How to Respond When Your Partner is Acting “Crazy” (and Being Rational and Reasonable Doesn’t Work)


One of the things that are most difficult for many couples to deal with are those moments when one or both partners just aren’t acting rationally or reasonably.

One person, for example, might be full of rage and accusations about something that leaves the other person perplexed, and at their wits end.

“All I did was to go dance with someone else at a wedding party, and she all of a sudden accused me of cheating and threatened to break up with me”, one person says. “I explained to her she was wrong and that I had no ill intentions but no matter what I said she wouldn’t believe me”. “It ruined our entire evening and we didn’t talk for two days”

This kind of scenario often leaves the accused party feeling totally at a loss. It is as if the gentle person next to them who can be so caring and loving, suddenly has turned into a monster.

Accused of feeling or thinking things that just aren’t true, the accused person often doesn’t know what to do. Without any clear rational response to a seemingly irrational reaction, the accused is often left with no response but anger, or a desire for time away from this person they suddenly feel no affection for.

“When you get like this I just can’t be around you”, the accused might say, or “I just can’t deal with all your emotional b**lshit!”

The couple might now not talk for hours or days, and each time arguments like this happen, the wedge between partners grows bigger and the sensitivities to triggers more acute.

Emerson Eggerichs calls it the “crazy cycle”, and each time you take another spin, you do more damage to the foundation of your relationship, and prepare the ground for the next one.

The accuser walks away feeling that their needs or feelings are too much to deal with, and the accused walks away feeling emotionally exhausted and helpless to do anything about it.

What to Do to Calm the Situation:

The best ally against the crazy cycle is knowledge about what brings it on.

What each partner needs to understand is that reason and rationality does not guide all our actions in a close relationship. In fact far from it.

Reason and rationality only reside in the most recent part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex. This part of our brain is what distinguishes us from other animals and allows us to transcend our animal instincts, but it is by no means always in charge.

As Homo Sapiens, we are still part of the animal realm, and we carry with us both a reptilian brain and a mammalian brain that sometimes override our prefrontal cortex.

What we have in common with reptiles and mammals are our survival instincts and our ability to react quickly to sensory input that alerts our organism that we are in danger.

When we enter into close relationships, we are therefore not just in a relationship with another rational thinking human being, but also with the reptile and mammal that we each carry around inside.

Don’t Dismiss Our Animal Instincts:

The reptilian, mammalian, and prefrontal parts of our brains are often in competition with each other, meaning that a prefrontal understanding can sometimes quiet down a reptilian instinct to freeze and “play dead”, but also that a mammalian instinct to flee can sometimes override and trump our rational perception that our partner in front of us is our friend and not our foe.

Multiple sensory inputs that often contradict each other thus vie for control of our organism and ultimately leads us to respond sometimes based on reason alone, sometimes based on pure emotion, and sometimes based on pure instinct.

Although it might seem like the prefrontal response to what is happening around us should be privileged, we would be severely disabled if we were not designed to sometimes have our mammalian and reptilian brains override our reasoning.

The reptilian and mammalian parts of our brains are able to receive and respond to input much faster than the “cognitive processor” of our prefrontal cortex, and by doing so can save our life.

The limbic system, which is part of our mammalian brain, can for example perceive a snake and interpret it as dangerous, even before we have rationally understood that there is a snake on the ground. In this way it can make us flee or prepare us for fight before any rational decision has been made about what to do.

The reptilian part of our brain can activate a similar response, which is needed when the higher order mammalian response is not effective. The reptilian brain can activate a freeze state in us that makes us go “numb”, causes us to faint, or makes us become separate from our bodies, and this can be highly useful when we feel paralyzed by danger and are in no position to flee or fight. By going numb we can endure great hardship with minimum pain until the situation has changed and we are no longer in danger.

Without these animal responses at our disposal, we would not be able to survive certain situations that we as human can be face with, and our emotional, psychological, and physical survival would be compromised.

How to Respond to “Crazy”:

The reason why so many couples get stumped is that they have not understood that the instinctual and emotional responses of their partner are part and parcel of being in a relationship. When we say “I do” to our partner, we don’t just say “I do” to their prefrontal cortex, but also to their animal instincts and their reptilian ancestry.

