couple with relationship problems

Have You Heard of This Hidden Relationship Killer?

Many couples are looking for answers to their relationship struggles.

We know this because the couples relationship books are flying off the shelves, the advice columns are being read, and the offices of couples counselors are full.

So why — with all the knowledge and support there is for couples these days — are so many still struggling?

So why – with all the knowledge and support there is for couples these days – are so many still struggling?Click To Tweet

Perhaps there are many reasons including a lack of clarity about what modern marriage is supposed to be, a lack of role modeling since so many couples now come from divorced families, or simply the stress of modern life.

Here’s another reason that is rarely understood or talked about.

And yet this phenomenon is so powerful and so pervasive, that it is a significant part of the problem in literally every couple I work with…

Meet Lisa & James

Lisa reported that she and James were wild about each other in the first couple of years of their courtship and marriage. She found James so…

  • available,
  • attentive,
  • so strong,
  • and emotionally steady.

Lisa was thrilled to have a man who was so emotionally grounding for her.

James reported that Lisa was so…

  • lively,
  • fun,
  • engaging,
  • and emotionally expressive.

He loved how she drew him out and he felt so much more alive with her.

But now things were very different for them.

  • Lisa reported that James had become distant, disengaged, unwilling to connect, and was no longer interested in sex.
  • James felt that Lisa was always angry, hostile, judgmental and otherwise unapproachable.

So what happened to this once happy couple?

And the answer is simple…

They had become victims of their Negative Cycle.

Okay, so that deserves an explanation.

What, after all, is a Negative Cycle?

Understanding the Negative Cycle

A Negative Cycle is something that virtually every couple has — it’s just that some couples keep it in its place and don’t give it much room in their relationship, while other couples are overwhelmed by it.

A Negative Cycle is something that virtually every couple has.Click To Tweet

The Negative Cycle works this way:

  1. When person “A” gets upset, the way they express their upset is triggering and upsetting to person “B”.
  2. When person “B” gets upset, the way they express their upset is triggering and upsetting to person “A”.

And you guessed it…

The way person “A” expresses their upset feelings upsets person “B”, and so on, and so forth.

You get the idea.

This pattern repeats itself endlessly.

After a while, James came to view Lisa as little more than an angry, hostile woman, not the way she thinks of herself at all, and not the way others see her either.

Lisa came to think of James as passive and abandoning. Again, not the way James thinks of himself or his friends would describe him.

There are many forms of the Negative Cycle but in all cases, they can reduce a couple to a flat, two-dimensional caricature of themselves.

The Negative Cycle can reduce a couple to a flat, two-dimensional caricature of themselves.Click To Tweet

So if you find yourself in a negative repeating pattern of communication in your relationship, don’t blame your partner… blame the Negative Cycle!

It’s easy to see how our partner participates in the Negative Cycle, while it’s more difficult to see how we do. After all, we see our participation as justified and a reaction to our partner’s behavior.

Here’s What I Challenge You to Do

Answer the questions,

What is my participation in the Negative Cycle?

Am I quick to react and defend?

Do I store things up and have it come out sarcastically?

Do I withhold and withdraw?

Instead of any of these behaviors, try something new.

First, realize that your partner’s behavior is based on their way of dealing with uncomfortable feelings, and now, they have chronic uncomfortable feelings in the relationship.

So you can change the cycle by offering empathy and validation to their uncomfortable feelings.

For instance, James could say to Lisa,

“I know it’s upsetting to you when I withdraw from the relationship. I know it’s hurtful and that’s not what I want for you.”

Lisa could say to James,

“I know it’s hard for you that I’m so direct with my anger. I don’t mean to hurt you, I care about your feelings.”

In every interaction, start with validation and empathy. After a while, your Negative Cycle will be tamed and put out of commission.

Always remember that it’s there — just don’t give it control.

Have you dealt with a Negative Cycle in your own relationship?

I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.

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  1. Pingback: Neil D. Brown

  2. Hi there Kathleen!

    Thanks for checking out my post and taking the time to leave a comment.

    I’m happy that learning about the Negative Cycle is helpful to you.

    Also, I’m impressed by your self-awareness, discovery and willingness to roll up your selves and do the work.

    My very best wishes to you,


  3. Bringing to light the Negative Cycle is helpful. I have been with my husband for 20 years, we met when we were 20 married at 26 and our 1st of 2 boys at 27. Now we are both 40 and at times I feel lost and unfamiliar with both my husband and myself. I find a basic understanding of the EGO and what it want is a relationship saver for me. The ego’s need for power, pleasure and control is overwhelming and painful to both myself and my husband no matter who is delivering the attack. Once I am aware enough to let go of that ego driven want and listen compassionately I can usually see beyond the mechanisms of defence which lead to our Negative Cycle. There is a lot of letting go and detachment and it is a constant learning process for me to separate the human being from its behaviour.

  4. Great advice Rachel. Thanks for joining the discussion.

    Just taking even 15 minutes will allow a couple to feel connected, like they matter to each other and have someone to come home to. Great advice for any couple who wants to stay out of the Negative Cycle.

    – Neil

  5. Hey Neil,

    I have seen couples live in this negative cycle for years. It can really change people. What used to be fabulous couples are now both empty and unhappy. I have always maintained that regardless of how busy our lives get, commit to 15 minutes a day of communication. It does not matter if you’re tired or you have a thousand things to do. Commit to sharing 15 minutes together each day, to discuss the ‘I feel’ this. Talk about whats good and bad. Ten years down the track couples will be communicating so much better and life will still be in the relationship.


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