If you’ve ever been in a romantic relationship, this pattern will be familiar to you. Your partner does something, say forget to call at the agreed time. This makes you feel insecure, though what shows up most clearly for you is anger. You send an irate text message. Your partner reads the text message and feels inadequate, although what shows up most clearly for them is feeling harassed. They don’t respond to the text message. That in turn makes you feel abandoned, but what show up more clearly for you is more intense anger still and thoughts about the “ fact ” that they truly don’t care, etc. You are both trapped in a stuck loop for two.
When we respond to what we don’t want to feel or think by engaging in some action to move away from these unwanted inner experiences we can easily get into a stuck loop. These actions usually provide us with short-term relief but often make the unwanted experience grow stronger over time, thus pushing us into further actions to gain relief from them. In this way, our lives and action can become dominated by what we don’t want to think or feel, and that sucks.
We can get caught in similar loops in our relationships, only these loops involve another person. What is similar is, we engage in some action to gain relief from (or under the control of) what we don’t like feeling or thinking when we witness our partner’s actions. And our actions in turn make our partner engage in some action to move away from or gain relief from what they feel and think as they see us do that.
A very popular stuck loop for two is the pursue-withdraw loop described above. One partner pursues, causing the other to withdraw. One partner withdraws, causing the other to pursue. Causality becomes circular. The behaviour of the one causes the behaviour of the other and, on and on. Each partner blames the other and fails to see their contribution to maintaining the loop. Yet, no one is at fault, it’s just that we get caught in stuck loops for two.
The problem with these loops is that they carry no information about our relationships beyond the obvious fact that when we are stuck things suck. The only way to know if the relationship can work is to learn to recognize our stuck loops for two, see what deeper feelings underlie them and deliberately choose to engage in some action to move toward what truly matters in our relationship. So in the above example, the stuck loop is the pursue-withdraw dynamic. The deeper feelings might be, for the pursuer feeling abandoned and for the withdrawer feeling inadequate and unlovable. A toward move for either might be to express the deeper feelings rather than their surface anger or bewilderment, and show some vulnerability and ask for connection.
In the past year, we have adapted the powerful ACT matrix model to work with distressed couples and are now offering training workshops for couples clinicians based on the ACT Matrix that help foster psychological flexibility in intimate relationships. Come and learn how to better help your clients (and yourselves) identify and escape from the stuck loops for two that can make even the most loving relationship a daily minefield.