For the animal in each of us, getting close to others and depending on others for nurturing, comfort, and safety comes with certain dangers. We can lose the other person which would make us extremely vulnerable and unsafe, and we can feel extremely hurt and rejected, which would compromise our own sense of self and threaten us with our own emotional and psychological annihilation. Our need for a secure attachment bond to our partner and a sense of being valued and respected for who we are, are therefore potential danger triggers for the mammal and reptile within us.

When the reptile or mammal within us perceive a threat to our self-esteem or the strength of our connection to our partner, it reacts faster than our prefrontal cortex, and makes us feel and do things out of instinct and fear. It is in these moments that we can seem irrational and “crazy” to our partner because it is in these moment that we are not our cool, calm, and “rational” selves.

The Key to a Successful Relationship:

In any successful relationship both partners have to come to an understanding of each other’s animal instincts and emotional responses. If your partner’s behavior does not make sense from a prefrontal perspective, you need to ask yourself what the mammal or the reptile in them might be responding to.

Oftentimes a response that does not make sense to the reason of the prefrontal cortex, is a response that has been triggered by fear and survival. Only when we understand this and understand how to calm this fear and take away the threat to survival, will we be able to respond in a way that will bring the prefrontal cortex back in charge.

Why Reasoning Will Often Fail:

Oftentimes the response that is required to appease and calm the reptilian and mammalian mind in our partner, is not born out of reason. You cannot simply argue, persuade, or problem-solve your way out of it.

Oftentimes the response you partner requires is of a more emotional or visceral kind. Your partner needs to “feel” safe, or “feel” loved, or “feel” reassured. They need to see it in your eyes, feel it in your touch, or hear it from the emotional tone of your voice.

Accepting the Animal in Me and You:

By no means is it an easy task for a person to respond this way to their partner when they act seemingly irrational and come at you with attacks, for oftentimes the person who needs to respond is caught in their own animal instinct and needs a similarly calming response from the person who just attacked them.

Nevertheless, the first step to winning the battle against the animal insecurities that often create a wedge between partners, is to understand that we are all part reptile, part mammal, and part human, and that reason is not always king.

Once we accept this about ourselves and about our partner, we can begin to understand the seemingly “irrational” and “out-of-control” as part and parcel of an ancient alarm system that perceives and reacts outside of our conscious control and intent and calls for a different kind of response.

Dr. Rune MoelbakI am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist and emotionally-focused couples therapist in Houston Texas. I can help you defeat the “crazy cycle” and respond to the fear signals that often bring it about. Visit my website to read more about how couples therapy can help you.


Negotiating Different Needs for Closeness and Alone Time in a Romantic Relationship

One of the most common issues that leads couples to break up, separate, or divorce, is the difficulty talking about different needs for closeness and alone time within a relationship.

Whenever one person has a greater need for alone time, it can make the other person feel an absence, longing, or sadness, which when left unexpressed can turn into a permanent dissatisfaction and sense of neglect.

In this blog post we will examine how you can deal with this thorny issue without compromising who you are or what you need.

Why Blaming Your Partner is Not the Solution:

The most frequent mistake couples make when trying to resolve a conflict about how much time to spend together, is to try to elevate one’s own needs beyond those of one’s partner, and to pathologize one’s partner for being either too needy or too distant and cold.

This kind of blame game is natural, but not helpful.

Although blaming the other person temporarily gives you respite from your own guilt, sadness, or sense of deficiency, batting this deficiency over to the other side is only going to lead to more distress in your partner, which is no overall gain for the relationship.

In fact, the more distress that gets placed on your partner, the less available they will be to respond to yours.

It is exceedingly difficult for a husband to lend a sympathetic ear to his wife’s longing for more attention when what he hears from her is the message that he himself is falling short or is the cause of her pain.

Likewise, it is very difficult for a wife to respect her husband’s need for alone time, when she herself is struggling with doubts about how important she really is in her husband’s life.

Most of the time, when both partners feel stressed out by negative feelings about themselves, they cannot be present to the feelings of their partner.

For this reason, couples need to find a different way to negotiate differences between them. They must not resort to blaming the other person or invalidating the other person’s needs.

Why Sucking it Up is Not Your Only Alternative:

This of course does not mean that you just have to suck it up and adjust to an unsatisfactory status quo. The trick is to find a better option than either blaming your partner or accepting the unacceptable.

