At times in our intimate relationships we find ourselves repeating the same pattern of conflict with each other. There can be an escalation where both partners end up feeling unresolved and more distant, and it can be hard to see how we can do anything different. Even though we may be aware of this, again and again we get drawn into the same pattern – so much so that the interactions roll out predictably.

Unwinding this cycle can be a challenging process, but the benefits for couples are huge. Examining the typical communication cycle is a powerful way to reveal underlying feelings and create better ways of relating to each other.


The first step is to become aware of the negative cycle. You can do this by choosing a specific typical confrontation, disagreement or instance of rupture to focus on. The patterns across interactions are often very similar.

Go through step by step what happened in the interaction. Here we are searching for an agreed progression of events. Avoid getting into arguments about what is true and what isn’t. Allow room for differences in perception, focusing on what each partner has experienced, especially emotionally. Each partner is allowed to define their own experience. There is an art to keeping it about your own experience rather than projecting what you think has happened for the other. For example rather than – “then you got furious so I shut down”, instead use “then I felt like you got furious, so I shut down”. The subtle difference between these statements allows room for the other to have their own truth. In this way it is easier to come to an agreement of what happens in the cycle.

A cycle might look something like this:

Sarah was irritated that Tim didn’t come home from work on time. She asked him where he had been. Tim felt that she was accusing him of doing something wrong, when he had been working hard on his business. He immediately responded with anger, feeling like she is always on his back and doesn’t appreciate what he does for the family. Sarah felt his anger was out of proportion and confronting, and disengaged from him by saying it didn’t matter and busied herself with dinner. This angered Tim even more, feeling like she had attacked him and not acknowledged his innocence. He raised his voice and pushed her to apologise. Sarah began to cry, feeling like Tim hated her. Tim felt that he was put in the position of attacker, when it was Sarah that first attacked him. He kept demanding to know what she thought he had been doing, Sarah became very quiet, feeling unable to respond. Furious and feeling there was nothing he could do to make Sarah admit she had been the one to attack him, he stormed out of the house, feeling accused and unacknowledged. Sarah felt abandoned by Tim leaving. She went into her room and cried for an hour.


Now that we are aware of and have agreed on the path of the cycle, how do we begin to do something different?
A key element is the realisation that each partner’s reaction to the other is part of causing the undesired response in the other. This creates the spiral effect. In the example, the angrier that Tim gets, the more Sarah withdraws. The more Sarah withdraws, the angrier Tim becomes.

A way through this is to uncover and share the emotions underlying the interaction. These emotions can be quite different than those which appear on the surface, and are hidden because there is vulnerability about them.
Firstly, each partner needs to be able to identify their own underlying emotions. If this is difficult, working with a relationship counsellor can be particularly helpful. It can be hard for partners in deep relationship difficulty to trust each other enough to discover the underlying feelings together.

If partners are reasonably aware of their underlying emotions, they can begin communicating them to each other. To begin with this is best done out of the heat of the moment, when things are relatively calm. It can be helpful to set up a specific place and time to do this together. It is vital to cultivate an atmosphere of simply listening to the experience of the other. This can be much more challenging than it at first appears. The partner may say things which trigger strong emotions in us, or which don’t seem true to us. What’s important isn’t what is objectively true, but what is true for the other.

Using the established cycle, again go slowly step by step through what occurred. For each person at each stage search for the emotion beneath the one being expressed. Every aspect of the cycle provides a rich possibility for creating understanding and intimacy. Focus on finding the vulnerable feelings which are present but harder to express. This could be a range of feelings including anger, for some people there is a lot of vulnerability about expressing anger.

Take the beginning of the example interaction:

Beneath Sarah’s irritation at Tim being late home, she thinks he is staying away from her because he doesn’t like her company. She feels unlovable.
When Sarah questions Tim for being late, he feels she is pointing out that he has been working long hours without anything to show for it. He recognises that he thinks he is a failure and feels ashamed that the time he spends on his business is not showing financial reward.

Go through the whole cycle this way and share the underlying emotions and each part of the cycle.


In the negative interaction cycle, it is often the interaction between partners’ surface emotions which create the cycle and dictate the course of the interaction. When people share their underlying feelings, it gives their partners a chance to respond to the deeper and more vulnerable emotion rather than the surface reactive and protective emotion.

Sarah expresses that she feels unlovable and that Tim doesn’t want to spend time with her. This gives Tim an opportunity to let her know that he cares about her and is away for long hours because he is desperate to make his business work, not because he is avoiding her.

Tim expresses that he feels like a failure because his business isn’t succeeding. This gives Sarah an opportunity to let him know that she appreciates all his efforts for the family, and that she is much more concerned about spending time together than if the business is bringing in money.

It can also be helpful at this stage for partners to share parts of their history that are relevant to the vulnerabilities they feel. Family of origin, intimate relationship and other life experiences have usually been part of creating our vulnerabilities and patterns of reaction. When people share the events that have shaped them, this allows their partner to have more understanding and empathy for how they react.


It can take time to unwind the patterns of interaction; the wounds which cause them can run quite deep. Even after having shared underlying emotions, the negative patterns often continue. Partners need to take ongoing responsibility for sharing their underlying feelings, especially when the pattern is triggered. When people have deep patterns triggered and manage to respond in a new and healthier way, deep change occurs.

Real magic also happens when partners move from being against each other within the pattern to working together to unwind the pattern. Knowing and having empathy for the underlying vulnerabilities allows each partner to support the other when they are triggered and reacting. They can see through the surface reaction and be empathetic to the pain of their partner.

Tim comes home late and as he walks in the door Sarah orders him to take out the rubbish. Having worked hard all day but feeling like he has done nothing, Tim reacts with anger to her tone of voice. He sees her withdraw and realises that the cycle is in motion. H remembers that when she withdraws she isn’t ignoring him like his ex-wife did, but is feeling deeply overwhelmed by his anger. He knows her father was violent and that withdrawing was the best thing she could do as a child to avoid his anger. Tim takes deep breaths and doing the best he can to work with his own feelings of defensiveness, he gives her a hug.


Intimate relationships bring up our deepest insecurities and fears. Because of this, they are a rich source of potential for personal healing. Working with the communication cycle becomes not just a way to make the relationship better, but a way towards healing core wounds that we carry in life. Consciously working within relationship allows us to support each other in our personal healing, transformation and growth.

Author's Bio: 

Craig Poulton is a holistic and transpersonal counsellor in Melbourne, Australia. In his private practice, Growing Awareness Counselling, he offers both personal and relationship / marriage counselling.
His counselling style is a blend of modern psychological and traditional spiritual practices. Craig has also been active in men's work, participating and facilitating men's circles and rites of passage to mark major life transitions.
He is the father of three young children.