When Tom begins to feel neglected by his partner, Anna – when she doesn’t show much interest in his everyday life, isn’t being affectionate enough – Tom initially cuts her some slack, telling himself that she’s probably tired from work or stressed. But as it goes on, he eventually gets fed up and blows up – suddenly ranting at her about her playing a video game, or about her clothes laying on the floor, or the dirty dishes she left in the sink – and Anna, feeling surprised, unsafe, and hurt by Tom’s assault, then withdraws further. Tom, now feeling sorry for his explosion, goes into make-up mode, but as Anna’s withdrawal continues and his feelings of being neglected rise, so does his resentment, fueling the cycle once again. Anna sees Tom as angry and needy, Tom sees Anna as self-centered and withholding.
Tom and Anna can argue about dishes or video games or clothes on the floor for forever, but things aren’t going to get better until this dysfunctional pattern – Tom’s feelings of neglect driving his anger and Anna’s continual withdrawal; Anna’s continual withdrawal driving Tom’s feelings of neglect – is broken.
Tom and Anna are not alone – many couples I’ve seen over the years revolve around, over and over again, the same core, driving patterns of conflicting needs and reactions.
Want to identify and break your dysfunctional core problem/pattern?
Here are four steps to help you do it:
#1. Identify Your Core Need
This is straightforward: Ask yourself what is missing most from your relationship or what it is that you need more of. For Tom it is verbal and physical attention; for Anna, feeling safe by having less anger.
#2. Identify How You Cope
(When those needs aren’t met)
Tom tries to “put up with” his feelings of neglect but eventually explodes. Anna, having learned to cope by always walking on eggshells, tends to hold back, and when Tom’s inevitable attack comes, retreats and withdraws even more.
#3. Use Reactions to Identify the Loop
Here, Tom realizes that his explosions are not productive; they only cause Anna to withdraw more, and they keep her from truly seeing and understanding what he really needs. Anna acknowledges that while her walking on eggshells and withdrawal may protect her, they leave Tom feeling unloved and neglected, fueling his anger.
#4. Decide Two Things You Need to Change
(In order to break the cycle)
In order to not to trigger Anna, Tom needs to rein in his anger and instead help her understand what he needs from her in a calm way before his resentment builds. That way, Anna can feel safe and relaxed, so that hopefully she can step forward and focus on what he needs.
Similarly, Anna needs to help Tom understand her side of the equation – how his explosions affect her, and then step up – proactively providing affection, showing interest. Just as Tom’s dampening of his anger helps Anna feels safer – her need – her stepping up not only helps Tom’s resentment from building and exploding but gives him what he needs most.
Tom steps down, Anna steps up. Both individual needs are addressed and the dysfunctional loop is broken; the emotional climate of the relationship changes. Both feel gratified not only by the other’s changes but by the fact that the other person cares enough to make changes. Win-win all around.
Stop with the dishes, clothes, and video games, and instead focus on the larger pattern.