The conflict roller coaster: patterns in conflicts

January 2014

As I put our youngest to bed, I look forward to “our” evening. That one night of the week is important to us. As I walk down the hallway, I hear the text tone from his phone downstairs. Moments later he’s talking. With her.

Although we have made clear agreements about this. “She has some problems,” he explains later. And he wants to be there for her.


A little later, we’re sitting on the couch together. Now we also have a problem.

Sulking, I’m sitting next to him on the couch. See, I’m not cute enough, it’s haunting my head. By now, my husband knows my trap. He caresses me over my head and gives me a kiss. I thaw. Take a look at his mobile. He grins. He knows his own trap too. Others can easily get ahead of him. Demonstratively, he turns his phone off when he crawls up against me.


Be curious and find out what’s happening

This example above looked smooth, didn’t it? Believe me, it wasn’t that smooth at first. Some emotion wasn’t strange to us. Fortunately, Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT), the therapy I work with, assumes that emotion is the goal and the means of change.

Don’t be alarmed by the arguments. Be curious and find out what happens. You’ll notice that they follow a fixed pattern. A pattern in which you unintentionally hit each other’s raw spots. If you’re going to recognize this, you’ll discover what your trap is.

  1. Step 1: a quarrel initially focuses on the other person and what the other person is doing. In 8 out of 10 relationships such a quarrel takes place with a pursuer who fights for the relationship and a withdrawer who tries to protect it. The pursuer brings on the difficult topics and the pain that followed with it. The other partner tries to withdraw at first, but can become an attacker himself when the quarrel rises high. This part of the process is often sad, but it is part of it. Look at it and see if you recognise this pattern with you too.
  2. Step 2: Often deeper emotions are hidden behind the battle points. Investigate this. It is not the intention that you aim the arrows at the other again. This time you take a close look at yourself. This requires courage and vulnerability. What touched you in what your partner did or said? How does that make you feel? What’s your raw spot?
    In this part of the investigation there is often a relapse to step 1. Hang in there!
  3. Step 3: Then you look at how your raw spot and especially, your reaction when you feel this pain point relates to your partner’s pain point. You will discover that they fit seamlessly into a perfect negative spiral. This understanding makes mild.
    “So if you start accusing me, you are actually scared? Mmm, if you accuse me, it feels as I am failing. Apparently I get so frustrated, I reject you, and then you feel abandoned and start to fight even harder? I never knew you felt scared and abandoned? I wasn’t even aware I felt like I was feeling like a big shortcoming.”
    When you reach this point, wanting to connect again and feeling compassion is a relieve
  4. Step 4: Finally, find out what it takes to get out of that spiral. What do you need? What does your partner need? How can you help each other?

This is where it hurts

Investigating the raw spots took us the most time. Raw spots are often related to fear, also known as shame. It takes courage to show this.

For example, I don’t think I’m cute enough. Not that you can tell from me; I’m extroverted, tough, smiling and taking initiative. A nice woman.

My husband has his own fear. He thinks he’ll end up in isolation. You won’t notice anything about him either; he is social, loyal to his friends and spends a lot of time and attention to them. A social man.

Through our open relationship we discovered what had been covered underneath this cloak of love all these years. That behind that beautiful side was also a scouring side with uncertainties. Our response: I could claim my husband. My husband could neglect me. The result: an argument, in which I was really not nice and my husband retreated into isolation. Our fears became a truth.

We gained more and more insight into each other and understanding for each other. As a result, our agreements became more clear and better. They were no longer about what the other had to do, but about how we were going to make sure that we did not step into our pitfalls.

An open relationship is, just like any other relationship, hard work. I had to learn to let go and my husband had to learn to make time for us. We still trip regularly. But we recognize our pitfalls and we catch each other when necessary. That works!

7 Years after writing this column

Like I mentioned in the column before my husband and I just spent a month evaluating our open relationship after having had one for 10 years. What I wrote here 7 years ago is really still valid. Despite our intense conversations, ripping open pain from years back, we were capable of showing our vulnerability in this pain and also of acknowledging it when we did switch to strategies that would hurt our partner. With us it can be lecturing, addressing the other as the problem, making our own painful attribution sound insignificant. Taking responsibility and acknowledging it when we throw oil on the fire, also helps to extinguish this fire. It creates sorrow for your own behavior and compassion for the pain it caused your partner. It really helps when you and your partner(s) master these skills. If you are ready to want to master this: call or whatsapp me: +31 6 4158 7202

The combination of Covid and turning 50, made me aware I only want to give relationship counseling to consensual non-monogamous couples. Thanks to online therapy I can work from all over the world for people from all over the world.  

I’m also curious if this column resonate with some patterns you and your partner(s) have and if you are willing to share this. Don’t feel bad if you use a pseudonym. I value a true story more than a true name.


Rhea Darens

EFT-relationship counselor

Whatsapp: +31 6 41587202

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