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Helping Couples to Get Out of Negative Cycles

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Relational Problems » Featured Article

By Ondina Nandine Hatvany, MFT

Ondina Nandine Hatvany, MFTI am often asked how I work with couples. This is probably as varied as the couples that I see, who are queer, alternative and traditional. However, if I had to pick a common area of focus, I would say it is to help couples free themselves from the claws of the negative cycles that they get caught in.

In the first session, I usually ask the couple how they have tried to solve their problems. A typical response at this point is for each person to give me a long laundry list of what they think is wrong with their partner and what the partner needs to change. I call this the "The Blame/Shame Game. It's a BIG trap and it keeps things very stuck!

The 3 Steps to Get Out of the Blame/Shame Game:

Step 1: Identifying the negative cycle

The negative cycle is a distancing dynamic that exists between a couple. It happens both when a couple fights endlessly and when they have given up on fighting. The storyline changes with each couple, but the dynamic the negative cycle creates is the same: distance and disconnection. When this cycle gets going, it can create an enormous distance between a couple seemingly in seconds. It loops around and around, sucking all the good and love out of a relationship.

Identifying the negative cycle can be a huge relief because you learn that the negative cycle is the enemy, not each other.

Step 2: Taking responsibility for contributions to the negative cycle

In this step, each of the partners does some self-exploration about how they get sucked into the negative cycle and then takes responsibility for their part in it.

Ultimately, recognizing what your responsibility is will empower you. You will see that there really is no power in trying to change each other.

Step 3: Recognizing triggers

Part of being able to take responsibility is recognizing when you're triggered. It is important to do this because triggers are one of the biggest contributors to the negative cycle. When you're triggered, you react to your partner instead of choosing how you want to respond.

How do you know when you're triggered? This is an article all on its own, but, in a nutshell, you know you're triggered when you're having a bigger emotional response than the situation entails. It is when a seemingly inconsequential event sets off a big reaction in you. You may feel as if a really sensitive sore spot is being trampled on by your partner. They might not even realize they are touching the tip of an iceberg, while you're feeling the whole iceberg rumbling.

A big step out of the negative cycle is learning how to recognize when you're triggered and then asking for what you need. This is easier said than done because when you're triggered, you're often having a strong emotional and even physical response. It may be hard to put words to your experience, let alone ask for what you need.

Couples counseling can be a place to name and deal with triggers openly rather than continually run the negative cycle from behind the scenes.

If you are wondering where the love has gone between you and your partner or why you feel so ambivalent about your relationship, naming some of the above will be a huge relief. Before you let negative cycles eat away at the fabric of your relationship, try couples counseling. Through couples counseling you can rediscover love and connection. Let your relationship be a vehicle for your growth and take you to places you never dreamed possible!

About the Author...

Ondina Nandine Hatvany, MFT has offices in Mill Valley and San Francisco, CA. She is also Director of the Eating Disorders Program at the Community Institute of Psychotherapy in San Rafael, CA. Her clients are adults, teens and traditional, queer and alternative couples.

She assists (traditional/alternative/queer) couples to develop better communication skills and overcome blocks to sex, intimacy, and trust. If you are tired of going around and around in the same old arguments or have just stopped communicating with each other, learn how to stop the negative cycles with effective communication 'tools' to use at home. She uses a practical, solution focused approach that incorporates the latest neuroscience research to effectively stop the negative cycles that can literally suck all the love and connection out of a relationship.

Last Update: 10/11/2009

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