Within every relationship or family are systems, or dynamics, that are important to understand in order to achieve goals. In the world of psychology, this is a major area of study referred to as “ systems theory”. If one moves just one part of a hanging mobile that has 14 parts, the other 13 will automatically move, as they are all connected. The same is true of relationships and families: when one individual changes, it affects the other individuals, who change as a result.
As human beings, naturally with egos (referring here to the insecure part of us), we tend to be much more aware of other people’s negative behavior and our own resultant negative feelings, than to be aware of our own negative behavior and others’ negative feelings. This tends to result in feelings of blame, anger, and hurt, often feeling like a helpless victim, and not taking enough responsibility for one’s own part.
Yet the two are intimately interlinked in a constant cycle that has a life of its own and keeps itself going. This is often referred to as a “vicious cycle”, as it has no beginning and no end, and its effects are often very destructive. The more “A” does a certain behavior, the more it invites “B” to feel some feelings, which lead to a behavior that invites “A” to feel the negative feelings that lead to “A”’s typical negative behavior. These cycles have typically been in place for a long time, and like a ring, are continuous. Accusations about “who started it” are irrelevant and immature, coming from the insecure ego.
Identifying the vicious cycles is very helpful, because it helps people realize that it’s the cycle that is their joint enemy,not each other, allowing them to “be on the same team” to fight against it in order to reclaim more health in their relationship. It is so helpful to explore and “unpack” a vicous cycle: to find out what each party is feeling and perceiving. This leads to the ability to identify what types of alternate more accurate perceptions, more helpful behavior, and positive feelings can help create a healthier cycle. It tends to lead to more understanding and compassion of the other person, diffuse the upset and feeling victimized, and allows us to become more self-aware of our own feelings and behavior, allowing us to take more ownership of our part, and be more validating, acknowledging, and apologetic towards the other. As this happens, we are growing personally, and maturing, as is the relationship, which is very worthwhile, and something to feel proud of. Sometimes, people realize that they are in the same boat, helping them to relate more to each other. All of the above is obviously very healing to relationships, and leads to life feeling much easier.
COMMON VICIOUS CYCLES
A common dynamic is the withdrawal/withdrawal cycle, where each individual is afraid of rejection, or is angry. The other’s withdrawal aggravates the fear and anger, and invites them to also withdraw. Each has a part that is wanting more connection, but may be feeling hurt/angry/ or even hopeless depending on duration, but too afraid to risk the rejection or anger that is expected. Identifying the above can help the individuals feel reassured, so they can each initiate friendly engagement.
Another one is the mutual blame and/or criticism cycle. Each individual is left feeling blamed/at fault and not good enough. This leads to defensiveness and shifting the blame. The healthy reverse of this cycle is each individual acknowledging his/her end, apologizing, refraining from blameful totalizing statements (eg You always or you never), sharing feelings with “I” statements, and giving praise and gratitude.
Here are some cycles where the individuals are not in the same boat:
Both individuals can be part of a “folie a deux”, where they both believe, for example, that problems largely arise from her issues/illness. He telling her that invites her into believing it and taking the responsibility, often with guilt and shame. She usually feels this way independently and acting out of it feeds the cycle by confirming his stance. This is particularly common when one partner is on medication for eg depression, anxiety, etc. The truth is the other partner is still human with issues, and the dynamics are important to identify and reverse.
Hostile pursuit/withdrawal is when individual “A” responds to individual “B”’s withdrawal by feeling rejected and angry, and pursues connection with “B” with some degree of hostility, inviting “B” to withdraw, though he/she also wants connection. Again, the solution here being aware of the above, and replacing it with friendly approach on both their parts.
Sometimes individual “A” is over-responsible and individual “B” is under-responsible. As in all the other cases, usually these individuals have had these traits prior to the relationship, then the dynamics in the relationship accentuate them. In this case, the more “A” is over-responsible, the more “B” is invited to be under-responsible, as “A” is already doing such a good job of doing most things. The more “B” is under-responsible, the more “A” is invited into being over-responsible, as “somebody has to do it”, “A” doesn’t usually trust that B will do things, and “A” often needs things done their way. “A“ tends to feel resentful, stressed, and tired, while “B” tends to feel inadequate and the brunt of “A”’s resentment. The solution is for “A” to do some backing off, “B” to be expected to do more, with consequences for undone things, and “A” accepting “B” doing it their way as along as it meets a reasonable standard. “B” offers to do more. “ A” believes in “B”’s ability, and gives gratitude. Depending on the degree of imbalance, the shift is likely to need to be gradual. All of these changes are obviously facilitated by both individuals understanding the cycle and the effect it’s having on each of them and the relationship.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Basically, whenever there is trouble, if you look for vicious cycles, you will find them. Conversely, if you don’t look, you will likely miss an important insight that needs to be recognized. Very often, there is more than one vicious cycle operating in a relationship.
Any significant imbalance in a relationship causes trouble, even if the system is “stable” ie each partner being used to it, accepting of it or resigned to it. For example if there is a significant power imbalance, with partner “A” making most of the important decisions and getting his/her way and partner “B” going along with it, partner “B” will tend to feel less important and powerless, either consciously or unconsciously, and may become depressed and/or resentful. This could start quite innocently with partner “A” being much more confident and partner “B” being indecisive. So partner “B” would ask “A”’s opinion. Or “B” can go along with things for fear of conflict. When the dynamic is understood and the imbalance corrected, you have two happier individuals and a healthier relationship.
Vicious cycles can be thought of as a painful dance where each person is getting their toes stepped on. By realizing how the dance is not working, and altering it to a flowing enjoyable dance that doesn’t result in any bleeding toes, better feelings about one’s self, the other, and the relationship can be enjoyed.