In order to solve this dilemma, we need to see the problem within a larger perspective.

First of all, we need to realize that people are different in how much they need time away from each other, and how much they need affirmation and closeness.

It is not wrong or bad to want time away from your partner, and it is not wrong or bad to need to feel more connected. It is simply human. There is always going to be a difference between partners on this key dimension, and so the issue of negotiating distance and closeness is going to be part of any relationship.

See Yourself in Your Partner:

It is important to understand that the need for independence and closeness are never just due to individual character traits.

A person may be very independent, but if they get together with a person who doesn’t really seem to need them around that much, it is naturally going to produce a sense of uneasiness and anxiety in them that will propel them to seek reassurance, or will make them withdraw into sadness.

At the same time, a person who currently longs for connection from their partner, may get into another relationship where they find their partner’s need for affirmation overbearing and overwhelming, and feel a need for more personal space themselves.

Once we realize that the need for independence and closeness is largely a barometer of a particular relationship dynamic rather than an indictment of one of the partners, it frees us up to have a new kind of conversation about the issue.

How to Find a Win-Win Solution:

Fortunately, even though we each have different needs for space or connection in our current relationship, we are wired to respond well to each other’s needs if only they are presented in a way that we can hear without feeling bad about ourselves.

Advice for the person who is feeling neglected:

The person in a relationship who is currently feeling rejected, uncertain about how loved they are, or missing a connection, can learn to reach out without blame or criticism, and talk about their needs in a way that naturally elicits compassion and closeness.

Instead of teaching their partner a lesson by shutting them out, or making their loneliness a product of the other person’s failings, they can express a longing that is free of blame.

They can notice the soft underbelly of their frustration, or the fragility underneath the sting of the pain that makes them want to lash out.

They can express themselves from a place of undemanding loneliness, yearning, or affection.

If done straight from the heart this will naturally move their partner into a readiness and willingness to care. That is biology 101.

We are wired to respond well to soft and genuine signals from our partner. By not reaching out in a way that puts their partner into the defensive space of having to deal with a sense of being bad or uncaring, their partner no longer gets stuck in their own feelings of shame and guilt, but are free to simply respond with affection and empathy.

Advice for the person who is feeling stifled:

Likewise, instead of simply taking space away from their partner, the person who needs more time on their own can learn to assert their needs while at the same time reassuring their partner that they need them.

Instead of feeling embarrassed or afraid to share their need for alone time, or feeling wrong or anxious about having certain thoughts or feelings that might trigger a negative reaction in their partner, they can learn to share their longing for more independence in a way that still seems loving and caring.

As they learn to gently and assertively talk about their feelings and needs in a way that that still affirms that their partner is loved and important, they will seem more engaged and present in the relationship. This in turn will increase their partner’s sense of connection which has often become questioned because of the perception that the partner who wants alone time isn’t sharing themselves much anymore, but has become emotionally distant.

The neglected partner is largely responding with fear and anxiety to a lack of perceived reciprocity and a sense of their partner as being withdrawn or not really sharing themselves. It is this that makes the neglected partner question the other person’s interest in them or their availability as someone they can turn to and depend on when the need arises.

Paradoxically, when the person who wants more alone time or space feels they can be more authentically themselves within the relationship, their need to periodically break the connection to preserve their sense of self, or relax and be themselves, greatly lessens.

The Importance of Working Together:

Of course, no one can create this shift in a relationship by themselves. It is truly a team effort to learn to manage negative feelings without blaming one’s partner, and to acknowledge and talk about the fears, the guilt, the sadness, and the shame that all too often has no space to be talked about within the relationship.

Partners often need a little help to not immediately hear what the other person is saying as a threat or criticism and to begin to give each other the benefit of the doubt.

Both partners have to agree to a new beginning and begin to work together to help each other access the softer more vulnerable feelings hidden underneath the anger and resentment, or the anxiety of fully being oneself.

How to Turn a Negative Relationship Around

Sometimes relationships can feel like a lot of work. What once was an easy and joyful engagement with a caring compassionate other can slowly turn into an exhausting exchange of complaints and a mutual sense of deprivation and dissatisfaction.

Over time our once best friend can slowly begin to seem like an adversary, and our once biggest source of good feelings and accolades can slowly become a source of negative feelings of falling short or not being good enough.

