Inner Trek

Therapy Questions: Episode 9

Therapy Questions: Breaking the cycle of relationship conflict


Hey everybody! My name is Dana Mooney, licensed mental health counselor with Inner Trek, LLC and welcome to Therapy Questions. This is episode number 9 where I answer your questions that you asked me about therapy. So this one is about relationships. And the question is "My partner and I go around in circles arguing about the same issues over and over again and it's exhausting. How can I break this cycle?"

So this is a really really great question. I want to kind of break this down into how to identify whether your problems are solvable or where they're perpetual problems, and then also talk about the four red flags. We're gonna call them the four horsemen as presented by the research of John Gottman. The four horsemen are the four things that kind of take down relationships and they often pop up when there's kind of dysfunction happening in relationships and we get into these cycles. And then I'll also talk about the four antidotes of how to combat these these negative patterns.

Alright so we'll talk first about solvable versus unsolvable, or I'll say solvable versus perpetual problems. So solvable problems are things that usually they have to do with like logistical things like time management or division of labor issues or you know childcare issues like how often you're gonna change these diapers or you're gonna watch the child. They're logistical issues that are kind of easily figured out or maybe not so easily but with some work there can be some kind of compromise found in the middle. Then there are perpetual problems, and these usually have to do with more like personality traits or characteristics things that we learned growing up. Like maybe it's spiritual beliefs or maybe it's ideas surrounding spending money, or maybe it's maybe it has to do with mental health struggles and these are things that maybe like continuously crop but there's not an actual solution because it's part of the person who's in the relationship.

And so I think a lot of couples really think you know when you go to therapy we're gonna find the solutions to all the problems and then and then everything will be fine. But really the thing that we want to do is teach people how to navigate the problems that will continuously come up especially the perpetual problems, but even the solvable ones, how to navigate those situations without hurting each other, without blaming each other, and like falling into these negative patterns. Because problems are gonna continuously come up even if we solve a whole host of problems in therapy, more gonna come up as the course of the relationship goes. So we want you to have the tools to be able to navigate the problems well and and to take care of each other really and and honor each other and respect each other.

So now we'll jump into the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. This is based on research by John Gottman. He did a bunch of research in what he called the love lab, where they recorded a whole bunch of couples and what they do well and for couples that have high satisfaction and longevity in their relationships, and then relationships that are kind of on the rocks and then maybe have failed shortly after the, or ended, I don't want to say failed, ended shortly after this study, the things that they're doing. So what's working and what's not is what they studied. And this is, so the findings are broken down into four categories.

So what he found was the first one, the first horsemen or the negative red flag thing that comes up in couples is (I wrote it down here, ready) "Criticism." Okay so criticism is any time that a person brings up a complaint in the relationship and then they link it to their partner's personality or something intrinsic about their partner.

So let's just give an example about like dishes so saying like, "I can't believe you're so lazy because you just come home and you sit down, and you don't even think about what, you know, helping me with the dishes, and then here I am slaving away." Okay so if we pause there, that's the criticism. That's an attack you know calling your partner lazy, right? And so instead what you want to do is gentle startup and then and then identify a positive need that you can say. So gentle startup meaning thinking about how you can phrase your is making you feel. So saying something like I'm really frustrated that you're not following through with what we agreed on, and you're not here helping me wash the dishes." So that's a very specific complaint and it focuses on my frustration, not your laziness. And then it also, you're gonna identify a positive need. So instead of "I can't believe you're not doing this" It's, "I really need you two to come do these dishes like you said, like you agreed on." So that's a positive need. So gentle startup, positive need.

The next one we're gonna talk about is contempt. Okay so contempt is anytime where you're showing disgust or anger towards your partner and it almost comes off as like a sort of abusive, attacking sort of thing. So name-calling can come under contempt, or even facial expressions can come under contempt. Eye-rolling is a big sign of contempt, or disgust at a partner and their position might be a form of contempt.

So the thing that you want to do to combat contempt is appreciation. And I know that that's a big jump from contempt, right? It's like the absolute opposite thing you want to do when you're angry and furious with your partner to the point where you're just like disgusted with the way that they're being. It's really hard to access that part that looks for the positive, looks for the things that your partner's doing right, looks for the things that they're helping with. Do they help support you emotionally? Do help support you financially? Do they give really great hugs? I don't know, anything. Look for the things that they're doing right as a way to sort of soothe yourself and get to a place where you can do the gentle startup rather than the harsh startup. So actively cultivating a place, a culture of appreciation is something that you want to do if there's contempt in your relationship.

Okay the next one is defensiveness. So defensiveness happens as a result of this attacking contempt and criticism, right? There's nothing that you can do or, well there is something that you can do, but like the normal response when you're getting criticized and attacked and abused, right, is to put up the shield right and defend. I mean it's really really hard not to if somebody's saying like, "You lazy *****", you're gonna go, "Well why don't you leave me alone get off my back? I just got home!" And suddenly you're dismissing the person's complaint completely. So if you find yourself in this defensive position which may feel really normal, and is a normal thing, what you want to do is take responsibility. So look for the reasonable part of your partner's complaint, even if they're sounding unreasonable when they're trying to make the complaint. Like look for what it is that's reasonable about what they're saying and see what part of it you can take responsibility for. And then if you're the one making the complaint - and if you notice you're doing these contemptuous things or the criticizing thing, take responsibility for that. You know like, "Hey I'm really sorry that I came off that way when I started it. I'm just so angry." Right? And that's a way of starting to get that repair in to get the conversation back on track. So it's important that both partners take responsibility and how they're creating the dynamic that's happening.

Okay next one is stonewalling. So stonewalling is something that I talked about in that last video that I made about withdrawing, when partners withdraw. So I'll link it here if you want to hear more about stonewalling, go really in depth in it. But what it looks like is when a partner gets overwhelmed and they're just flooded with emotion, and they either withdraw, or then they want to fight and get angry, or they freeze and they just kind of disengage from the conversation, which all of those responses are totally normal by the way. When you're feeling attacked and feeling upset and flooded. But it usually, you know, causes escalation because, think about it. If one partner is saying, "****** dishes this and that." And then the other partner just disengages and ignores the person, what's gonna happen? they're gonna go, "You're not listening to me! You never listen to me!" And then suddenly it becomes like this big escalated thing. And you can imagine lots of different ways how that could that could happen if there's fight or flight. Maybe the person just leaves. And so what the thing that you want to do if you notice that you're getting stonewalled or you're stonewalling, the thing that you want to do is soothing.

So once you're in this place where you are overwhelmed and you are not able to engage it really just shuts off part of the brain that allows to have rational conversation and access that empathy. It just is not there because your brain has disengaged that part, and it's in fight-or-flight mode. And so what the solution is is to find something to do that's soothing and then come back to the conversation later when you're gonna be able to engage in it in a way where you're not gonna accidentally hurt your partner. So those are the four things what I would recommend is if you notice some of these things are coming up in your relationship. See if you can enact some of these antidotes. What I'll do is I'm gonna link some resources in the comments if you're interested in reading more.

And yeah, I hope that that was helpful. If you have any questions, you can put them in the comments here. You can also send them to me my email at or you can put them in the submission form on my website at Thank you so much for watching, and be well!