Researchers have identified three patterns of conflict in human interactions.
Illustrating the first of these, Abi and Byron (names and identifying details removed) are discussing how they should spend Saturday evening. Suddenly the situation becomes tense.
‘You always get what you want!’
‘No. I don’t. You’re always the one who gets what you want!’
‘You got to do exactly what you wanted last week. And what about the week before. And you spent all that money when you were away with your friends last month.’
‘Well if we’re going to talk about money, look at how much you spent last weekend.’
These kinds of conflicts are called Negative Interaction Cycles and it is these that cause the harm in human relationships. Harm in couple relationships, family relationships, friendships and with people we work with.
The first of these Negative Interaction Cycles (NICs) is called Blame/Blame. In the example given by Abi and Byron, above, there is no need to indicate which partner is speaking, whatever is said brings about another attack. The unconscious pattern being played out is ‘if you’re going to attack me, then I’m going to attack you’.
Researchers refer to this as a Negative Interaction Cycle because of its cyclical nature, it goes around and around, each time deepening the hurt. It is interactive because each person plays a part. And negative because it is creating more and more so-called negative feelings.
The problems with this kind of interaction include:
- Escalation, as feelings intensify the attacks become bigger and more hurtful
- Destruction, the attacks destroy the sense of attachment in the relationship and cause hurt to each person
- Lasting damage, the greater the hurt the more memorable the interaction, the more the conflict escalates and the more long-lasting the injury
Unconstrained conflict of this kind can lead to abuse, violence and what researchers term ‘attachment injury’; the previously secure attachment between partners becomes injured. The more this type of injury, the less emotionally safe the relationship feels.
Whilst referred to as a Blame/Blame conflict, to signify this is what both partners are doing to each other, the conflict may contain the whole lexicon of conflict behaviours: attack, blame, criticise and so on.
The second of these Negative Interaction Cycles (NICs) is known as a Blame/Withdraw. In this NIC one of the people in the conflict has less appetite for the conflict, there can be a number of reasons for this. Instead of responding to Blame with Blame, in this NIC the response is to Withdraw. One person is continuing with Blame, whilst one is Withdrawing.
Withdrawal can include a range of different behaviours including getting up and walking off, emotionally withdrawing, going silent, changing the subject and so on. The point is that the conflict is continuing and unresolved.
For the Blamer this can be infuriating, and they might say things like:
‘That’s right, do what you always do and just walk off.’
‘Come here I haven’t finished with you.’
‘I don’t really matter to you, do I.’
Whilst for the Withdrawer, they might be thinking things like:
‘Can’t you see how much this hurts me.’
‘I just want a simple life.’
‘I just need some space away from all of this.’
In this interaction it looks like the problem of escalation has been avoided, at least for now. A risk is that with unresolved conflicts of this kind, future conflicts may escalate more quickly because of the lingering bad feelings. Problems with this kind of interaction also include, for both people, emotional destruction and lasting damage.
The third of the three conflicts is known as Withdraw/Withdraw. Whilst on the surface it might appear there is little conflict between the people in this relationship, this NIC is the most fragile and usually marks the final phase of the relationship. In this NIC conflicts remain unexpressed. Both are withdrawn. In effect both have emotionally withdrawn from the relationship, given up, and there is now a fragile ceasefire.
Most of therapy is about relationships, either about one’s relationship with one-self or about relationships with others. In talking about relationships with others, in individual therapy, couples/family therapy or work-based relationship coaching there are a number of tasks and these can include:
- Understanding what Negative Interaction Cycle(s) are playing out. Usually one of the three conflicts described above is prevalent.
- The shift from seeing the other person(s) as the problem to seeing the NIC as the problem. ‘It’s not you or me, it’s what we do to each other.’
- Seeing that people make sense and they take up the position they do in the NIC(s) for good reason, usually to do with their experience of human relationships, especially interpersonal traumas.
- Putting something better in place than the NIC(s). Learning to resolve conflict without recourse to the NIC(s).
- Stepping away from thinking about short-term crises and investing in the relationship for the good long-term health of the relationship, so the relationship is more resilient to short-term crises and these can be more readily withstood.
Taking all of these tasks together, the overall change is one from Negative Interaction Cycles to Positive Interaction Cycles (PIC).
Positive Interaction Cycles
In a Positive Interaction Cycle, two people seeing things differently is an opportunity for a discussion. An opportunity to listen, understand and accept the experience of each other; an interaction with each person playing a part. This kind of interaction creates more intimacy and closeness; hence it gives rise positive feelings of connectedness between people. When a conversation goes this well, who doesn’t want more of it, so it becomes cyclical in nature; listen, understand, accept one another’s experience and arrive at a joint solution to a shared problem.
Abi and Byron are discussing how they should spend Saturday night:
‘You think I always get what I want. I’d really like to understand your perspective on this. I love you very much and I can see this is causing you a lot of hurt and upset. I’m ready to listen to you so we can see how we can sort this out.’
Suddenly the tension eases, there is an air of loving concern and an intimate conversation ensues.
Three conflicts. One heart-felt conversation: prizing relationships ahead of shared problems.
Johnson, S. M., & Greenberg, L. S. (1985). Differential effects of experiential and problem-solving interventions in resolving marital conflict. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 53(2), 175-184. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.53.2.175
Lee, N. A., Spengler, P. M., Mitchell, A. M., Spengler, E. S., & Spiker, D. A. (2017). Facilitating withdrawer re-engagement in emotionally focused couple therapy: A modified task analysis. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 6(3), 205-225. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cfp0000084
Makinen, J. A., & Johnson, S. M. (2006). Resolving attachment injuries in couples using emotionally focused therapy: Steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(6), 1055-1064. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.74.6.1055
Vanhee, G., Lemmens, G. M. D., Moors, A., Hinnekens, C., & Verhofstadt, L. L. (2018). EFT-C’s understanding of couple distress: An overview of evidence from couple and emotion research. Journal of Family Therapy, 40(Suppl 1), S24-S44. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-6427.12128