Fight Club

The “Criticize-Defend” Cycle Can Ruin Relationships. Here’s How To Escape.

Are you trapped in a never-ending pattern of disagreement? Time to break free.

Originally Published: 
Man and woman having a heated argument at home

Arguments don’t have to be a sign of discord. The occasional relationship conflict helps identify problem areas, helps resolve underlying issues, and, ideally, helps you both grow closer and understand each other better.

Of course, there are some arguments that are counterproductive and, when left unchecked, can leave couples in a cycle of negativity that continues to churn and foster further negativity and resentment. This is commonly known as the “criticize-defend cycle” or the “attack-defend cycle” and occurs when one partner launches a critical attack on the other, and he or she responds by simply being defensive. The attack persists, as does the defense, and round and round you go.

“The criticize-defend cycle is a common negative interaction pattern that shows up in many marriages,” says Mike Butera, a marriage and family therapist at the Council for Relationships. Our defenses, he adds, are fueled by strong emotional reactions typically originating from our past interpersonal experiences in childhood and previous relationships. “It’s important to understand that this cycle recurs,” he says, “because while in conflict each partner is experiencing a trigger that will remain unnoticed until they are able to link the present emotion with the negative past experience.”

There isn’t a quick fix for couples looking to break free of the criticize-defend cycle, nor is there one definitive strategy that will work for everyone, as all relationships are different. However, there are a few techniques that all couples can try to help steer their disagreements toward a healthier, more productive place. Here are some suggestions to help.

1. Take A Look At Yourself

A lot of the behaviors in the criticize-defend cycle start with our own past experiences. For example, if we were criticized by our parents for being lazy, and then our spouse chastises us for not getting a household chore done, it might stir up those unpleasant memories. “Acknowledge the strong feelings that are coming up for you and name them,” says Butera. “Ask yourself why you’re experiencing these intense feelings such as frustration or upset.” Explain to your partner why you might be particularly sensitive around such areas and also remind yourself of your tendencies so you can better prepare for them.

2. Pause A Moment

When you recognize that you and your spouse are falling into the criticize-defend pattern, allow yourselves a “timeout” to collect yourselves. Let your partner know that you need a pause and agree to revisit the conversation once tempers have cooled. Try controlled breathing exercises to help you calm down before resuming the discussion. “It is common for space to be needed between partners while practicing breaking out of a negative interaction cycle,” Butera says. “Especially for partners who need extra time to process their emotions.”

3. Fight Fair

When couples are trapped in the criticize-defend cycle, old issues can surface, causing the argument to spiral further and escalating to such an unhealthy level that the two of you have forgotten what you were fighting about to begin with. Not a good pattern. Instead, be vigilant on what you’re discussing and limit yourselves to a single topic. “Focus only on one issue at a time to avoid flooding the conversation with various relationship issues,” Butera says. “Stay engaged in the conversation with active listening and be mindful as to not to interrupt the other person when they are speaking.”

4. Don’t Be Afraid Of Compromise

One common issue that couples have when arguing is feeling that there has to be a “winner.” Spoiler alert: There’s no such thing. A disagreement between couples isn’t a battle that needs to be won. Rather, it’s about understanding what the other person needs and coming to a resolution where you both feel heard and validated. Don’t focus on winning an argument. Instead, try and find a middle ground where each of you is satisfied. “Avoid tit-for-tat tactics while trying to come to a resolution,” Butera says. “Acknowledge the give-and-take of the situation and that there will be no ‘winner.’”

5. Embrace Vulnerability

Couples who fall into the criticize-defend cycle are often afraid to be open and vulnerable. They may be worried about trusting their spouse enough to be honest about how they feel, or even about past issues that may be triggering them. Having an open conversation about your triggers and where they come from can help you both break the cycle and communicate more effectively. “This will help you understand how past transgressions not involving you still emotionally impact your partner within your marriage,” Butera says. “It promotes compassion within the relationship which is foundational for healing each other and repairing the relationship.”

6. Name Your Feelings

One of the hallmarks of the criticize-defend cycle is accusation. One partner blames the other for something (“You never do this…”) while the other responds defensively (“You’re always on my case…”). Try using “I” statements to explain how you’re feeling in that moment and let your partner understand what emotions are being stirred up. “Be careful, though,” says Erin Dierickx, a licensed marriage and family therapist. “An ‘I’ statement is not ‘I feel like you…’ That’s that defensiveness trying to sneak back in. Try to stick to yourself and your own emotions in the moment.”

7. Take Responsibility

This cycle is a two-way street. While one person may instigate it with criticism, the other person’s defensiveness keeps the disagreement spinning. Look at what your role is in the interaction and figure out what you can do to change it. Are you yelling? Walking away? Shutting down? Look at your behaviors and see what you can do to change them. “Recognizing our own actions can invite partners to turn towards one another and promote dialogue around what is happening for each of them,” Dierickx says.

8. Ask Questions

When an argument develops, particularly if someone is feeling attacked or defensive, there can be some confusion and bewilderment. If that confusion isn’t addressed, it can only lead to more defensiveness as the other partner tries to make sense of the disagreement. Don’t be afraid to pause and ask your partner to clarify what he or she is upset about. “In order to better understand your partner when feeling defensive, ask them questions,” says Dierckx. “Questions like ‘What do you mean when you say X?’ or ‘That sounded harsh, why did you say it like that?’”

9. Offer A Repair

Repairs are small phrases that can help to steer the conversation back on track if it begins to become hostile. Saying things like, “I’m feeling defensive right now, can you rephrase that?” or “I need things to be calmer right now,” can help redirect the argument to a more positive place and let your partner know that the discussion is entering unhealthy territory. “These statements are seemingly small,” Dierckx says, “but play a huge role in lessening our defensiveness as well as our partner’s.”

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