12. Cyclical Behavior Patterns - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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12. Cyclical Behavior Patterns

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out Monkey Trap- Breaking Cycles Rel

Out of the Monkey Trap, Breaking Negative Cycles for Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

There are cues that indicate when strategic approaches may be beneficial to facilitate growth and change.  The therapist should look for cyclical behavior patterns with the couple as suggesting using strategic principles in the therapy.  Scheinkman and Fishbane (2004, page 292) described the vulnerability cycle that can develop between partners.  Each of the two partners, Dave and Sheila have a set of vulnerabilities in their version of the cycle.  These vulnerabilities may have developed from earlier life experiences in the family-of-origin, other formative childhood experiences, prior romantic relationships, and within the current relationship.  With their vulnerabilities, both partners become sensitive to inadvertent slights by the other.

The Vulnerability Cycle

V= vulnerability
SS= survival strategy

For example, David might feel inadequate if Sheila comments he forgot to pick up eggs at the market, or feel abandoned when she has a girl's night out.  Sheila might feel unprotected if David justifies why the waiter is slow to bring her water, or overburdened when David suggests they have Thanksgiving dinner at their house.  In a relationship like this, their respective survival strategies often exacerbate each other's vulnerabilities.  Anticipating being hurt again, Dave takes offense by acting defensive and withdrawing from Sheila.  Sheila experiences his withdrawal behavior as Dave leaving her on her own (unprotected) to deal with any issues or problems (overburdened).  Sheila deals with her negative expectations by angrily criticizing Dave's behavior and choices.  She resentfully does her share and more because of how she anticipates Dave not being fully invested.  Her criticism triggers Dave's inadequacy issues and her over-responsibility sometimes leaves Dave feeling abandoned without a role in the couple or family.  The therapist can legitimize each partner's vulnerability, while challenging each of them on the defensive behaviors from their survival strategies.   "In working with the couple's impasse, the therapist is simultaneously 'holding' the vulnerability of each partner, supporting the hurt feelings, while challenging the automatic behavior that springs from the survival position.  This dual process is a critical aspect of the therapy" (Scheinkman and Fishbane, 2004, page 292).

"Couples usually enter therapy with each person blaming the other.  Taking no responsibility for what has gone wrong, each partner expects the therapist to join in blaming the other person.  Without active intervention from the therapist, blame can easily dominate the therapy sessions, and verbal intervention alone is often insufficient.  Couples work is difficult, partly because of its inherent systemic problems (Chasin, Grunebaum, & Herzig, 1990; Fisher, 2002; Papp, 1976; Wile, 1981).  As the outsider in a trio in which two members communicate in negative but at the same time, well rehearsed, intimate, and protective communication, the therapist may experience frustration, anger, and helplessness, rather like the child of quarreling parents.  Through objective identification, a process by which an individual teaches another how to behave in a pattern established earlier (Fisher), the therapist is often induced to join the harmful process.  So much recrimination fills the air that the increasingly discouraged therapist begins to want to blame the couple for blaming" (Leveton, 2005, page 56)

The couple can recruit the therapist to join or confirm their vulnerability cycle.  As the therapist becomes aware of each partner's vulnerabilities, he or she must skillfully try to break the cycle without inadvertently duplicating any negative survival strategies.  For example, the therapist would need to set boundaries, make directives, and give feedback to Dave without mimicking Sheila's critical strategies and setting him off.  When the therapist validates or agrees with Sheila, he or she has to balance Dave's fears about being abandoned.  The therapist would challenge Sheila while still joining with her so that she does not feel unprotected by him or her as she already feels unprotected by Dave.  The therapist would also need to balance giving her directives while being aware of her sense of being burdened unfairly.  The therapist must challenge Dave when he withdraws or shuts down while not letting Dave feel too abandoned.  Their process is well rehearsed but not well received by either partner.  The therapeutic challenge demands that the therapist juggle all factors in the vulnerability cycle.  If the unable to balance all these issues and therapeutic process, the frustrated therapist risks being sucked into the frustration of the dysfunctional relationship.  

continue to Chapter 13
3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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