We make meaning out of every interaction we have with the people around us. Maybe someone was short in their response to you, and you wonder, are they mad at me? My friend did not return my call, did I do something wrong? This person completed the task for me although I said I can do it, do they think I’m not capable?
Meaning making happens with our friends, our family, our colleagues, and our relationship partners. However, when there is a wrong idea formed with our partner, the cycle can get triggered. With each tiny behavior we see in our partner we are making inferences and then responding or reacting accordingly. Relationship partners are experts at picking up on the slightest differences of behavior. Partners notice changes in their partner’s eyes, changes in tone, or how they respond. “My partner did not look at me when I was telling my story,” “My partner got up to get a drink when I was explaining how I felt,” “My partner’s tone was happy on the phone then sounded bored when I started to speak.” That’s when the meaning making is happening. And guess what happens next? You have a reaction to your partner because you’ve concluded you have been wronged in one way or another. Then your partner reacts to your reaction, then you go round and around getting pulled into your cycle. It only takes a small misstep to get pulled into the cycle. Somewhere along the way, we interpreted our partner’s actions or words to mean something about Us.
Some examples of meaning making that pulls couples into a cycle are:
It did not matter what I had to say, I felt like I wasn’t important.
I felt worried when they walked away, then I was alone.
I felt misunderstood and like I’ve messed up again. I can never get it right.
I felt let down, like I can’t rely on anyone but myself.
I felt scared that we were disconnected and did not know when we would be okay again.
I felt put down and blamed, like I can never do good enough.
I felt unloved and completely unwanted.
I felt hopeless. I try to be helpful and I still can’t fix it.
My partner completely dismissed what I said, it was like I didn’t matter.
All of these statements are examples of the meaning we make from an interaction with our partner that turned into a cycle. We experience an initial sting from our partner not being available, and instead of identifying the meaning we made about the action, we move into frustration, annoyance, and anger. We move into our defenses and our partner moves into their defenses as well. We experienced something other than a response we were hoping for and it hurt.
When we are able to slow down the cycle in the therapy session it creates opportunities to get to the meaning making that occurred for each person. We can see where each partner got hurt in the process. We want to bring to the forefront what is getting missed when the couple gets into their cycle. Partners are trying to relay their experience to the other but the method they know and use so often cannot seem to get it across, it just creates further distance.
What’s happening is partners are experiencing attachment distress when they are getting into their cycle. We want couples to see how the current moves of each person pulls each other into the dance. If one attacks the other, that puts the second person in defense mode. Thus, they have just made it harder for their partner to be emotionally available and responsive to them. We want partners to slow down enough to step out of the dance and create safety to approach what is really happening for each of them. We want partners to practice building safety to say I felt hurt, I felt alone, I felt abandoned, and I felt disconnected. When this happens, then new meaning can be formed. Couples can respond to each other with empathy and compassion.
Can you spot the cycle? Next time you and your partner start entering your defenses, see if you can bring some awareness to what you are feeling in the moment. What would it be like to share that with your partner?
If you are interested in learning more on cycles and EFT, check out our next Hold Me Tight Workshop happening September 29th and 30th 2023. Contact our office for more information!