Fortunately, we now have a remedy to this steady decline of good-will that befalls so many relationships.

Want to know what it is? Then you are in luck…

In this article and the accompanying video which is included below, I will tell you exactly how to turn a negative relationship around.  

The big news item is that the fault is not in your partner, nor in yourself for that matter. Instead the real culprit of negativity in your relationship, is the negative cycle of interactions in which you have gotten stuck.

Emotionally-focused couples therapists have mapped out the nature of the negative cycles that take over perfectly good relationships and turn them into battle fields of negativity. They have also found a way to get couples unstuck from these patterns so they can regain and even strengthen the positive connection they had when they first met.

In the video I am about to show you, you will see how one married couple found a way to turn their relationship around by heeding the insights of emotionally-focused therapy.

Understanding Your Negative Cycle:

35840798_thumbnail_smallA negative cycle is a self-pertuating merry-go-round where what one person says or does creates negative feelings in the other person, and what the other person says or does creates negative feelings in the first person. Couples thereby get stuck in a negative spiral or vicious cycle that keeps them separate from the love, the closeness, and the good feelings they really want.

Emotionally-focused couples therapists have studied the steps involved in the negative cycles that squeeze the love and connection out of relationships. They have made it easier to get out of these patterns, by giving us the tools we need to understand them, and providing us with insights into how to place our feet differently.

The individual steps in any negative relationship cycle can be broken down in the following way:

Primary emotion: the real emotional response a person has to something their partner says or does) or doesn’t say or do. This emotion is often vulnerable and can make the person feel exposed or weak. It tends to be an emotion like sadness, pain/ rejection, shame, or fear.

Secondary emotion: the emotional response a person has to the way their partner has made them feel (the primary emotion). This emotion is often a response to the more vulnerable emotion that makes a person feel stronger or at least makes the person feel less exposed or vulnerable. Sometimes this emotion will be one of anger, contempt, or anxiety

Perception: The conclusion or interpretation a person makes about their partner based on their secondary emotion. If the person feels angry, they are likely to interpret their partner’s behavior as deliberate and ill-intentioned. If the person feels anxiety, they are likely to interpret their partner’s behavior as a sign of danger and bad things to come.

Behavior: How a person acts or reacts based on their secondary emotional reaction and interpretation to their partner. If a person feels anxious in response to their partner, then they are likely to placate in order to avoid further conflict, to freeze up and go into problem-solving instead of staying engaged with their partner’s feelings, or to shut down and withdraw in order order to protect themselves.

When these individual steps are connected together in a chain for both partners in a relationship, they can be depicted as an infinity cycle that loops back and forth between partners in a continuous spiral:

infinity cycle

In this case what is below the grey dotted line is also often below the threshold of a couples awareness.

Why Couples Get Stuck:

Partners who have grown accustomed to feeling criticized or shut out by each other are mostly in touch with their more reactive secondary emotions, and not with the more vulnerable primary emotions and their underlying unmet needs. They lead conversations with angry criticism, or a tendency to anxiously withdraw, appease, or problem-solve.

However, because how they respond to their partner exacerbates the very problem that occasions the criticism or withdrawing to begin with, they get stuck in a lose-lose situation where both are unhappy.

A person who appeases and placates in order to stop the unbearable criticism    from their partner, still remains hidden behind a wall of empty words and empty intentions, and this only makes the critical partner feel more alone, more disconnected, and more critical.

A person who criticizes every little thing their partner does, instead of expressing an underlying need for attention or closeness, only ends up making their partner feel aversive to spending time with them and shutting down the very emotional connection they are yearning for.

How to Get Out of Your Negative Cycle:

What I will show you in my video is how a couple can begin to understand the things they argue about in terms of the steps of the infinity cycle. You will get to understand not only why couples fight, but also what they can do to stop the negative cycle and begin to create a more positive one.

As the video shows, this married couple were able to shift out of their negative cycle by getting more in touch with their primary feelings and underlying unmet needs.

By communicating not just about these, but from these, they were able to transmit a different but also more congruent emotional message. In other words, they were showing their partner what they really felt.

The wife could now let her husband in on how much he really matters to her and how desperate she can get sometimes when she feels unsure of her importance to him.

