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Stepping Out of Vicious Cycles: How to Stop the Never-Ending Fight

By: Jennifer J. Hume, Licensed Mental Health Counselor

In my last article I wrote about core issues and how they are at the root of surface issues.  I introduced a fictional couple, Trixie and Bob.  Trixie and Bob had a repeating surface issue fight about Bob’s failure to help around the house as Trixie had repeatedly asked.  Trixie became angry; Bob became defensive and shut down, which caused Trixie to get even more angry.  And, you guessed it; Bob really shuts down after that.  So on and so forth.

Can you sense the vicious cycle here?  My Google search defined a vicious cycle, also called a vicious circle, quite well.  It is “a sequence of reciprocal cause and effect in which two or more elements intensify and aggravate each other, leading inexorably to a worsening of the situation.”  Synonyms are: downward spiral, catch-22, chicken and egg situation, and vortex.

So a vicious cycle in a relationship can be defined as a repetitive (it happens more than once) and circular (it never gets resolved) argument, usually about surface issues, that is fueled by unresolved core issues.  Trixie and Bob will continue to go around and around the vicious cycle or circle fighting about the surface issue of house cleaning because it is fueled by core issues like being afraid to ask for what they want, or feelings of unworthiness, shame or vulnerability.  When two people are involved in a vicious cycle, they feel the intensity building and the aggravation getting out of control and they react to this, whether they know it or not.  The situation worsens.  It worsens every time the same type of argument happens.  It gets exhausting. 

I don’t know anyone in a committed relationship who hasn’t found themselves in a vicious cycle at one point or another. I daresay that everyone who is together for any significant amount of time will have one.  The good news is that vicious cycles don’t have to keep repeating.  I believe this is what sets apart successful relationships from ones that fail:  successful couples figure out how to stop vicious cycles and how to repair the damage they cause.  This is key: you don’t just stop the fight and then act like it never happened, you repair as well.   

When a couple can identify the cycle and have enough courage to step out of it and engage in more helpful thoughts, emotions and behaviors, guess what?  The vicious cycle cannot intensify and worsen anymore.  Vicious cycles require two people entrenched in negativity to fuel them.  When one person stops participating, the power source has been interrupted and the vicious cycle stops intensifying for a time. 

So how can anyone step out of a vicious cycle and stop the pain and destruction they can cause?  John Gottman, Ph.D., in his book The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work talks about the necessity of repair attempts during arguments.  A repair attempt is “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”  For example, let’s say that Trixie and Bob have gone around their vicious cycle a time or two one evening and Trixie notices that nothing is getting resolved and the argument is in fact getting worse and more stressful.  She chooses to be playful with Bob as a repair attempt:  she puts her thumbs in her ears, wiggles her fingers and sticks her tongue out at Bob like their daughter used to when she was little.  Trixie knows Bob thinks this is silly when she does it and it might make him laugh.  He does laugh.  And they are both reminded that they can take a break and come back to this discussion when they are both more capable of settling on a win-win or communicating more effectively. 

Sometimes if an argument is especially intense, couples can completely miss their partner’s repair attempts.  For example, a person can make an excellent repair attempt, “can we please stop?  I’m getting overwhelmed,” but say it in a completely toxic tone of voice that their partner cannot register.  Therefore, it can be helpful for both parties to learn about repair attempts and review some examples so that they can recognize them no matter what tone or decibel level they are communicated in!

Here are some examples of verbal repair attempts from Dr. Gottman:

  • I need things to be calmer right now.
  • Please say that more gently.
  • I feel defensive, can you rephrase that?
  • Let me try again.
  • My reactions were too extreme.  I’m sorry.
  • Let’s compromise here.
  • I agree with part of what you’re saying. 
  • Let’s stop for awhile.
  • We are getting off track.
  • We are both saying…..
  • I love you.
  • My part of the problem is….
  • I understand.

One strategy I have found useful for couples is the use of a timer.  I have had couples describe marathon fights – deep entrenchments in vicious cycles that last hours, sometimes days.  Yikes!  That’s way too long.  The second you realize you’re in a vicious cycle take a time out, agreeing that you will revisit the conversation but need to step out of the cycle first.  If you consciously enter into a difficult discussion, agree on a stopping point before you start:  when the timer goes off in 15 minutes, or at 9:00 PM, etc.  Do not spiral around for hours on end.  Often when people walk away from a vicious cycle they gain clarity and are able to consider the other person’s perspective as well. 

Once couples can stop the vicious cycle they can start getting real about the core issue that sends them into to the never-ending fight to begin with.  Remember, core issues are often vulnerabilities.  They can be old hurts from childhood or relationships, past or present.  Getting to the core is Trixie risking her vulnerability with Bob and saying things like “I feel so angry when you don’t do the dishes, Bob, because I always did everything around the house as a very young child.  I would ask for help and no one lifted a finger.  I know you are not my mom and dad, but I have a lifetime of hurt and anger that comes out when I feel like I’m not important enough to listen to.  Can you help me figure out a way to solve the problem of the dishes and also how I can get across to you when I really need to be heard?”  Bob could say something to address his core issue with Trixie like, “when you yell at me I get overwhelmed and a little scared that you are going to leave me.  So I shut down in hopes you’ll calm down and relax.  Now I understand that even though I’m scared I really need to just tell you that so you can understand I want to listen to you, I just can’t when you’re yelling.” 

Here’s a recap of what we’ve covered so far:

1.      Repetitive fights that go ‘round and ‘round and get more toxic are called vicious cycles. 

2.      Vicious cycles are often about surface issues that typically aren’t very important.

3.      Surface issues are fueled by core issues which always are very important and need to be calmly and compassionately addressed.

4.      Couples can begin to learn repair attempts to step out of vicious cycles.

5.      Getting real about our feelings, needs and vulnerabilities – and risking vulnerability to talk about them – builds the compassion and connection that keeps relationships solid.

In the next article, I will explain how to remain conscious of core issues, how to nurture relationships, and maintain the emotional growth and increased connection that is created when couples “get to the core.”

In the meantime remember: people are complicated; relationships are complex; core issues, surface issues, and vicious cycles have a way of taking on a life of their own.  If reading self-help books and articles is helping your relationship but not helping enough, consider seeking the assistance of an experienced licensed counselor.  Getting help is not a weakness.  It is a serious strength that can save your relationship and your sanity. has an excellent referral list of clinicians who are well-equipped to help.

Editors Note: Jennifer Hume is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, relationship counselor, and Certified Addiction Professional practicing in North Palm Beach, FL.  Her private counseling practice is B.E.A.C.H. Counseling, LLC where she teaches her clients to Breathe, Engage, Accept, Create and Heal.  Jennifer can be reached via her website at or by calling 561-951-0879.  Additionally, Jennifer's profile can be viewed by clicking: North Palm Beach Marriage Counselor .