Why Do Couples Get into Downward Spirals?

David and Deborah Woodsfellow

Source: Image by Felicia Atwood

Intimate relationships offer us our deepest security, strongest friendship, most important teamwork, and most profound dreams. But intimate relationships can also be very frustrating.  Very few couples are happy all the time. Almost every intimate relationship has good times and bad. This is because relationships have Love Cycles and Fear Cycles.

Your relationship probably began in a love cycle. You each felt good and made your partner feel good. It was lovely to feel so happy and content, safe and secure.

But over time most relationships also developed a fear cycle – the opposite of that love cycle. You each felt bad and made your partner feel bad. You felt unhappy and discontent, unsafe and insecure. In love cycles you feel good; in fear cycles you feel bad.

We’ve discovered that all love cycles can be described in four words, and all fear can be described by another four words. We think couples need to discover these words. The four words of your fear cycle will show you what’s gone wrong. The four words of your love cycle will show you how to make things right.

Your words are not the same as everybody else’s, because they’re about your unique relationship. In your love cycle there is one word for each person’s best feeling, and one word for each person’s best behavior. In your fear cycle there is one word for each person’s worst feeling, and one word for each person’s worst behavior.

If you spend more time in your fear cycle more than you’d like, you’ll want to make some changes. A healthy relationship has a lot less fear and a lot more love. Changing fear cycles to love cycles is the most important part of relationship therapy.

Different therapists have different names for this, but they all address the same key task. Our Four Words method is the simplest, easiest method we know. We developed it in the year 2000 and have taught it to thousands of couples and hundreds of other therapists.

Understanding Love Cycles

There are four nice words in your love cycle, and four not-so-nice words in your fear cycle. It will be interesting to discover those unique words. I’ll use our relationship as an example. When we met, Deborah was very talkative and outgoing. She explained her interest in ballroom dancing – and demonstrated with me right then. I thought, “Wow. Here’s a woman who’s really wants to be involved.” I invited Deborah over for dinner and made my best dinner. I was very thoughtful, attentive and kind. She thought, “Here’s a man who could cherish me.”

Deborah was involved; I felt loved. I was kind; Deborah felt cherished. Feeling cherished made Deborah even more involved. Feeling loved made me even kinder. The four words in our love cycle were—and still are—kind, cherished, involved, and loved. These lead to one another: Kindness leads to feeling cherished. Feeling cherished leads to being involved. Involvement leads to feeling loved. Feeling loved leads to kindness. The cycle goes around and around. Deborah and I didn’t know these words at the time, we just enjoyed being in love. It all seemed natural and effortless.

The words in your Love Cycle will probably be different from ours, but they will describe your caring actions and warm feelings.

Understanding Fear Cycles

Unfortunately, relationships also have fear cycles. These happen when we feel scared, hurt, or angry. When you’re in a fear cycle both of you feel bad and react in ways that make the other person feel bad. I remember talking to Deborah about our fear cycle on our second date. I explained what I thought could go wrong. As a therapist this seemed like a sensible thing to do—talk about a problem to prevent it. But to Deborah it felt much too soon to be talking about problems. She thought, “Why is this guy anticipating the worst?” It was our first example of David’s “let’s-deal-with-this-right-now” and Deborah’s “let’s-deal-with-this-later.”

I explained that if I got demanding, that might make Deborah fearful. Then she might withdraw, which could make me feel abandoned. That could lead to me getting more demanding, and to her feeling more fearful and withdrawing more.

Demanding could lead to fear. Fear could lead to withdrawing. Withdrawing could lead to abandonment. Abandonment could lead back to demanding. This cycle could go around and around too.

I knew my greatest fear was abandonment, and my worst reaction to abandonment was being demanding. I’d felt abandoned as a child, and I got demanding. But I knew that other people didn’t like my being demanding; so, I guessed Deborah wouldn’t either. Deborah had told me that she had  grown up with some people who, when demanding, could be threatening. She had learned to withdraw as her first line of defense. So I saw how our cycle could develop:

 It turned out I was right. That was our fear cycle then, and it’s still our fear cycle. Thank goodness, these days we don’t do it very often, or very intensely.

Your relationship has a fear cycle too. Your four words may differ from ours, but some fight and flight, some hurt and loneliness, are part of your fear cycle.

Changing Fear Cycles to Love Cycles

In our book, Love Cycles, Fear Cycles we help people identify the four words that best describe their fear cycle and their love cycle. The four words of a fear cycle reveal what’s been going wrong. Each shows you something that needs to change. Transforming that fear cycle back to a love cycle is the way to a wonderful, lasting relationship. It allows a couple to let their fears diminish, so they can live their dreams together.

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