The husband, in turn, then no longer needed to get his defenses up, but could now feel pulled into an emotion of compassion and love for his wife and a concern with not wanting her to feel so alone. This allowed the husband to reassure his wife and to hear her past complaints, not as a criticism of him, but as a longing for him.

Blamer Softening and Withdrawer Re-engagement:

The video shows how the wife could choose to approach her husband differently in order to get a different response. In emotionally focused therapy this dance move is often referred to as “blamer softening” because the wife here was able to express her dissatisfaction in a softer and less critical way.

The counterpart to “blamer softening” is “withdrawer reengagement”.

In the example of the married couple in the video, this would entail the husband making a new dance move and thereby calling for a different response in his wife.

The husband could let his wife in on how small and rejected he feels when he hears his wife criticize him or make snark comments about ways in which he is not satisfying her.

Instead of withdrawing into his cocoon, he could reengage by letting his wife in on his hurt and saying that he wants to be close but sometimes feels intimidated and unsure if she even likes him. This in turn, might make his wife see his absenteeism in a new light, and would already make her feel more connected with his inner thoughts and feelings, which is what she has really been longing for.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy Can Help You Get in Sync Again:

As you can see, emotionally focused couples therapy offers us a roadmap for how to turn negative relationships around, by helping us understand the dance steps that get us in trouble, as well as the dance steps that will get us in sync.

In conclusion therefore:

The next time you find yourself in a negative merry-go-round with your partner, ask yourself: What are the steps of our own little dance, and what would be required for us to step into a different one?


emotionally-focused couples therapy

* * *

Dr. Rune Moelbak

About me: I am a psychologist and Certified Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapist in Houston, TX. I help couples get unstuck from their negative patterns and recreate the love, connection, and respect they both yearn for.


#1 Reason Couples Fight (and What to Do about It)

Even though it might seem that couples argue about a myriad of different issues, when we look a little deeper, we often find that most arguments have one thing in common: They are really about how we feel about each other, and more specifically, how loved or how significant we feel to our partner.

A wife might complain about her husband not cleaning up after himself, but when this wife takes the time to reflect on her dismay in a couples therapy session, she usually discovers that her annoyance is rooted in her sense that her husband does not really pay attention to his surroundings and does not keep her preferences in mind. In other words, the milk carton on the kitchen table becomes a symbol to the wife of feeling like she is in a relationship by herself. When further investigated, this undigested feeling of being alone in her marriage ultimately connects to a deeper fear that she does not really matter to her husband. In other words, she asks herself: “Am I loved?” and “Does my partner care about me?”

This wife is not alone. In academic circles we refer to her concern about mattering to her partner as a universal human need to feel securely attached.

What we can therefore generally say is that: most arguments deep down are about our frustrated attachment needs and our longing to feel more connected to our partner.

The Fundamental Question of all Relationships:

The fundamental question that each partner struggles with when they are in a relationship is the question: Are you there for me? 

We all have a fundamental need to be sure of each other, and to know that our partner is there to catch us if we fall, or will step up and be there for us when we need them to.

The Truth about Attachment:

What attachment researcher John Bowlby discovered is that the same bond that unites child and mother in our infancy continues to function throughout our adult lives as we meet new people and form new connections with significant others.

john bowlby

As Bowlby says, “All of us, from the cradle to the grave, are happiest when life is organised as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base provided by our attachment figures.”

In other words, the more connected we feel and the more secure we feel about our relationship, the more free we feel to develop our individuality and pursue our individual goals.

Needing others and being your own person are therefore not opposites. The more we are able to reach out to others and feel connected to others, the more separate and autonomous we can also be.

What You Need to Know to Understand Why You Fight:

When we enter into a relationship with someone, we have a need to feel bonded or connected, and if this bond is threatened, we become anxious, unable to think clearly, and often lash out or demand proof that we can count on the other person.

If the answer is “not so sure” or “maybe not” the distress we experience increases, and our attempt to get a more clear and affirmative response that we matter becomes more forceful. We become more angry, more demanding, more controlling, and more critical, until we eventually become depressed and give up.

insecure attachment

The Biggest Problem Couples Have…

The problem for many couples is that attachment needs are often not at the forefront of their discussions.

A husband may know that he feels lonely and unloved at times, but may also feel quite embarrassed about depending on his partner, or may find it “unmanly” to need someone. To deal with this shame or self-judgment, he therefore hides his need for comfort and reassurance both from himself and from his wife.

