2 Great Tips on How to Break the Cycle of Hurting Each Other

By Blake Engelman, LPC

You’ve had the experience, right? The one where as soon as the words slip out of your mouth you wish you could somehow reverse the flow of speech. As soon as those words are out there, you know your partner is going to hurt. You didn’t get into this conversation because you wanted to hurt them, but here you are.

And.....OUCH! He or she responded in kind and now you’re the one hurting. How did you get here?

The truth is partners are uniquely positioned to hurt each other. They have intimate knowledge of the words or phrases that can pierce like arrows. Most couples sit on my couch and talk about how they don’t want to hurt each other, how they want to experience connection and tenderness in their relationship. And yet, it’s easy for these same automatic relational dynamics to get activated.

When this happens, our wounds get triggered and our defenses show up. Intended to protect us, our defenses are often the very thing creating hurt for the other. The resulting back and forth can feel like a crazy-making hamster wheel. Once the dynamic takes on this quality it’s hard to get out of it before one or both of you feel hurt.

How do you get off the hamster wheel?

1. It may be helpful to first talk with your spouse about your part in the conflict cycle. What are the things you do when you feel stressed, angry, triggered, or attacked? What do you feel and what thoughts come to mind? Just a quick warning: don’t identify what your partner or spouse does. That’s a recipe for escalation. Let them identify and own their part.

2. Secondly, it can also be helpful to name the conflict cycle. The dance, the throw down, the hamster wheel, the tornado, etc. Use your own language to name it. This can put language on the cycle and help both of you see more clearly what’s happening. “It looks like we’re starting the dance again. I don’t want to do that with you. Can we take a few moments to make sure we don’t hurt each other?” Again, use your own language.

When you can come together and complete the two steps above, you increase your chances of engaging differently. It may feel strange to talk differently, but that’s the goal. The comfortable, normal, automatic way of trying to navigate conflict gets you onto the hamster wheel too often. Different is a good thing here. It won’t work every time; that’s okay. Perfection isn’t the goal.

Offering something different than the habitual responses in this context is offering something better. In conflict, we’re often offered something harsh, cutting, and painful from the other. If we respond in kind the cycle continues: escalation, invalidation, withdraw. Repair requires one of you offering something better than what you’ve received.

If you can offer your partner something better: something kind, curious, and empathic, you’ll greatly increase the chance of receiving something better in return. You’ll also make space for a greater awareness of why the defenses showed up in the first place. What wound did we just activate? What parts of your story did we stir up? When this happens, then you get the chance to care for each other and experience connection.

Offer something better. Step off the hamster wheel.

Want to take the next step? Take advantage of a free consult with Blake today.