How to End the Fight You Can't Remember Why You Started

The patterns that rule our relationships, and how to break them.

Posted Aug 28, 2015

Air Images/Shutterstock
Source: Air Images/Shutterstock

Do you and your partner have the same dialogues, disagreements, or arguments over and over? It's probably the work of an intimate relationship dynamic. Intimate relationship dynamics are interactive patterns in which both parties automatically react to each other in set ways. In the throes of the dynamic, partners are keenly sensitive to how “the other” behaves but scarcely aware of their own behavior. They know painfully well that they’re reacting to their partners’ "cold” or “unreasonable” (or worse) behavior but have no idea of what their cold or unreasonable (or worse) partners are reacting to or how their partners perceive them at the moment of the interaction.

It’s not so much that individuals are in denial of their role in the dynamic; nor are one or both partners necessarily devious or manipulative, although they tend to become that way as the dynamic takes over the relationship. The deeper problem is simply that it’s extremely difficult to objectively analyze one’s own behavior. Only a tiny sliver of the prefrontal cortex serves that purpose, and it gets practically no blood during emotional arousal. What’s more, the worst thing your partner says or does goes into long-term memory, while the worst thing you do or say does not. (Natural selection favored recording the injuries we suffer over those we inflict.)

Once emotional arousal subsides, the self-analytical part of the prefrontal cortex reengages, often with a torrent of self-doubt. In the beginning of a relationship, self-doubt prompts guilt and remorse, which motivates reconnection. (You kiss and make up.) As the dynamic persists, however, self-doubt, guilt, and remorse give way to chronic resentment. At that point, nearly every negative feeling the partners experience is attributed to some flaw in the other’s character. 

Nobody Starts It, and It Doesn’t Matter What It’s About

Intimate relationship dynamics (IRDs) can swing into full force with neither party doing anything wrong. In fact, they’re most often triggered by nonverbal cues, such as body language, tone of voice, distraction, eye contact (or eye aversion), disparate energy levels, and unconscious projections.

Once an IRD is activated, the content of the exchange, whether serious or trivial, simply doesn’t matter; the parties slip into their habitual reactions, no matter what. That’s why you see so many overreactions in IRDs: Relatively trivial issues feel the same as serious matters.

The major unconscious dynamics that ensnare relationships are:

  • Demand-withdrawal
  • Pursuer-distancer
  • Fear-shame (anxiety in one stimulates shame in the other and vice versa).

In the demand-withdraw dynamic, one party seeks control through criticism, complaints, or coercion, while the other seeks control through distraction or isolation. Demand-withdraw is mainly about power: Who will control whom. One partner is aggressive while the other may be passive-aggressive. The dialogue becomes essentially a toddler standoff, with one saying, “Mine!” (or “My way!”), and the other saying, “No!”

"Drake" insists that "Melissa" spends too much money and evades her share of the household chores. Believing that nothing she does is good enough for him, Melissa does less and less in terms of nurturing the relationship and helping around the house, prompting more and more demands from her partner. Occasionally she “feels cornered,” and lashes out with a surge of verbal abuse. It’s common in the demand-withdraw dynamic that both parties feel like victims and see their partners as abusers. Each power struggle in the demand-withdraw pattern ends in a standoff of toddler coping mechanisms—blame, denial, and avoidance.

The demander sees the “issue” as the withdrawer’s laziness, selfishness, obstinacy, or sabotage. The withdrawer sees the issue as the demander’s need to control and lack of empathy. For example, "Elissa" views the issue as her husband continually lying to her. She cites as an example the time he told her that he had paid the insurance bill on time when he actually paid it past due, along with a penalty. From "Frank’s" perspective, the only issue was the fact that he couldn’t tell her about the mistake, because it would begin "an onslaught of criticism that would last all night.”

But they fought all night anyway, about his “lying and lack of integrity” and her “criticism and need to control everything,” with each citing numerous examples of the other’s failings. Neither could see that it was really the demand-withdraw dynamic making them play out endless toddler-brain interactions: She constantly looked for something he might do to raise her anxiety (so it didn’t “sneak up” on her), while he as persistently tried to hide things from her to avoid shaming criticism. Their interactive dynamic was the core problem, deeper than the blame, denial, and avoidance they used to cope with it.

Reversal at the End

Eventually, demanders give up, out of exhaustion, resignation, despair, or bitter contempt. At that point, withdrawers often pick up the slack with their own demands, prompting their partners—the demanders—to disengage.

For example, "Melvin" confronts his wife with "insights” he got from his therapist: “All these years I thought I was just tired [his excuse for avoidance]. But I’m really neglected, burdened, unappreciated, mistreated, and taken advantage of.”

Note that Melvin’s “issue” was not how he felt, but how he wasn’t “getting his needs met.” His emotions were no longer about what he should do to improve his situation—rest, exercise, mediate, connect to his deeper values, be more compassionate, kind, and loving—but about what his partner should do: Take care of him. Not surprisingly, his complaints were virtually identical to hers when she was the demander, before she decided "to let it all go and move on.”

In the next post, I’ll describe another IRD that ruins relationships: pursuer-distancer.

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