Yet, just because you hide something doesn’t mean it isn’t there, so the husband still has to find a way to soothe the pain of disconnection he feels. He may do so by becoming critical of his wife, given that he may feel more comfortable with his anger than with his sadness, or he may deal with his underlying fear that he does not matter, by dialing back his expectations and retreating inward where he can feel safer and not so vulnerable.

In this way, what couples actually end up fighting about is not the longing for connection, but rather their many critical remarks about each other’s character traits and acts of commission and omission. In other words, they fight about the milk carton left on the counter, and not about feeling lonely, and longing to feel more important to each other.

3 Things You Need to Know about a Strong Relationship:

The hallmark of a strong relationship or attachment can be defined by 3 perceptions of one’s partner, often referred to as A.R.E.


A stands for accessibility: Do I perceive my partner as available when I have a need to talk about something, or when I have a need to feel close?

Many arguments start because one partner begins to feel like they are bothering the other person when they have a need to talk or connect. They may feel like the other person seems closed off, is too busy with work, or does not pay attention when they enter the room. A wife once complained during a couples session that she would come home carrying several grocery bags and that her husband would not even say “hi” or offer to help her because he was too engrossed watching TV. These kinds of events can gradually lead a person to feel unimportant, neglected, or shut out.

R stands for responsiveness: When I open up to my partner, does he or she provide me with what I need, and do I feel understood, validated, or comforted by the response I get?

Even if your partner is available and ready to listen, they may not exactly provide you with what you want. Many arguments I hear about in couples therapy involve discontent from one person about opening up about their feelings, and getting frustrated that their partner tries to fix or solve the issue. Although, the problems-solving partner is well-intentioned, the unintended consequence of their attempt to help, is that the person sharing their feelings does not really feel heard. What they want is often not a solution, but a caring and validating response. They want to feel understood and cared about. They want to hear things like “I get what you are going through” or “that must be really hard”, not “why don’t you just tell your boss off?”

For a humorous illustration of this frequent stumbling block for couples, watch the short video: “It’s not about the Nail” 

E stands for engagement: Do I feel like my partner trusts me and comes to me to share experiences, concerns, and feelings, or do I feel like I hardly know my partner and hardly know what he or she is thinking and feeling?

Sometimes what triggers an anxiety about our relationship is not whether our partner is accessible or responsive, but whether or not they are really engaged with us and in the relationship. If I am the only one sharing about myself, I may begin to question how much you really trust me and want to engage with me. My relationship might begin to feel one-sided, and I might begin to wonder how much you are really into me. Many fights in relationships are about one person feeling like the other isn’t really “in it” with them. One partner I met with in therapy always felt like she had to probe for answers to get some sign that her husband cared. She lamented that her husband never seemed to just spontaneously share how his day went, and that he would not turn to her for comfort and support when he was going through a conflict at work. She felt shut out and unimportant, and soon began to feel critical of him.

The Best Way to Stop Fights in Your Relationship:

With more knowledge about the components needed to have a strong or secure connection, couples can more actively work on increasing their accessibility, responsiveness, and level of engagement.

You can work on dropping what you are doing once in a while to check in on or pay attention to your partner. When you are less engrossed in other things, or even just look up or ask a question once in a while, your partner will gradually start to perceive you as more accessible

You can also work on increasing your responsiveness, which is best done by putting your own agenda to the side when you respond to your partner. Try to engage in active listening to fully understand what your partner is feeling and why he or she is feeling distressed. As your partner perceives you as responsive and empathic to their concerns, they will in turn feel more at ease and more at peace with the quality of their connection with you.

Finally, you can increase your level of engagement by doing things that show that you are thinking of your partner, or by making a more concerted effort to open up about your thoughts and feelings about things that have happened during the day. Whether you pick up your partner’s favorite ice cream when you are at the store, or let your partner in on a recent dilemma you have faced at work, they are bound to feel that you are more engaged with them, and reward you by feeling happier and less critical of you.

So why not help build the foundation of a stronger connection with your partner. It is the surest way to decrease the gap of disconnection that is the #1 reason why couples fight.

