Conflicts in Love Relationships

This is a chapter from The Pattern System: A Periodic Table for Psychology

The Pattern System can be very useful in understanding the kinds of arguments or fights between partners that happen so frequently in love relationships. In this chapter, I will focus on love relationships, but these concepts also apply to business partnerships, friendships, family relationships, and any other close bonds.

Interactive Sequences

When a couple gets into a repeated intractable conflict, it is usually because they are triggering each other’s patterns and wounds rather than interacting from healthy capacities. In fact, for each couple there is usually a repetitive sequence of transactions that can be mapped out, or perhaps a few such sequences. Internal Family Systems Therapy has explained how these sequences happen,  [You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For, Richard Schwartz; Parts Work, Tom Holmes.] and the Pattern System adds the ability to see exactly which patterns and wounds are involved.

Let’s look at an example. Jean becomes upset at her husband, Todd, because she feels that he hasn’t been sensitive to her. She has been feeling despondent over her struggles at work, and Todd hasn’t been very supportive or attentive to her feelings. As a result, her Not Seen Wound has been triggered.

However, it is rare that people interact directly from their wounds. Often they aren’t even aware of the wound that has been triggered. Instead, they usually react with a pattern that protects against the pain of the wound. So Jean says to Todd, “You are so cold! You never care about my feelings.” Jean has led with her Judgmental Pattern. This serves two functions. It tries to protect her from feeling her wound, and it is a misguided attempt to get what she wants from Todd.

Communicating from a pattern usually backfires. Her blaming makes Todd feel bad about himself by triggering his Judgment Wound. However, Todd isn’t aware of this wound and doesn’t show it. Instead, he withdraws from Jean to close down his heart, keep himself from feeling the pain of this wound, and stay away from Jean so he won’t get hurt further. This is his Distancing Pattern.

Distancing Pattern

Todd’s withdrawal triggers a second wound in Jean; she feels abandoned by him (Abandonment Wound). She defends against this wound by criticizing him for withdrawing (Judgmental Pattern), which activates his Judgment Wound again. He reacts to this with more Distancing, so the cycle repeats itself. They often go around this cycle multiple times, escalating their level of anger and hurt in the process.

This is an example of such a common process that almost everyone has experienced it. I certainly have in my relationships. And it is very painful for both people. Each person feels that their partner is being unreasonable and hurtful, and trying to talk about it often just produces more pain because each person is likely to judge the other, which makes the pain worse. Furthermore, each person feels cut off from their partner’s love, so there is a tendency for both of them to feel alone and abandoned.

The best way to start changing these sequences is to understand what is going on, and the Pattern System can help with that.

Let’s look at a different example. Daniel gets frustrated with his wife, Michelle, when she doesn’t understand something he’s explaining as quickly as he would like, and he becomes critical of her. This is his Judgmental Pattern, though he isn’t aware that he is being judgmental. This triggers her Unlovable Wound because a part of her believes that he must not love her if he could treat her that way.

Michelle tells Daniel that he shouldn’t be judging her, that he should be more kind and understanding with her. This is her Controlling Pattern. She is attempting to control his behavior by telling him how to treat her. She does this to defend against feeling unlovable as well as to get what she wants from him.

Now, it is true that Daniel shouldn’t have been judgmental, but telling someone how they should behave isn’t very effective communication. In a way, it is treating them like a child who needs to be told what to do. That’s why this is the Controlling Pattern. If she first explained how his judgment was affecting her and then asked him to be kind and nonjudgmental, that would be the Assertiveness Capacity, not the Controlling Pattern.  [This kind of good communication comes from Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg.] However, Michelle doesn’t realize that, deep down, she feels unlovable or that she is reacting by being controlling. All she sees is that Daniel is treating her badly and needs to be straightened out.

Daniel and Michelle Pattern

This triggers Daniel’s Domination Wound, which goes back to his having been controlled by his father when he was a child. He is afraid of being controlled by Michelle and reacts with defiance against the perceived threat: “Don’t tell me what to do!” This is a combination of his Rebel and Angry Patterns. The motivation for Daniel’s reaction is also outside his awareness. All he sees is that Michelle is trying to push him around.

