Step-by-step techniques to end negative patterns and work on your relationship in the best way possible: together

Sílvia Bastos
Sep 16 · 12 min read
All illustrations by the author.

Why do relationships fail?

Relationships are not about passive agreements and merely spending time together: they are living, breathing entities, and if you don’t actively take care of them, they will suffer and die. If you want your relationship to be strong, you can’t just hope for it — you need to put in the work.

In this article, I will share some of the most effective strategies my partner and I use to care for our relationship, to stay close to each other through conflict and disconnection, and to consistently progress towards more happiness and love.

We wondered why couples fight, lose interest or seem to lose the ability to communicate even when they love each other. Why do dirty dishes or apparently innocuous words become triggers for such heated arguments?

According to Dr. Sue Johnson, clinical psychologist and developer of Emotionally Focused Couples and Family Therapy (EFT), adult romantic relationships are “(…) emotional bonds. They’re about the innate need for safe emotional connection. Just like [British psychiatrist] John Bowlby talks about in his attachment theory concerning mothers and kids. The same thing is going on with adults.”

Through her extensive experience with couples counseling, Dr. Johnson concluded that relationship conflict is a result of one or both partners feeling that their attachment is threatened.

Most of us don’t see this connection because the symptoms have purely emotional roots. His snaggy remarks make you feel small and hurt; her angry words convince you that you’re not good enough for her; the hairs left in the drain symbolize disrespect. Due to our past experiences with unsafe connections, the smallest behaviors can trigger our strongest fears.

So, why do we need secure attachment so much?

According to research, it’s because the lack of it can actually be a literal threat to our survival.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University asked men with a history of angina and high blood pressure whether their wives “showed their love.” The ones who said no suffered twice as many angina episodes during the next five years.

Another study found that women who had had a heart attack showed a 3x higher risk of having another if there was conflict in their marriage.

Being able to trust and be trusted, to love and be loved in your relationship is not just helpful: it’s crucial for you and your partner’s health, happiness, and overall quality of life.

What follows are the specific techniques—with real-life examples—that my partner and I use to do the work needed to maintain a loving and intimate relationship. We are eager self-experimenters and have found that these are the things that really work.

1. See What You’re Doing

After studying and working with thousands of couples, Dr. Johnson noticed that most couples fall into one of three toxic loops — she calls them the “Demon Dialogues.”

The first one is Find the Bad Guy. This is when partners constantly blame each other, point at each other’s faults, and present lists of examples of how the other person has failed in the past. It’s a constant fight, and it’s usually the first step in a couple’s disconnection.

The second one is The Protest Polka. This is the most common one, and it usually consists of one partner reaching out for attention, usually in a negative or aggressive way, and the other stepping back, usually with silence or exasperation.

The third one is Freeze and Flee, and according to Sue Johnson, it’s the most dangerous one. This usually happens when the “aggressive” partner gives up trying to get the spouse’s attention and goes silent — and often ends up leaving. Couples in this pattern are no longer fighting, but remain silent and defeated.

In unstable relationships, these patterns tend to happen often, and each time they threaten the connection — and have a strong negative impact on both partners.

With securely attached partners, the Demon Dialogues still happen, but they are an exception and they are more easily overcome.

In her book Hold Me Tight, Dr. Johnson explains that, in any case, the first step towards strengthening a relationship is to identify the patterns that threaten it.

Every once in awhile, when I feel especially stressed, I tend to get anxious about money. That I’m spending too much, not saving enough, and moving towards inevitable failure.

I usually complain about this to my partner as a way to get his support, but every time I do it he seems to get triggered by it, and quickly becomes angry and impatient. Feeling vulnerable and desperate, I then push for his attention, and he gradually gets more annoyed.

According to Dr. Johnson, no matter how often this happens in your relationship, if you want to break this kind of pattern, you first need to see it in its entirety.

That’s what my partner and I did: as soon as we found ourselves stuck in our own Protest Polka, we asked ourselves a few questions based on an exercise in Dr. Johnson’s book.

