By Kevin Hales, LPCC, (with contributions from Paul Sigafus, LMFT) Part 2 of 3
In our previous post (Why Do We Argue So Much, Part 1), we explored how triggers, emotional reactions, inner dialogues, and behavioral reactions can all add momentum to your marriage arguments, keeping you stuck in a negative cycle. Another key understanding that is essential to stoping this cycle is understanding your role as a pursuer or a withdrawer in your marriage.
Do You Pursue or a Withdraw in Your Marriage Conflicts?
If you are a pursuer, when you feel unimportant and unloved or unappreciated, you tend to approach your partner. Sometimes this looks like criticism, attacking, or pushing your partner to have certain conversations. When you feel this awful, frightening sense of not mattering, you might feel like you’re drowning. Similar to a person who is drowning in the water, when you need connection but fear abandonment, you get frantic. You panic. You pursue. But when you pursue, your partner feels attacked or criticized, and they pull away (thus reinforcing your feelings of being unimportant).
If you are a withdrawer, you probably focus your energies on avoiding conflict. (While pursuers don’t “like”conflict either, they want to engage, even at the risk of arguing.) Withdrawers say things like, “Nothing is going to be accomplished by arguing.” You prefer to talk about issues when everyone is calm and collected…or not at all. You might know that things will just erupt and feel that it’s easier just to ignore the issue. You want to protect the relationship (or yourself) from another painful argument. You hope that the issues will go away, or just resolve themselves with the passage of time. So, you withdraw. But when you withdraw, your pursuing partner is left with the impression that you don’t care or that you’re not really invested in the relationship.
You can see how your vicious cycle gets reinforced: as one partner withdraws, the other partner will then likely double his/her pursuing efforts to “get through,” even if it means getting mean, critical, complaining, or attacking. And when faced with that hostility, the withdrawing partner is likely to pull back even more. The point here is not to blame yourself or your spouse for the roles you play in the cycle—the point is to identify that the cycle is something that you both have unwittingly played a role in creating.
So here’s the big question: When you recognize that you’re caught up with your spouse in a negative cycle of disconnection, what can you do about it? Let’s look at the picture of the cycle again for better understanding.
Your Primary Emotions
As discussed in Part 1, after you’re triggered, you have an immediate emotional response; usually anger, annoyance, or irritation. This is called a “secondary”, or reactive emotion. In order to reach your partner rather than fighting or pulling away, you’ll need to learn how to approach your loved one from a deeper place…your primary emotions. Your heart. Only in this way can you get to the heart of the matter (hence the heart below the cycle).
At Colorado Counseling Center, we’ve all been specially trained to work with couples using Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT). It’s a research-proven method of marriage counseling that works to help couples reconnect with one another. And this occurs by helping our couples reach those deeper, primary emotions. Because they’re not as easily accessible as secondary emotions, they sometimes remain hidden or buried.
In our final post in this series (Why Do We Argue So Much, Part 3), we’ll go into greater detail about how you can escape the negative cycle together, share from your heart, draw closer together, and create strong bonds of love in your marriage.