Michelle becomes frightened of his anger because of her Attack Wound. She was subject to rages and physical abuse from her father, so any anger terrifies her. She defends against this by telling Daniel that he shouldn’t be angry with her and explaining how he could have responded to her that would have worked better. This is another round of her Controlling Pattern. This triggers Daniel’s Domination Wound again, and again he defends against it with his Angry Pattern, and they are off to the races with another trip around this cycle.

When two people are in a fight, sometimes one of them may become aware of the pain of a wound that has been triggered, especially if things get really out of hand so they can’t defend against it any more. Someone might become aware of their Angry Pattern if that gets triggered strongly enough, although they are still likely to blame the other person for their anger. However, for the most part, when two people are in the middle of such a fight, all they can focus on is their partner’s patterns. Therefore, becoming aware of these cycles of patterns and wounds can be very helpful. This isn’t all that is needed to break the cycle, but it is an important first step toward changing these stuck interaction patterns.

For example, if Daniel realizes that he was being judgmental and that this made Michelle feel unlovable, he is likely to be less threatened and more understanding about why she might want to tell him how she wants him to behave differently. So even though his Domination Wound might still be triggered, he will be less likely to react with anger and defiance and more likely to reassure her that he doesn’t look down on her and that he cares about her.

Primary Conflict Patterns

These examples illustrate the four commonest problematic patterns in triggering fights—Angry, Judgmental, Distancing, and Controlling. Here is a chart that shows these four, along with the commonest wounds they trigger in one’s partner.


The third column in the table shows the most frequent patterns that get triggered in the partner in defense of the wound.

1. Looking at the first row, when Partner A leads with Anger, if you are Partner B, it is likely to trigger your Attack Wound if you are afraid of anger and therefore have such a wound. Three common reactions are (1) getting Angry in return, (2) withdrawing (Distancing Pattern), or (3) adopting a Victim stance by focusing on how much Partner A has harmed you.

2. Looking at the second row, when Partner A leads with Judgment, if you are Partner B, it is likely to trigger your Basic Deficiency or Judgment Wound. Then you might react with the Defensive or Judgmental Pattern in order to defend against feeling Deficient and shift the blame back to Partner A.

3. In the third row, when Partner A is distant or not very intimate with you, this is likely to trigger your Need or Abandonment Wound. You could react in many different ways to this, but a common reaction is to tell A in a Controlling way how he or she should be giving you what you want.

4. Let’s look at the fourth row now. If A is demanding or pushy or lectures you on how you should behave, this is the Controlling Pattern. This might trigger your fear of being Dominated. One common reactions to this is the Rebel Pattern, which would involve rebelling against A’s instructions in order to preserve your autonomy. Another one is the Passive-Aggressive Pattern, in which you agree to do what A wants but then don’t follow through or follow through in a way that frustrates A. This is unconscious and indirect Rebellion.

The Wounds usually get triggered in exactly the way they are depicted in this chart. The protective reaction patterns tend to vary a lot more. In column 3, I have shown the most frequent reactions to each of the four original patterns in column 1, but Partner B could in fact react from any reaction pattern, not just the ones shown in the chart.

Keep in mind that these wounds will be triggered in you only if you actually have them. For example, if Partner A gets angry but you don’t have an Attack Wound, you may not like the anger, but you won’t overreact to it.

It is worth mentioning that these wounds will get triggered in you as long as you perceive that Partner A is being hurtful (coming from a pattern). For example, in the second row, this would mean being Judgmental. In some cases, Partner A may not really be acting judgmental or only being a little judgmental, but as long as it seems to you that A is being judgmental, your wound will be triggered and your reaction patterns will follow.

This is why it is often impossible to really know who started a fight. One person may say something that is mildly hurtful, and the other person may overreact. Who is to blame? No one, really. And that’s why it isn’t so important to determine who started a conflict, even though that is sometimes what the fight becomes about. The cycle of wounding and defense gets started, and the important thing is to understand what is happening so you can change it.

I also want to make it clear that my use of Partner A and B is completely arbitrary and only for teaching purposes. In a real argument, there is no A or B. There are just two people who have gotten into a painful tangle of patterns and wounds that is hurting their relationship.

Reaction Patterns

We have looked at the four commonest patterns that a person tends to lead with in an argument. Let’s now look at the four commonest protective patterns that the partner reacts with and what these patterns tend to trigger in the first person.