Here are those questions and our answers:

What usually happens that keeps me from feeling safely connected to you?

My answer: when I share my anxiety and you reply in an annoyed, frustrated tone, something like “right, here we go again”, or “oh my god, so now we can’t spend money anymore”, or “I give up. Do whatever you wish.”

His answer: when you tell me what to do, like “we should be spending less money”, or “let’s not do that because it’s too expensive,” instead of looking for a rational solution together.

And then, what is my usual response?

My answer: I justify my complaints further and try to show why you’re wrong.

His answer: I get angry and shut you off, and reply in a cold tone.

What am I trying to achieve by doing that?

My answer: I am trying to communicate my anxiety and fear to you and asking you for support — I just struggle to communicate it clearly.

His answer: I am trying to remain calm and think about solutions on my own.

As this pattern keeps going, how do I feel?

My answer: Frustrated. Alone. Hurt.

His answer: Annoyed. Angry. Tired.

What do I tell myself about our relationship when this happens?

My answer: That I am annoying and spoiled, and you don’t want to support me or understand me.

His answer: That I have no clue how to support you; that you’re trying to take my freedom away.

My understanding of this loop is that when I behave the way described above, you seem to then ______.

My answer: Become cold and impatient.

His answer: Criticize my every attempt to support you and become emotional.

The more I ______, the more you ______, and we get trapped in a painful loop.

My answer: The more I try to get seen, the more annoyed you become.

His answer: The more I focus on rational arguments, the more emotional you become.

How to identify your own unhealthy patterns

Look for a common negative pattern in your relationship which you and your partner usually get stuck, and ask yourself these questions. Share your answers with your partner.

Remember: your fights are almost never about the facts (money, working late, bad parenting, etc.), but about the attachment problems in your relationship.

2. Express What You Feel

After identifying and deconstructing the patterns that undermine your relationship, you and your partner need to catch yourselves as they happen. “Hey, we’re doing that thing again, should we take a moment and get out of it?”

So, how do you get out of it?

First: resist the temptation to blame.

Second: express your deeper emotions, your raw spots.

An example of blame vs. expression: instead of saying “I feel that you’re not even trying to understand me, and only care about yourself,” say “when you stop speaking to me, I feel lonely, like I’m not being understood.”

According to a famous experiment conducted by the psychologist Arthur Aron, self-disclosure — that is, exchanging personal information that matters — increases interpersonal closeness.

Whenever my partner and I see that we’re getting stuck in our Protest Polka, we immediately tune in to our own feelings and do our best to use first person, blame-free language.

Then, together, we explore the root of our emotions and share them with each other as a way to bridge the gap between us and increase connection.

Here are a few questions that we ask ourselves to snap out of our Demon Dialogue and reconnect to each other:

  • What is the real reason why I feel/act this way?
  • When have I felt similarly in the past?
  • What was the original event that triggered this pattern?
  • What is this discussion really all about?
  • What am I really trying to tell you?

I explained to my partner that I subconsciously attribute part of my self-worth to the amount of money I have. When I see our shared account balance decreasing, I try to take control of the situation by making passive remarks about his and our financial decisions. When he replies with sarcasm, it reminds me of how my father used to be constantly annoyed with me as a child, and I respond with louder cries for attention.

In return, my partner told me that as a child, he was often denied things due to his family’s financial situation. When my words imply that I’m trying to cut our costs as a couple, he feels like he is being denied again, and like his freedom is threatened.

Since the moment we first shared these insights, everything changed: we feel closer, stronger, and the Polka doesn’t own us anymore.

3. Say What You Want

My partner shared with me that one of the reasons why he feels so triggered in our Protest Polka is his frustration of not knowing how to support me effectively.

Here’s the thing: your partner can’t guess your needs — you need to communicate them.

Spend more time telling your partner about the ways in which you want to be supported and loved. Tell them about yourself, about your dreams, about your fears.

