How to change the Always/Never cycle in communication.


Two women arguing. One has her hand over her face the other raised hands in front of her.

Many of us (myself included) have used the accusation you always__ or you never __  in arguments with loved ones.  This is an all too common response that we refer to as the always/never cycle and if used consistently will erode trust and connection in an intimate relationship. 

You have likely been given well-meaning advice about not using these words and how they damage communication.  However, how many of you are successful in doing that? 

Always/Never Cycle

Why is it hard to change?

Perhaps this is because we experience this accusation of our partner as true and just being told this is not a good idea doesn’t convince us our partner isn’t ‘always’ doing something. Maybe later we can rationalize how this is not useful. We can get behind the idea that criticizing someone is not that productive but we still believe that they ‘always’ do something.

In this post, I am going to go through why we might be doing this and how we have gotten into this habit.  I believe awareness is the first step towards change and perhaps this will go towards convincing you that the people in your life are not always doing something.

The 4 steps of the always/never cycle

  1. Something happens between us that we don’t like, or is uncomfortable or hurtful. Communicating about these moments in relationships is challenging. This is often where we tend to be reactive and defensive in our struggles to communicate about things that have disappointed us or even been hurtful.  Many of us have not learned the skills of communication in our family of origin and strategies that tend towards self-protection, control, or avoidance are more commonplace.  These strategies don’t tend to resolve anything that has happened but more likely just leave us feeling disconnected and hurt. 
  2. We don’t repair this hurt.  Even if the original communication goes off the rails we can always come back in a calm moment to process it and repair that hurt.  Many of us have not learned how to do that, instead we try to move on and leave it behind.  The truth is that hurt, disappointment, or resentment lies in waiting for another time to express itself.
  3. Inevitably, another conflict occurs.  Even though this is a different moment with different things going on it may trigger a similar feeling such as hurt or disappointment. In addition, the unprocessed hurt is still there and so we bring that up at the same time.  Here is a chance to get that heard or responded to. Our brains are good at associating one thing with another. So the more we bring up previous unresolved hurts into the present situation the more we make them the same thing. 
  4. Because we are trying to get an ever-growing list of unresolved interactions and hurts responded to we overwhelm the discussion with this list.  Nothing gets resolved in this way but rather we just keep adding to this list and keep associating them as the same thing.  This process adds to the unresolved hurts that we are not repairing. 

So what we have is a cycle of unrepaired hurt associated with the next conflict, leading to a longer and longer list of unrepaired hurt that leads to accusations of you ‘always’.  

How can I change the cycle?

Once you have got clear on how you are making many incidents the same thing to be heard you can break this association.  Then you practice dealing with one thing at a time.  This is all there is.  Learn to repair each moment. 

The desire to see everything as the same is also a desire to control bad things happening. With accusations of always and never we are implying that only one thing needs to change for there to be no more hurt, frustration, etc in the relationship.  If that is not true then we are going to encounter more times that we might feel let down or hurt. The good news is that if we learn to repair those moments we are less likely to be overwhelmed every time a new situation occurs.

Working with a couples counsellor can provide the structure to slow down and deal with your reactivity that gets in the way of repair and focusing on one thing at a time. Change is hard so getting all the support you can is worth it to your relationship.

If you are interested in developing more effective skills in your relationships join us in one of our workshops . You can book online to secure your spot.