1. When Partner B reacts with Defensiveness, if you are Partner A, it is likely to make you feel Rejected or Not Seen.

2. When Partner B responds with Rebellion, it is likely to make you feel that you can’t get through to B or have an impact on B. So you might feel Rejected, Abandoned, or Needy.

Keep in mind that I am only discussing the wound reactions. What you are likely to say will come from the pattern reaction that protects against this wound. So if you feel rejected, your behavior will probably be withdrawal, anger, judgment, or an attempt to control.

3. When Partner B responds with the Victim Pattern, this involves taking the stance of someone who has been victimized by you. This could make you feel Guilt for hurting B.

4. When Partner B responds with the Passive-Aggressive Pattern, it is likely to make you feel good at first, but then later when you realize that B is not really going along with what you want, you are likely to feel Rejected.

These are not hard-and-fast rules about which wounds get triggered. Each situation will be different. The point of these charts is to show how the Pattern System can be used to analyze and understand these complex interactions.

Wound Activations

We can look at this from another vantage point. All of these difficult interactions happen because our wounds get inadvertently triggered by our partners. So let’s look at what your vulnerabilities are and how they relate to your partner’s patterns. If you have a particular wound, which patterns from your partner are likely to trigger that wound? Here is a chart that shows this:


 If you have one of the wounds in the left column, the right column shows the patterns that are most likely to trigger you. Which of these patterns does your partner tend to act from when you are in a conflict? This shows where things are most likely to go south.

Healthy Protective Responses

The reactions we have described so far involve problematic attempts by you as Partner B to protect yourself from real or perceived hurt from partner A. There are also healthy ways to protect yourself from hurt.

Let’s look at an example. If Partner A leads with Judgment, a healthy protective response would be to ask A to respond differently using Good Communication. For example, you might say, “When you said that I was uncaring, I felt hurt. Could you try to express your feelings without judging me?”

This is actually a combination of the Good Communication and Challenge Capacities. It forms a crucial part of most healthy protective responses. You share your feeling response and ask your partner to interact with you in a different way, and you do this without being judgmental yourself. The ability to challenge your partner’s way of communicating and say what you want comes from the Challenge Capacity. The ability to express this in a way that maximizes the chances of your partner hearing you comes from the Good Communication Capacity.

Attempts to Resolve Conflicts

Healthy Resolving Attempts

When you are responding to a communication from your partner that has been hurtful, there are two aspects to a healthy response. One involves protecting or taking care of yourself, and the other involves attempting to resolve the conflict in a way that preserves or even enhances your connection with your partner.

If Partner A leads with a pattern, we will look at the healthy responses you might have in columns 2 and 3 (we’ll get to column 4 later):

Healthy Resolving Attempts 

 1. If Partner A leads with Judgment or Defensiveness, your healthy protective response would be to ask A to communicate in a more open way (Challenge Capacity). The healthy resolving response would be to do this in an open, non-blaming way that A is likely to respond well to (Good Communication Capacity).

2. If Partner A leads with Anger, your protective response involves the Strength Capacity, which involves being solid and firm. The resolving response involves being Centered, which means remaining calm and grounded instead of retaliating in Anger or through some other reactive pattern.

3. If Partner A pulls away from you (Distancing), your protective response is to be being able to support yourself while A is withdrawn so that your Abandonment Wound doesn’t get triggered. The resolving response is Intimacy, which involves being open to connection with A when A is ready or reaching out to A in a way that takes into account A’s reasons for withdrawing.

4. If Partner A leads with Control, you need to respond by being Assertive in order to preserve your autonomy without being Rebellious or Controlling in return. The resolving response would be Cooperation, where you respond in a way that takes into account A’s needs even though they were expressed through an attempt at domination. However, you don’t just give in to A’s needs, which would be People-Pleasing.

5. In any of these situations, an important resolving capacity is Caring, where you care about what is bothering A that caused A to lead with a problematic pattern. This means reaching out to A in a compassionate way to discover what A is feeling and attempting to reconnect with A physically, emotionally, and verbally.

In a similar way, a generally helpful protective response to all patterns is Challenge, and a generally helpful resolving response to all patterns is Good Communication.