To read more about creating a strong relationship bond, check out Sue Johnson’s book: Love Sense


How to Save Your Relationship from Failing

For a long time we have been thinking mistakenly about couples issues. We have thought that if one partner is unhappy, the solution lies in either changing their own expectations, or asking for a change in their partner. We have thought that relationships are essentially about compromises between two people who ultimately have to change something about themselves in order to make their relationship work.

Imagine the surprise then when couples researcher John Gottman makes the claim that 2 out of 3 issues couples fight about are fundamentally irresolvable. They are not quick fixes, such as taking out the trash, or remembering to call, but value differences. They are often the very same qualities we fell in love with in our partner because they were different or complementary, but which have now become annoyances: a little too much of a good thing.

Unfortunately, nobody responds well to being asked to change who they are, and a relationship where both partners are compromising who they are to please each other, is not a happy one.

Don’t Fight the Wrong Battle:

The problem all these years is that couples and therapists alike have been adopting too narrow a perspective on couples issues.

We thought there were only two elements to a relationship: Partner A, and Partner B. We also thought that what that meant is that to change anything in the relationship, either Partner A or Partner B would have to change. In fact what couples often fight about is WHO really needs to change, or WHO is really to blame for why things aren’t going right.

Fortunately we have now realized that relationships are systems that tend to be self-reinforcing:

  • I ask you to take out the trash in a critical voice
  • You reluctantly do so but feel scolded and mentally withdraw
  • Your withdrawing makes me feel more alone in the relationship and eventually more critical of you
  • As you begin to feel that you are being criticized a lot of the time you are around me, you withdraw even more
  • This only makes me feel more alone and more critical
  • … and round and round we go

This cycle is not the doing of one person. It is at the same time created by us, as we respond to our partner based on how they respond to us. But it is also creating us, as we feel caught or stuck in a certain role in our relationship that we did not ask for and that we are not happy with.

Identify the Problem Correctly:

The problem is that when we are caught in the system and try to get out of it or change it, we seem to only make things worse. The husband who thinks “I better leave the situation to let my wife simmer down” is really trying to protect the relationship from further damage, and get out of a situation that he does not know how to solve. However, his wife perceives this as another instance of her husband being indifferent to her feelings, and this only increases her overall dissatisfaction, and increases her angry protests for her husband to become more engaged in the marriage.

Each partner sees only part of the cycle they are stuck in. Their gaze is directed outward toward the other person who is a source of frustration, criticism, or danger. They are not able to step outside the pattern in which they are caught to look at the system as a whole.

Sadly this also means that they don’t really understand that they are both victims of a negative relationship cycle and that they are both hurting and dealing with their hurt in a way that only ends up making things worse.

How to Save Your Relationship:

What needs to happen to save a relationship that has been usurped by a self-reinforcing negative interaction cycle is that the cycle needs to be pointed out as the shared enemy. Instead of fighting each other, both partners need to join forces to slay the dragon that has gotten between them.

This dragon feeds itself on unacknowledged emotions.

Couples in relationships that are caught in the negative cycle of the dragon, have learned to protect themselves from hurt by withdrawing their most tender and vulnerable emotions, and leading the way with their anger and their coldness.

Being in a relationship has almost become an exercise in survival, and of course, when we think we need to protect ourselves against hurt from our partner, we are not going to open up to them, acknowledge our insecurities and fears, and count on them to safeguard our most vulnerable emotions.

The downside to wearing a protective armor in our relationship is of course that our partner does not get to see who we really are. They don’t get access to our longing to feel closer to the person we love and our fear of losing them. Or they don’t get access to our fear of messing things up, and the sadness we feel about ourselves and our relationship when we wander off on our own thinking that we are not who our partner wants.

Winning the Battle:

When couples are able to realize that they are not fighting each other, but fighting the dragon that has come between them, and when they are able to then take off their protective armor and show each other their pain, their confusion, their fears, their sadness, the dragon cannot survive.

It is through accessing these hidden sides of a suffering couple that the negative cycle that has been running the show for quite a while, can be replaced by a positive one, and that couples can once again regain control of their relationship.

It requires help and practice, but as long as you don’t wait until there is no passion or desire left, the dragon can be slain, and your relationship can be reclaimed from the vicious cycle that has been driving a wedge between you.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am a psychologist and couples therapist in Houston, Texas. I work with couples to get unstuck from negative patterns and feel more connected and fulfilled in their relationships. To read more about my approach to couples therapy, visit my website.

