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4 Steps to Understanding Your Relationship Fight Cycle and How to Change It (With Worksheet)

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

There is one common theme among every single couple in the world. What is it? Every couple fights.

You might try to avoid it by ignoring the problem or just responding “Okay, honey” but every couple is going to fight while in their relationship. Maybe this is obvious, but what is not obvious is that most couples do not have 200 different fights; they have the same fight 200 times.

What do I mean? Well, how you fight with your partner (the process) is the same regardless of what you and your partner are fighting about [1].

Let me give you an example. I once saw a couple that fought the same way with each other, regardless of what they were fighting about. One week the focus of their fight was on a spatula, the next week it was a water bottle. This couple kept fighting with each other because they weren’t changing how they fought [2].

1) Why Recognize your Fight Pattern

Whenever I see couples in treatment, they have already heard the phrase it takes two to tango but sometimes, either one or both partners do not believe that he or she should have to change; meaning that if their partner changed, everything would be fine.

Well, you are wrong and I can prove it. Think about other relationships you have been in. Chances are you have fought with previous partners in the same way you are fighting with your current partner. It isn’t the other person that “makes me do” this or that—it’s past hurt and pain that come up in you [3].

I don’t want you to feel criticized though, because we all have past pain and hurt. Here’s an example, one woman I worked with discussed how angry she would become with her spouse when she felt her husband would critique her parenting style. When I asked her about other times she becomes angry, she listed numerous other people and realized that her anger was just that—hers!

So be encouraged that you only have to change how you interact with people in order to get the responses you deserve. You don’t have to wait for others to change!

But on the same side of the coin, if you don’t change how you interact with others, you will continuously find yourself in arguments with other people. This is often the case in codependent relationships.

Point 1 Recap : We all have a negative interaction cycle because of past experiences and pain.

2) Identifying the Core Emotion

What is different among people is why they become angry. There are primary and secondary emotions. In simple words, secondary emotions are the emotions that come out immediately when interacting with someone; the knee-jerk reactions that people usually regret [3].

Usually, but not always, it is anger. Primary emotions are emotions that are “underneath” the secondary emotions [1]. These emotions are usually hidden and take a bit of practice to understand which one you are experiencing. Here are a few examples of the most common secondary and primary emotions.

This is not a complete list but is a starting point to start identifying your primary and secondary emotions. Now, when people display anger, usually the primary emotion is either: fear, shame, guilt, embarrassment, or sadness.

Point 2 Recap : Everyone has a secondary emotion that is shown to others but the primary emotion is what you are actually experiencing.

3) Mapping your Interaction Cycle

Showing anger, or your other secondary emotion, at your partner, friend, or family member will never reveal your primary emotion.

So now, let’s practice. Download and print the “Fight Cycle” form and follow steps 1-6.

For number 1, think about a recent argument that you had with the other person.

Write how the fight began—Did someone say something to the other person? Did someone perceive something that someone else said?

Next, in step 2, how did the other person respond to what occurred in step 1? Did they walk away? Slam the door? Starting yelling or crying?

Step 3, 4 and 5 will all ask the same question: How did you or the other person respond to the step before?

Finally, in step 6—how did the fight end? Chances are, the fight never ended, it is just dropped until you and your partner have another fight.

Point 3 Recap: Mapping your cycle can show you how you respond to others during a disagreement. This cycle will show you your secondary emotion.

4) How to Break your Fight Cycle

Breaking your interaction cycle really does not need to be done with a significant other or loved one. You can break the cycle all on your own—after all, it is your cycle. It is important for you to alter your cycle because, like I stated before, your pattern will stay the same, regardless of who you interact with.

First, look at the first few steps (usually 2 or 3) where you joined the interaction or the fight. Even if you walked away, ignored the fight, or yelled at the other person, recall how you interacted and what was going on for you in that moment.

Next, think about how you were feeling. I know, I know, typically annoying therapist question but it’s an important one in this activity. How were you feeling when you slammed the door, began to cry, yelled at your partner BUT be sure NOT to go to your secondary emotion.

Chances are, your secondary emotion was anger, but what was underneath of that? Hurt that your partner didn’t text you back? Fear that you aren’t good enough or aren’t needed? Embarrassed because your child was screaming in public and a “good parent” wouldn’t raise a child who does that?

The most important part of this step is to BE VULNERABLE with yourself. It’s okay to feel sadness or hurt or even fear. We all have past experiences that influence how we currently think, act, and behave.

Once you identify what you were feeling underneath your secondary emotion, it is time to start practicing sharing your feelings with others. I usually recommend to clients that you should share your emotions with someone that you feel incredibly safe and secure with, not someone who is going to dismiss how you feel or tell you why you are wrong for feeling a certain way.

Sometimes, it is best to disclose these feelings to a parent, sibling, significant other, or best friend. Regardless of who it is, make sure you disclose your feelings to a safe person.

Finally, you need to continually practice getting comfortable with your primary emotions. There is one activity that I typically recommend to clients. First, think about the first time you felt that emotion. Think about when you were really young and had the same fear, shame, guilt, or embarrassment.

Recalling this event will help you understand where it came from and it will give you compassion towards yourself. Next, you can write a letter to your past self (at whatever age you first experienced this emotion). This letter should consist of everything you wanted and needed to hear from someone during that time.

During the last step, I recommend that clients take that letter and continuously read it to themselves and remind them of what they believe is true. For example, if you have a fear of not being good enough for others, remind yourself that you are a valuable part of society and make a difference to others all of the time.

Point 4 Recap: Breaking your cycle consists of identifying your primary emotion and then get comfortable with this feeling.

Summing up

1. Everyone engages in their own interaction cycle, regardless of whom they are interacting with.

2. It’s important to understand the negative patterns that you are engaging in and break down why you interact that specific way.

3. Usually, secondary emotions—or emotions that we show immediately—tend to push us further away from others. Where as primary emotions—or the core feelings that we have—need to be expressed to our loved ones.

4. The key to changing your fight pattern is being vulnerable with yourself and being honest about your primary emotions. Then, you can begin discussing those core feelings with your loved ones.

Do you need help breaking your fight cycle? Leave a comment below and I will be sure to respond!

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[1] Bischof, G. H., & Helmeke, K. B. (2003). Couple therapy. In L. Hecker & J. Wetchler (Eds.), An introduction to marriage and family therapy (pp. 297-336). New York, NY: The Haworth Press.

[2] Hecker, L., Mims, G. A., & Boughner, S. R. (2003). General systems theory, cybernetics, and family therapy. In L. Hecker & J. Wetchler (Eds.), An introduction to marriage and family therapy (pp. 39-61). New York, NY: The Haworth Press.

[3] Greenberg, L. S., & Johnson, S. M (2010). Emotionally focused therapy for couples. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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