Leanna Stockard, MA, AMFT

Have you noticed that the conflicts in your relationships tend to be fought the same way? Whether the conflict is with your parent, your sibling, your friend, or your partner, you often will fight with them the same way every single time. This is not surprising, because when couples begin to engage in conflict behavior with one another, usually they will fall into a cycle.

Understand Your Pattern

Our conflict cycles often begin with a trigger. The person who is triggered may depend on the situation, as well as the context. Regardless, the process of the conflict cycle often remains the same. The cycle of conflict is a pattern of what we feel and what we do. As an example, let’s say that Joe was triggered by something Jane said to a friend of theirs. After Joe was triggered, he experienced an emotion based on that trigger. Following the triggered emotion, Joe made a decision to behave a certain way. After Joe’s behavior, Jane would then experience an emotion based on Joe’s behavior, and then she would make a decision to behave a certain way. The cycle would then continue with Joe’s emotion, Joe’s behavior, and back to Jane’s emotion and behavior. The cycle goes on for as long as the conflict continues. It takes some time to map out your conflict cycle, but once your conflict cycle has been identified, you are then able to begin acknowledging your part in this pattern.

Control What You Can Control

When you examine your conflict cycle, it might seem overwhelming. “How are we ever going to break through this?” “This goes on for hours!” are just a couple of phrases I have heard in couples’ therapy. Depending on how long your conflict cycle lasts, it might seem incredibly discouraging to break through. A way to work through this could be to look at what you are capable of controlling. We are only able to control what we personally think and do. We cannot control what the other person in the conflict does. What could be a helpful beginning is to try to challenge yourself to listen and respond to what the other person is attempting to communicate, rather than reacting on your feelings. When you are able to display this listening skill and practice empathy for the other person, the cycle of conflict can diminish.

Be Patient

Conflict cycles often gain momentum as time goes on. It is so important for you and your partner, relative, friend, etc. to practice patience when working to break your conflict cycle. You and the person who is involved in the conflict have formed a way of fighting it out, and it is going to take a lot of work to break through. If you begin to lose patience and blame the other person for not following through on their portion of the conflict cycle, it will only lead to resentment, and you will likely fall back into the cycle. What may be helpful with practicing patience is externalizing our conflict cycles. For example, I have seen couples and families externalize the conflict as a monster, as a person, or even labeled as the time in their lives when the conflict began. Externalizing the conflict cycle allows for us to take a step back, remove the conflict from the person, and at times, this may allow humor to be present and diffuse the conflict.

Breaking your conflict cycle can be challenging, but it is not impossible! If you are struggling to break this problematic pattern with someone in your life, it may be helpful to connect with a therapist. Contact Symmetry Counseling to get connected with one of our talented clinicians!