Negative Couples Cycle: Find The Bad Guy

The Negative Couples Dance

In Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, it is the negative dance or cycle that causes partners to be pulled apart rather than connect. The first of these "Demon Dialogues" is called, "Find the Bad Guy." In this negative pattern, both partners blame, accuse, and attack the other as a means to protect self.

The conflict often begins with one partner feeling hurt or criticized by the other partner and self-protects by lashing out in defense. When our alarm systems are trigger with "danger, danger, danger", we go into the fight or flight mode to regain a sense of control. We blame, attack, or criticize the other partner as the reason for the disconnection in the relationship.

Find The Bad Guy Negative Relationship Cycle

The "Find the Bad Guy" negative cycle is a form of "Its your fault, not mine! Back off!" It can be a fear or hurt response that strikes back as a way to deflect shame. One partner feels fear that he/she made a mistake but puts blame on the other as a way of preemptive strike before being hit.

The other partner then feels blamed, hurt, and fights back with blame, accusations, and attack. It only gets worse from here as the conflict grows into a frenzy of attack-attack. The fire began with a spark and ends with a scorched earth. Nothing is resolved but both partners get hurt.

Anticipating Being Blamed

If this kind of negative cycle continues in the relationship, both partners will begin to expect it, be hypervigilant to it, and react quicker when he or she sees the cues of it coming. The Find The Bad Guy dance can become automatic as each partner has their guns already loaded for war.

The partners are anticipating the other attacking and blaming and it results in closing off any opportunity for connection. The options for responding to the other in this destructive cycle are extremely restricted.

Find The Bad Guy Leads To Contempt

Couples caught up in the Find the Bad Guy arguments begin to experience the relationship as unsafe and unloving. One or both may even view the other as uncaring, mean, and have contempt for the other partner.

Susan Johnson writes, "The more you attack, the more dangerous you appear to me, the more I watch for your attack, the harder I hit back. And round and round we go. This negative pattern has to be shut down before a couple can build true trust and safety. The secret to stopping the dance is to recognize that no one has to be the bad guy. The accuse/accuse pattern itself is the villain here, and the partners are the victims."

This is why I love Emotionally Focused Therapy...neither partner are considered to be the "identified patient" or the bad one in the relationship that has to be "fixed". The negative cycle that couples get pulled into is the problem. Rather than feeling heard and understood, both partners feel attacked and blamed. Nothing ever gets resolved in the "Find the Bad Guy" cycle.

How To Change "Find The Bad Guy" Loop

Once couples recognize that they too get into this negative pattern, they often ask, "So, how do we get out of this dance and fix it?" When couples get into the Find the Bad Guy negative loop, they both need to recognize that they have been sucked into it and they BOTH must work together to get out of it. Some ways that they could find the path out are:

  • Turn their focus on what is happening in the here and now. Get into present moment. One partner could say, "We are in the negative cycle!"

  • They work together, as a team rather then adversaries, to get out of the cycle.

  • They will need to slow it "the hell down" (words from Susan Johnson), take deeper breaths, and realize that they both have been triggered in some way and both are in a defensive posture.

  • Both partners will need to see how blaming, accusing, or attacking only makes the cycle worst.

Steps To Change The Negative Cycle

Susan Johnson recommends that couples reflect on their negative cycles after conflict and examine how the hurtful negative dance began and how both partners got caught in the "fight-to-win" mode. She recommends writing down the each other's moves in the conflict, reading out loud to each other, and agreeing to own their own part or moves in the dance.

How did each partner try to "win" the fight and prove their own "innocence." What were the accusations and what were the counter-attacks? The ultimate goal is for the couple to map out the loop of angry criticism and blaming labels that they both committed. What negative perceptions came into each partner's minds of the other? How did each feel hurt or angry? Lastly, was there a winner?

Start Emotionally Focused Therapy

Are you finding that you and your partner get stuck in a destructive loop such as "Find the Bad Guy"? Do you try to work together to change how you both negatively interact but fail? I (Kevin Leapley) am trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples and I can help to slow down the conflict in a safe environment in order to see what is happening underneath.

Together, we will work to establish new patterns of connecting, communicating, and understanding. The result is feeling that the other partner is someone you can trust and share more deeply.

Contact our counseling center today and start couples counseling with a relationship therapist trained in emotionally focused therapy.