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Breaking The Cycle

My partner and I have been together for 4 years and for the last two we have been a mess. We get into fights that end with one of us storming off and ‘break up’ only to start things again a few days later, have great sex and continue on for a brief period of peace before the next fight. I have told myself that I will step away as soon as I see us on our way towards a fight but once it starts it’s hard not to feel compelled to stick it out and stand up for myself. We have a very passionate relationship and clearly can’t get away from each other – how do we find a way to be together without all of the conflict? -Saul

Dear Saul:

The fantastic Canadian musician Martha Wainwright starts a song with the line “I really like the make-up sex, it’s the only kind I ever get”. This sentiment seems to embody some of your relationship woes. You describe your relationship as passionate and I can understand why considering all the highs and lows – but you want to be careful not to confuse intense conflict with true intimacy or romance.

Sometimes a relationship can toxify over time, where perpetual conflict actually becomes the ‘glue’ that keeps things together. It usually unfolds like this: a big blow up leads to a temporary break-up only to be followed up by a briefly blissful reunion…and then the cycle repeats. A couple of good questions to consider are – Would you feel connected to your partner without all of this sparring? Have there been times in your relationship where you enjoyed each other’s company without things being either intensely good or intensely bad?

If you feel like there is more to this relationship than cycles of conflict, you two must be willing to engage with each other differently. Of course couples do fight now and then, but there is healthy fighting and then there are all out throw-downs that only make things worse. At this point it sounds unlikely that things will improve without the benefit of some investment in couples therapy. Learning to communicate without so much intensity will feel strange at first and also quite vulnerable. Your own personal motto could be ‘always meet inappropriateness with appropriateness’ – this means that no matter how aggressive or nasty your partner might become in a discussion, you will refuse to engage on that level. This way you can feel good about your behaviour and know that you aren’t dishing out the disrespect that had become too normalized over time. Both of you will need to be equally on board with this improvement project – or else you might need to call it a day.

ADAM SEGAL, writer and therapist, works in private practice in downtown Toronto. Ask him your relationship or mental-health questions at relationship@inmagazine.ca