It’s also very useful to give positive feedback about ways in which they have supported you in the past. For example, I know that my partner likes me to diffuse his anger with laughter and jokes, and he knows that very often, all I need is to be held and have him acknowledge my feelings by repeating them back at me. We know these things because we’ve told each other that we like these kinds of responses.

This also requires you to listen to what your partner asks of you. Sometimes this can be a straightforward request, but it can also be emotional. For example, if your partner shares his or her hurt and looks for empathy, you suggesting rational solutions might make them feel even more lonely and hot heard at all.

The most important ingredient for healthy relationships is good communication. So keep it alive. Keep sharing. Keep talking, giving feedback, exchanging information. This way, when conflict arises, you’ll have the necessary tools to fight it.

4. Touch Each Other More

In her book Cupid’s Poisoned Arrow: From Habit to Harmony in Sexual Relationships, author Marnia Robinson explains how intentional physical affection on a daily basis can increase closeness and intimacy between lovers, even with as little as a few minutes of gentle caressing.

My partner and I have noticed that very often our moments of disconnection happen due to a lack of physical affection — and that this can often be remedied by just physically connecting more.

For example, we love doing ecstatic dance and contact improvisation together. We’re not always in the mood for sex, and sometimes it feels good to change it up: dance, play fight, cuddle or make out.

If the time is scarce, I often simply take five-second breaks from work to kiss my partner’s neck or hug him from the back. He does the same, and it can feel more invigorating than a cup of coffee!

5. Do Intentional Maintenance

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes how he and his wife used to take time every day to discuss and optimize their relationship.

Inspired by this, my partner and I started creating a weekly date specifically dedicated to relationship work and deep sharing.

How does it work?

The mechanics are very simple.

First, we light a candle

This simple gesture brings intention to the moment and helps us transition into the right mindset. If candles are not your thing, you can instead put on some music, start with a cup of tea, or always do it in a specific room in the house — it’s all about showing yourselves that this is a special moment. Choose any initiating gesture that you can both relate to and enjoy.

Then, we share and listen

We take turns listening to each other speak about whatever we feel is important. To avoid interruptions, we use the talking stick method (you take turns holding the stick, and the person holding the stick is the only one who can talk at that time).

The topics can include:

  • Problems/worries we’ve been facing during the week;
  • Things we feel grateful for/high points;
  • A summary of the main events of the week;
  • How we’re currently feeling and what has triggered it;
  • Things we’re proud of that week;
  • What we love about each other;
  • Replying to what the other person has just shared;
  • Ideas to collaborate or improve the relationship;
  • Desires, goals, fears.

We keep on passing the stick until we both have nothing else to add.

Finally, we have fun

After what usually turns out to be an emotional and productive session, we like to lighten up the mood by exercising our creativity. Every week, each of us prepares something to bring to the “meeting,” and then presents it. This can be:

  • Reading a poem;
  • Singing a song;
  • Offering the other one a massage;
  • Performing a comedy act;
  • Telling a story;
  • Dressing up and dancing ridiculously,
  • Or whatever we feel like!

The goal is to practice the act of giving, of showing ourselves, and of enjoying the process.

Why does this work? Because we keep bringing awareness to the connection between us. Work and life can be demanding, and we often forget to check-in with each other. By setting a specific time for this, we make sure that we address our problems and pay attention to each other’s needs.

Relationships Are to Be Enjoyed

My goal with this article is to share tools that have been working for me, and to encourage you to experiment and adapt them to your own relationship.

Maybe you don’t like the idea of having a weekly date, but instead prefer to connect every day in the evening for five minutes, or simply make sure you maintain constant and steady communication.

Perhaps you don’t like the questions I suggest, and you might want to come up with your own, or maybe you don’t identify with any of Dr. Johnson’s Demon Dialogues.

And that’s okay.

Because all that matters is this: relationships are not meant to go sour after a few years. We don’t need to become apathetic, angry, bitter spouses. Love is a skill that can be mastered — all you need to do is find the tools that work for you, and then start making the changes that you want to see.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Sílvia Bastos

Written by

Journaling my way to happiness. I’ll show you how here:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade