Patterns of Conflicts in Relationships

What are Patterns of Conflicts in Relationships?

When a couple gets into a repeated intractable conflict, it is usually because they are triggering each other’s patterns (IFS protectors) and wounds (IFS exiles) 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. Richard Schwartz, the creator of IFS, has explained how these sequences happen in his book You Are the One You’ve Been Waiting For.  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. Jean’s 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.

Conflicts in Relationships

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. 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.