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The Vulnerability Cycle — Why does your Partner Push Your Buttons?

Jeannine Crofton - Calgary Marriage Counsellor


Relationships are more than the sum of its parts. Your relationship is an interaction between you and your partner. These interactions can be intentional or unintentional. When it feels like you and your partner are giving it your best effort and you still feel frustrated look to the pattern between you.

In 2004, Sheinkman and Fishbane wrote an article called The Vulnerability Cycle: Working with Impasses in Couple Therapy. In the article they draw a diagram of how one action begets a reaction which begets further reaction and so on. This feedback loop is powerful and you may feel it is impossible to interrupt it.

I can act as a neutral observer to see the patterns between you and your partner. Sheinkman and Fishbane suggest therapists should consider five factors: Beliefs, Vulnerabilities, Survival Strategies, Family of Origin and Context or Situational Factors. Each person has beliefs about their partner or about relationships in general. These beliefs can often be traced back to positive or negative experiences in our past. How these beliefs are reinforced by your partner can be an important part of the pattern. In fact, at times we choose a partner who affirms our beliefs about relationships, because it seems familiar to us. This can occur even if the beliefs are not conducive to healthy relationships.

The deconstruction process begins by identifying your beliefs, survival strategies and your vulnerabilities. For example, you may believe that no one will ever really care for you unconditionally. Your vulnerable place is to feel unlovable. Your survival strategy may then be to be cold with people who try to love you. This coldness maintains distance. When someone pulls away it confirms your belief, your survival strategy is affirmed and you become even more removed. Your belief is strengthened as well.

If you wish to redesign your relationship you may need to redesign your belief and allow your worst vulnerabilities to be confirmed. You may encounter partners who are in it for themselves. However, you might find a partner who shows you unconditional love and it feels good. Repeated exposure to safe relationships can dilute the belief over time. No question – shifting out of this protective stance is difficult. Having a skilled third party to refocus you on what you want instead of what you don’t want is key.

Couple working with psychologist

The Benefits of Vulnerability

In an existing relationship, the deconstruction requires commitment to shift the pattern and here are a few strategies Sheinkman and Fishbane recommend and ones we could use:

Freeze frame – getting an alternate perspective by slowing things down frame by frame. How are you thinking at that moment with that view of yourself and your partner?

Externalizing the Impasse – when you and your partner recognize the pattern can you band together and say “do you see it?” “What is our plan to avoid this thing we typically do”? If you have created good patterns it is also helpful to notice what you are doing and congratulate each other for working to create healthy interactions.

Developing Curiosity – examine your own assumptions and ask what you think you already know. I have worked with couples that have held assumptions for 20 years to be surprised by the answer when they asked what they thought they already knew.

Disinvesting Blame – choosing to believe there are “just differences” instead of needing to attribute blame. This can be freeing or it can leave you feeling out of control. Brene Brown talks about blame as a discharge of anger and a missed opportunity for connection.

Virtuous Cycles – I am always on the lookout for the exception to the pattern so I will ask you to identify the exception. Perhaps the pattern disappeared when your mother was ill or it didn’t seem so powerful when the economy was better and you felt you had more financial freedom. This information is rich with answers about how to interrupt the pattern more of the time.

“I have worked with couples that have held assumptions for 20 years to be surprised by the answer when they asked what they thought they already knew.”

The authors of the Vulnerability Cycle research make a great contribution to understanding the loops we experience.  I invite you to join me so that we can draw your interaction between you and your spouse. Let’s break that pattern by identifying it, slowing down and choosing new beliefs and responses.

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