bad guy” pattern, “protest polka” is more delicate: one partner is demanding on the outside (but actively protecting the emotional disconnection on the inside) while the other partner is withdrawing on the outside (but quietly protests the unspoken criticism on the inside).

What does this mean? This pattern occurs when you are seeking connection and you begin to demand it, which creates the distance and tension. You feel overwhelmed with chores and responsibilities around the kids. You don’t feel heard or supported by your partner but you also never express your needs, concerns, and feelings clearly (because you don’t want to come across as needy and clingy, you want to take your share of responsibilities, etc.) but blame your partner instead (as an attempt to get reassurance that he still cares). In turn, your partner simply gives up and stops trying because nothing he/she does ever seem right: he/she feels unheard and unsupported too.

While in this pattern you are not attacking each other, you are still feeling emotionally disconnected.

3.     Freeze and Flee

The last pattern occurs when you become burn out after endless “find the bad guy” and “protest polka” interactions, where there is no clear solutions or ways to reconnect. There is a lot of hopelessness because both partners feel discouraged from reaching out to their spouse. When they reach this stage, most couples have often given up on their marriages.

How to Break the Cycle

Dr. Sue Johnson believes that our resilience comes from the ability to reach out in the times of distress and hold hands with another human being. The similar view shares Dr. John Gottman, who says that every positive exchange with your partner adds value to your ‘Emotional bank account’. Therefore, in stressful life situations, your savings in the emotional bank account will remind you of your mutual feelings and support, making you more resilient to stress.

The best strategy to manage your vulnerability is to turn to your partner and ask for support – this will pull you towards each other and secure bonding. Remember that your enemy is the negative cycle, not your partner, so there is no need to label them as a “problem one” (as much as you want to during a fight).


When we fight, there is usually a whole parallel dynamic beyond the content of the argument. Knowing this can help you start understanding the nature of your cycle that has been making it impossible for you to feel connected and safe together. In addition, knowing how to recognize these negative patterns, you will also start learning to identify your partner’s calls for emotional connection and turn towards them, which is key to a successful relationship.

I hope this information helps you to better understand your cycle. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to give me a call at (703)347 3200 and schedule an appointment in my Wake Forest office.


Irina Baechle,LCSW is a founder, owner, and a licensed therapist at IrinaBaechleCounselingLLC. She specializes in helping distant couples and anxious singles build truly connected and meaningful relationships. She currently offers online and in-home counseling services to residents of Virginia and North Carolina (and most countries abroad). Click here to schedule your free 15 min consultation. Follow her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Youtube for useful tips and resources.

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