An understanding of “circularity,” a concept associated with Family Systems Theory, can be a foundation piece in making relationships work.  The most common presenting problem in couples therapy on a process level involves partners’ blaming and counter blaming.  For many couples, this is a primary pattern when conflict arises, regardless of the “content” of the conflicts that the couple comes in with.  It is an adverserial process that not only creates stuckness and escalation, but it makes the conflicted material unresolvable and gives the appearance of “irreconcilable differences.”  It also adds another, more toxic aspect to the relationship – not only is there an unresolved conflict, but now the partners have treated each other badly in their attempt to deal with the conflict, undermining basic trust.  The perspective that it’s the other person’s fault is simply poor problem definition in most situations, fueled by a defensive reaction to internal feelings such as anger and hurt.

The circularity principle basically states: “The dysfunctional pattern around conflict is circular and repetitive and punctuated arbitrarily.”  Like a circle, the pattern has no real absolute beginning or end; “punctuated arbitrarily” means each partner decides “arbitrarily” that the pattern begins with and is caused by the other.  There is typically a “blind spot” to one’s own role in the pattern, and destructive behavior by the self is often denied, minimized or rationalized, as blame is projected on the other.  One common manifestation of this tendency is the situation where partner A lashes out around a seemingly minor upset in the couple interaction.  That partner can be judged “irrational” by the other, partner B, and things break down further from there as B lashes out in return, or cuts off and withdraws.  However, it may be that the explosive partner A has been building up pressure from perceived wounds over time by B, and has reached a proverbial last straw.  So the easy conclusion by B that A “caused” the breakdown, which becomes the rationalization for B’s reaction, is oversimplified.

The truth is that neither party is communicating effectively, and both are contributing to the pattern.  As Albert Ellis, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, points out – “the original cause is lost in antiquity,” as further analysis takes one back to the learnings about conflict resolution in the partner’s families growing up, and then we’d have to go back to the parent’s families and early training (not to mention the cultural context), ad infinitum.  Fortunately, once these principles are understood, contemplated and accepted, much better conflict resolution processes become available.  Each partner feels empowered to engage in an open, empathetic and intimate dialogue that is both connected and solution focused, leading to win-win outcomes, building trust and strengthening the relationship.

It is much more useful and helpful to see the pattern as a series of reactions one partner to the other in a continuous loop.  In the classic “angry/ withdrawn” dynamic – one partner’s anger becomes a trigger for the other partner to withdraw, and one partner’s withdrawal becomes the trigger for the other person’s anger.  Better problem definition would suggest that the partners are caught up in a vicious cycle, with each playing a significant role in the pattern as it unfolds and takes hold.

The difficulty in seeing one’s own role in the pattern has many root causes, but can be overcome in a way that actually enhances self-esteem and mastery.  This will be the topic in another blog – “The Core Wound,” as part of our series “Making Relationships Work.”  Each blog is meant to stand alone, but is also connected to other blogs in the series making a coherent whole.