If you’re in a relationship (any relationship….so all of you), then you’re no stranger to conflict. Big and small they arise, and it often seems as if the way we interact in them is similar time after time. In fact, if we describe the way we interact we can usually describe the patterns in terms that capture the majority of our and our partners conflictual interactions with each other.

In Sue Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight, she provides a formula for describing a couple’s behaviors in those intense moments. It looks like this:

The more I ______________, the more you _____________, and the more you ___________ the more I ____________.

The sentence is meant to illustrate the cyclical nature of our behaviors. In men, the number one conflict pattern is to avoid. This may be physical, mental, or emotional avoidance, or all three. One of the ways Johnson describes this avoidance is a pattern of numbing out. The person feels overwhelmed and numbs out, which communicates a lack of presence to the other person.

So an example statement may read:

The more I numb out and stare at the ground, the more you ask a bunch of questions to get a response out of me, and the more you ask a bunch of questions to get a response out of me, the more I numb out and stare at the ground. And round and round we go. Weeeee!!!

The problem with this merry-go-round is it isn’t so merry. It’s a cyclical dynamic which creates more frustration, loneliness, confusion, and resentment between two people. It also convinces the people trapped in it’s whirlwind the other person is the enemy here. What a destructive force! Really in a relationship, the two people are on the same team and the cyclical dynamic is the enemy.

This cycle won’t end itself. You’ve got to do something different and step off the hamster wheel. One way to do that is to practice using the above sentence with your partner and to name your cycle. I’ve heard all sorts of names from couples. Merry-go-round, hamster wheel, vortex of destruction, the alley-cat, and others with much stronger language. Having awareness of how each of you contribute to the cycle and naming it are two tactics to help you get out of it once it begins. This doesn’t solve everything, but it’s a start. A start which can help you talk about the underlying issues and not get caught up in destructive behaviors.

What’s your go to behavior in intense conflict?

What emotions do conflicts create in you?

What message do you think your partner hears when you engage in your conflict behavior?

What emotions do you think they feel besides anger?

What would you name your cycle?