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The Anatomy of Disconnection (and More on Cycles)

Margarita has posted another article on Psych Central (When Conversations Go Wrong) based on an expansion of the cycles section from my blog entry  Things I’ve Learned.  The new article is an attempt to capture some of the fundamental categories of response that maintain negative cycles, and some ways to exit those cycles.

One of the hardest things for couples to grasp is what systems theorists refer to as circular causality.  Part of what makes it hard to talk about is that language is linear, so it’s hard to describe a circular reference clearly.  It’s sort of the chicken-egg problem.  The conundrum of “Which came first?” is actually an error in trying to fit the question to the example.  “Which came first?” is a question about linear causality: e.g., one thing comes before another and “causes” the second thing.  But chickens and their eggs are actually a circular process – there is no “starting point.”

Another part of what makes it hard to grasp is that most of us are used to thinking in terms of linear causality.  In linear causality A causes B.  In circular causality B feeds into A which feeds back to B which feeds back to A, and so on indefinitely.  However, even in trying to describe it here I had to start with A or B and artificially chose to start with B   And actually, what we usually describe as linear causality is an “excerpting” from an infinite chain of other causes and effects.  For example, I throw a ball and it flies through the air.  But to throw the ball I had to pick it up, form the intention to thow it, engage and coordinate my muscles, etc.  You can always find a prior cause, or a later effect.

Similarly, in couples’ cycles there is no real “starting point.”  A couple can argue endlessly about “who started it” because in a cycle between two people you can always find a prior cause in the other person.  So even trying to describe the cycle in linear language is a bit misleading.  In my example for Margarita’s article the argument in the car starts with the woman complaining about the man’s driving.  This looks like a starting point, but the woman may actually be more critical or harsh than she would be otherwise because she is used to her partner dismissing her.  And he may be used to dismissing her because internally he’s trying to ward off the sting of her criticisms.  So his dismissing or defensiveness, and her criticism form an endless loop with no beginning or end, and both things reinforce each other.  This is partly how partners get polarized into worse representations of themselves – in this case he more dismissing and defensive, and she more critical – than they would normally be.

Negative cycles are most easily identifiable in power struggles, which take the form of “Yes,” “No,” or “I’m right,” “No, I’m right,” type arguments.  To use the driving example, the power struggle could be a Yes-No like this:

You’re driving too fast.

No, I’m not.

Yes you are.

I know what I’m doing.

But you’re driving dangerously.

No, I’m not.

See how that can go on forever? (Or until it either blows up or one person gives in?)  The important thing for a couple is to be able to identify and recognize the cycle, what each of their parts are (without blaming each other!), and then learn how to each respond differently in order to exit the cycle (as described in When Conversations Go Wrong).

Speak Your Mind

One Response to “ The Anatomy of Disconnection (and More on Cycles) ”

  1. Larry on November 5th, 2011 1:05 pm

    Nice characterization of the essence of circular causality in systems theory, and how it applies to couples’ arguments when each perceives or insists the other is wrong or the other started it. Good illustration of that circularity with the back-seat driver example.

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