November 5, 2018

Our Pain Cycles in Relationships


Pain cycles occur in times when communication can become very difficult with people you care about. Something that you or your loved one did or said could inadvertently hurt the other person. When that happens it can send us spiraling into painful patterns which I am describing as the Pain Cycle. Let’s unpack why these reactions are ‘cycles,’ and how to get ahead of this unhealthy pattern of communication.

Reactions & Feelings

When the security of relationship feels threatened i.e. feelings like my loved one does not love me, I cannot share about personal things, or feelings like he/she will not be there for me, we tend to react to this threat in unhelpful and sometimes destructive ways. For example isolating ourselves, becoming uncommunicative, or showing aggression. Again, this reaction inadvertently hurts the other person making their sense of safety threatened, so now both of you are spiraling in each other’s Pain Cycles. To create healthier ways of responding to each other’s pain, we need to understand what triggers our sensors that make us feel threatened in the relationship.    

Persevering Relationships

Two of the most important aspects to secure relationships are love and trust, and any sense of violation of love and trust can send us into a spiral of pain. Love is essential because it informs us that we are unique, wanted, and worthy. Trust is essential because it informs us that we are safe physically and safe to be who we are with the other person.  When these two aspects of our relationships feel threatened, it is easy to begin to second-guess our relationships and believe things that are not quite true about ourselves.

Repeating Pain

Surprisingly, the way we react to these violations of love and trust elicit familiar painful feelings every time. Like a learned behavior, when we feel threatened we tend to react to it the same way. There may be slight differences depending on the situation, but more or less we react to these violations in a similar fashion. In Restoration Therapy (RT), it conceptualizes these patterns as our Pain Cycles. The goal in RT and many other therapeutic interventions is to identify these maladaptive patterns and respond to our pain in a new way. This new cycle we develop is called the Peace Cycle. For this post, I wanted to focus on the Pain Cycle and how you can identify yours.


First, identify what your feel when love and trust feel insecure. When you are emotionally upset or unsettled, how do you feel about yourself? Unloved, Unworthy, Used, Hopeless, Defective, Abandoned, or Betrayed. There can be a myriad feelings like these that trigger intense emotional pain. Even though these feelings may not accurately reflect what your spouse/family member meant to make you feel, these are the assumptions we jump to instinctively when they make us feel insecure. Take a moment to reflect on feelings come up when you begin to question the love and safety of your relationship.


Second, identify how you cope with those painful feelings. Blaming others, Rage, Sarcasm, Retaliatory, Depressed, Isolative, Manipulative, Over-controlling, Intellectualizing, Escaping, Numbing, or Withdrawing. Quite often we will begin to notice familiar patterns with the way we react to our pain. I like to ask my clients, if I were to watch a video recording of you (kind of creepy I know) what would you be doing to cope? Similarly, reflect on what do I see myself doing.


Identify how your coping make the other person react to you. If you become sarcastic or manipulative, how do they respond? This is the final part of the cycle because unhealthy coping tends to cause people to react to you in unhealthy ways because you trigger their Pain Cycles. It makes their sense of love and trust feel violated. This in turn triggers the painful feelings again and begins yours. Notice how people close to you respond to your reactive coping. How do they react that initiates the Pain Cycle over again?

Change the Cycle

Learn to understand your Pain Cycle. When you can consciously see how you respond to your pain, you can learn to respond to yourself and others effectively. This is why mindfulness or meditations can be helpful. These practices teach our mind to slow down and notice what is going on in our mind and body. When we finally notice why we are feeling pain, we can respond to it rather than react to it. This process is difficult and scary. No one wants to sit in their pain longer than they have to. But this is the main way we can learn how to make long-term changes in our life. Sit with someone that you trust or feel safe with. We do not have to go through the process alone! In the following post, I will talk more about what are helpful ways to soothe our pain through our new pattern, the Peace Cycle.  

Written by therapist Daniel Pak

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