Problematic Resolving Attempts

Now let’s look at the fourth column in the chart. There can be a problematic version of each resolving response, where Partner B attempts to resolve the conflict and create connection but does so in an unhealthy way.

If Partner A leads with Controlling, the problematic resolving response is People-Pleasing, where you give up your power in an attempt to keep the connection.

For Distancing, the problematic resolving response is Dependence, where you reach out to connect with A from a needy place.

For Anger, the problematic resolving response is Disowned Anger, where you attempt to respond in a way that doesn’t escalate an angry fight, but in the process you disown your Anger and therefore your Strength, which leads to compliance and passivity.

And if Partner A leads with Judgment, the problematic resolving response is Conflict-Avoidance, where you just give in and agree with A in an attempt to preserve your connection with him or her.

Notice that the responses in the three right-hand columns come from the same dimension as the pattern in the left column. This shows the value of having dimensions in the Pattern System.

Now let’s look at the Victim and Passive-Aggressive Patterns, which I have saved until now because they are more complex. Since these patterns are often unconscious and indirect, the most important thing that needs to happen is for you as Partner B to recognize what is happening, in other words, to see what pattern Partner A is coming from. This then allows you to respond from the Challenge Capacity by pointing out what A is doing and asking him or her to do it differently.

For example, if Partner A is coming from a Victim Pattern, you first need to recognize that that is happening. Then you could say, “You seem to be implying that your life is impossible and there is nothing you can do to change this. And also that it’s my fault and, therefore, I should take care of you. Is that right?” This brings the Victim Pattern out into the open for the two of you to discuss. Even if A doesn’t like hearing this, it will bring the pattern to consciousness and perhaps help shift it.

In addition, when A has the Victim Pattern, he or she is unconsciously asking to be taken care of. You shouldn’t just do that, but it is important that you care about A’s needs, even though they are being expressed indirectly. The danger is that you will respond from the problematic resolving response and become a Caretaker for A, thereby reinforcing A’s Victim Pattern.

If Partner A leads with the Passive-Aggressive Pattern, it means that A is afraid to assert him- or herself directly by refusing to do something. It is important for you to point this out. For example, suppose you have been asking A to perform a task that only A can do, and A has agreed but not followed through. You shouldn’t just keep nagging A because that just reinforces A’s notion that you are trying to control him or her. Instead, you might say, “Well I guess you really don’t want to do that task I asked you to do.”

In addition to pointing this out, you can encourage A to be Assertive, which is actually a form of your Cooperation Capacity. You might say, “Please just tell me if you don’t want to do this task. Then I can figure out how to get it done.” This helps A become aware of the Passive-Aggressive behavior and make a choice about either doing the task or refusing to do it in a direct manner. The unhealthy resolving response would be that you simply respond as a Pleaser and ignore A’s Passive-Aggressive interactions.

If you didn’t already know, you can see from these examples how complex human interactions are and the unnecessary pain and suffering that often ensue despite the best efforts of each person. I hope you see how useful the Pattern System can be in understanding these complex and difficult interactions between partners and choosing healthy ways to respond. Of course, there is much more that needs to be said about exactly how to respond in a healthy way in any particular situation.

Knowing the patterns and wounds from the Pattern System provides a mental scaffolding that allows you to accurately assess what is going on in a situation, almost like how an expert chess player recognizes positions and patterns on the board as meaningful, even when they seem to represent nothing more than a random bunch of pieces and moves to other people. The Pattern System brings clarity and definition when used in action.

I’m not pretending that if you simply know how you should respond, that it is easy to do so. We all react from our patterns, especially in the heat of the moment. We often don’t have time to sit down and figure out the healthy way to respond.

To gain skill, you need to practice noticing the patterns that the people around you are using and then try to discern which wounds may underlie them. You also want to notice the patterns you are reacting from and explore which wounds those patterns are protecting in you. Then you can think about which protective and resolving responses are most likely to be effective. A combination of skills are involved, each of which takes practice to improve at.

The most enduring change comes through understanding and then working through our patterns and replacing them with healthy capacities so that we can respond in the way we would like to. The Pattern System shows the patterns that are involved and the healthy capacities that are possible. For many people, it takes IFS or some other form of therapy or coaching to transform them.

These last two chapters have demonstrated how the Pattern System can be applied to understanding two important areas of inquiry. It clearly could be applied to other areas as well.