How to Stop Your Spouse from Nagging

It is one of the most common occurrences in couples therapy: a nagging, complaining wife, and a husband who feels criticized and can’t seem to please his wife.

These are of course gender stereotypes, but they are stereotypes for a reason. Statistically, it is often the woman who complains about not getting enough attention or consideration in the relationship, and the man who feels perplexed about how he can really please his wife.

From the male perspective, the dilemma of the “nagging wife” is a well known cultural fact. It is the butt of many a joke about who “wears the pants” in the family, and gets expressed in sayings such as “happy wife, happy life”. In a recent episode of Bravo’s hit series “The Million Dollar Listing”, a husband called up his real estate broker demanding to move back in to his apartment, because, as he said, “my wife wants it”. “I have to go to bed with her”, he told his broker, “you don’t”.

Crass as that may sound, many men, and of course also quite a few women, find themselves on the defense in their marriages or relationships. They get frequent complaints or demands from their partner, and feel like they are often trying to avert the next argument, or that they are always waiting for the next shoe to drop.

Of course, the roles can be reversed, and it might as well occur in same sex couples as in heterosexual relationships. The important point is that one partner often becomes the “nagger”, while the other becomes the “appeaser”.

How Can We Understand Nagging?

In relationships, nagging is rarely about the content that gets nagged about. Yes, of course it is aggravating when the trash does not get taken out, or the household chores are not shared equally, but these frustrations are really just cover-ups for underlying feelings that are rarely discussed.

A wife who nags is often missing something in her relationship. She feels a hole or emptiness in her relationship, and she is trying to fill this hole, by asking her partner to change. The hole, however, is not really filled by concrete demands. When we look a little deeper we often find that it is rooted in doubts about being valued or loved. The nagging is like a “protest” that one is not feeling prioritized or special, and does not feel like one can depend on one’s partner.

According to attachment theory this kind of doubt activates primal instincts in all human beings. At a biological level, we are all wired to react when we feel that the dependability and commitment from a loved one is threatened. Nagging is often simply an attempt to reach out and say “I need more from you”, “my secure attachment to you feels threatened”, “I need to know that you will be there for me, that I can depend on you”.

The Negative Consequences of Nagging:

In couples therapy, it is well known that couples tend to get stuck in negative patterns based on the activation of such attachment fears. When the wife or husband starts nagging, their partner may initially respond to their call for more closeness, but over time they are more likely to retreat.

As the wife or husband criticizes or complains, their partner goes into self-protection mode. They often start feeling bad about themselves or to feel like they are always falling short of what their spouse or partner wants. Nobody likes to feel they are not doing things right, and it is easy to mistake angry complaints for criticisms of one’s personality and character. Prolonged nagging from an unhappy spouse can often lead to depression and low self-esteem and can create even more distance in the relationship as the criticized spouse retreats inward or begins focus more on their hobbies, going out with friends, or retreating to the garage.

How to Stop the Nagging?

When couples come to therapy they are often stuck in this pattern of nagging and withdrawing, or complaining and retreating. With each demand for change, the accused partner takes a step back, or agrees just to appease, leaving the nagging partner feeling more dissatisfied and wanting. This then sets in motion more demands or protests, which in turn leads to less safety for the other spouse, and an increased need to withdraw.

The first step to stopping this pattern is to recognize that both partners are stuck in a negative cycle and that each are trying to meet their own attachment needs in ways that are not working. The nagging spouse is really asking to feel more wanted, desired, special, or loved, and the retreating spouse is really trying to protect the relationship from harm or destruction, fearing that the barrage of criticisms might eventually lead their partner to leave them.

Once partners understand that there is more at stake in this dynamic than simply whether or not one person comes home late for dinner, or the other feels constantly in the wrong, they can begin to address the real issues that underlie the attachments protests and fears. One common error in most couples is that they get stuck in fighting about concrete situations, rather than addressing their underlying universal human need to feel safe, liked, and cherished by their partner.

Simply beginning to let your partner know what you really feel underneath your angry complaints or your emotional withdrawing, can go a long way to break the negative cycle and reestablish a more secure connection with your partner.

Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., couples therapist and marriage counselor in Houston, Texas. To learn more about my approach to couples therapy, or to schedule an appointment, please visit my website. You can also sign up to get a FREE guide to making relationships work.