marriage cycles of conflictPast Relationships Affect Current

Our family histories, friendships, and past romantic relationships all play important roles in how we interact and connect with our partner in the present. Those histories shape our actions and expectations for our current marriage. How our parents or other caregivers modeled their relationship often can explain why each partner thinks or does what they do.

Parental Models

If your parents responded consistently to your needs as a child and you could count on them to be there when you were hurt, then your expectation as an adult is probably to expect it from your partner. Your parents level of emotional responsiveness to your needs growing up has a powerful impact on you today. Inversely, if your parents were not there when you needed them to be, then you probably less likely to believe that your current partner can be reliable to be there when you call.

Review The Past For Better Understanding Present

The more we can review the past of ourselves and our partner, the more we can better understand our own and our partner’s relational expectations, styles of coping, and ways of reacting to conflict.┬áIf I hear that one partner grew up with parents that verbally and physically fought in front of him or her, then it probably has had an effect upon how he/she fights in the current relationship.

The other partner may have parents that never fought but rather avoided any kind of conflict. This will have an affect upon that partner’s current role in conflict. If one or both partner’s parents were divorced, it may cause a real sense of fear of being abandoned by the other partner. This fear can lead to unreal warning signs of incoming danger and quick reactions to minimal issues.

Reoccurring Cycles of Conflict

Couples who come into my office for marriage counseling often present with repeating cycles or patterns of conflict. The couple originally comes in thinking they need solutions to the content of the fight, such as how the other partner forgot his birthday or continues to spend too much money. The content is not as important as the roles each partner plays in the negative dance. These disagreements cause emotional pain and each partner develops ways of dealing with that pain. Some partners turn toward their partners in these emotional distressed events while other learn to cope by turning away. In Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), we call these roles “The Pursuer” and “The Withdrawer”.

Pursuers & Withdrawers

In my marriage counseling sessions, I explain how one partner in a fight has more tendency to pursue the other partner, while that other partner may feel flooded or blamed, therefore, pull away or block the other. EFT teaches that knowing how each partner fights (who does what and when) can be helpful to de-escalate the negative cycle in the relationship.

I often ask, “who most often gets frustrated and increases the volume or the intensity of the fight (Pursuer)?” “What are the action tendencies of this partner to push it up a level or two?” “Does the other often try to calm the situation or get the other partner to stop increasing the volume?” I try to learn who pursues the other in disagreements and which is more likely to move away from the other in a fight (Withdrawer)?

Past Comes Into The Present

At times, I will bring a partner’s past attachment history into the current cycle to help each partner better understand their responses and reactions. For example, one partner may finally understand how afraid his partner gets when he is 30 minutes late returning home from work because her father left her family when she was 8 years old and she never saw him after that event. She also better understands her own reaction to his late arrival. Instead of getting angry, she learns to recognize her fear, and turns to her husband for reassurance.

Knowing The Past Helps Partners Better Understand The Present

In summary, it can be helpful to better understand how past histories can form negative beliefs and how those beliefs can destructively affect the current relationship. When both partners “get” why the other reacts the way he or she does in a fight, the new understanding can lead to empathy rather than more negative reaction. It can also help the scared partner step out of his or her fear, rather than being consumed by it. Ultimately, confiding in the other partner when the old negative beliefs are triggered and show up provides great opportunity for the two to partner together to work through the conflict as a team.