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  • Writer's picturematthewbramanlcsw

How to Change the Criticize-Defend Cycle

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

TLDR: Regulate Emotion, Take Responsibility, and Don't Be a Jerk.

Couples Therapy to Improve Communication

The Criticize-Defend Cycle is one of the more common relationship distress cycles that we see wreaking havoc on our clients' lives. It’s an unhealthy relationship dynamic to be aware of because it can often recur and severely damage a marriage over time. Relational rupture without repair, as a chronic problem, may result in separation/divorce. It doesn't have to be that way.

The bad news is that negative relationship cycles feed on themselves, meaning that the very thing that one partner may do to deal with their difficult emotions (e.g., criticism) is both a reaction to a disappointment, an unmet need, or a perceived withdrawal and also a fresh trigger for the other partner, pushing their buttons and making them more reactive (e.g., defensiveness); one attack begets a counter-attack, and then boom - both partners are off to the races, playing "The Blame Game" back and forth, and stuck in the tit-for-tat, Criticize-Defend Cycle.

The good news is that you can learn how to stop a bad deal in its tracks with the right antidotes, and turn it into a good deal with motivation and consistent practice. Every person and every relationship is unique and different while there may be some similar experiences that many couples share, like the occasional argument. Disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing, and it can even help bring people closer together when they have the tools to work through it safely.

Regardless, there are many ways to help make emotional and relational life more fulfilling, productive, and satisfying. Here's a few ideas that we often share with many of our clients who want to learn how to change the Criticize-Defend Cycle in their marriage before it's too late.


Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. You can often get to where you want to go more quickly when there are bumps in the road if you pump the brakes and slow things down. Slow and steady wins the marathon race from the head to the heart. Emotions are neither good nor bad, they just are. Moreover, emotions are really good messengers, but poor masters. Learn why you feel the way that you feel, and get to the heart of it - what emotion(s) do you feel, what does it mean and what does it want you to know, what does it need to feel safe, and when & where does it come from? Many people often drive through their warning signs on autopilot once their emotion mind is activated and taking over the wheel, and they don't clearly recognize the damage they've done until the motor turns off. Pumping the brakes and slowing it down can help people get calm and clear more quickly. If things start to escalate, make sure you downshift.


In Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for Couples, the “Criticize-Defend Cycle” in a marriage falls into the category of one of the most common relationship distress cycles called “Protest-Withdraw”. Criticism is considered a protesting behavior whereas defensiveness is considered a withdrawing behavior. The protesting partner attempts to close the gap of disconnection they sense in the relationship, by expressing complaints with harsh judgment and insisting that their partner, who they would like to change, is to blame for the problem. The withdrawing partner, feeling threatened, attempts to protect themselves from being blamed and attacked, by counter-attacking and shifting blame back into the direction from where it came. First, the couple needs to become more aware of their shared emotional and behavioral patterns in their relationship “Dance”, and start blaming the unhealthy cycle instead of blaming each other.


There’s usually a positive correlation between each partner's “Stance” in the “Dance”. In Relational Life Therapy (RLT), another form of couples counseling, it’s often assumed, “the more, the more”, meaning that the more one partner takes a particular stance in the "Dance”, the more the other partner will posture into their “Stance”. In other words, the more one partner protests with criticism, the more the other partner withdraws into defensiveness and reacts with a counter-attack. Clearly, each partner's “Stance” creates a losing strategy. It doesn't feel right. One way to repair relational rupture is for both partners to recognize how critical it is for each of them to turn the microscope inward, self-assess and take responsibility for their own role and contribution to the cycle, and find a willingness to calmly turn toward their partner with compassion in order to choreograph a more safe and trusting "Dance" routine.


Feedback is a delicate tool through which a person can become a better witness to their own behavior and learn to appreciate how their behavior impacts their partner emotionally. In RLT, The Feedback Wheel is a communication skill and four step process of delivering feedback that combines the RLT winning strategies of shifting from complaint to request, speaking out with love and savvy, responding with generosity, empowering each other, and cherishing what you have. Using The Feedback Wheel as "a soft start-up", like the Gottman Method for couples counseling recommends, can help the protesting partner avoid attacking with criticism while it can help the withdrawing partner reduce their defensiveness, weaken their impulse to counter-attack, and melt away their guarded and defensive armor, making them more receptive.

  • STEP ONE (“What I saw or heard was…”): Clearly verbalize what you saw or heard that bothered you, as if it were an event that was recorded on video.

  • STEP TWO (“The story I made up about it was…”): Tell the story that you created in your mind about what you saw or heard, your interpretation of the event, and the meaning that you made about the event which happened.

  • STEP THREE (“How I felt was…”): Express emotions with I-Statements and specific primary and secondary emotion-focused vocabulary words to help your partner understand exactly how the event made you feel. If your initial outward expression is usually angry criticism, look to see if there is something like fear, hurt, or pain underneath, and calmly verbalize these emotions first followed by anger.

  • STEP FOUR (“I want to move on from this and I need you to…”): Make an assertive statement that you would like to reconnect in a way that specifically meets your needs. If there isn’t anything that your partner can do at that moment, then ask for reassurance about how this event won’t happen again in the future.


To build trust and secure attachment, partners need to communicate and interact in a sensitive, loving way. Follow the ABC'S of Attachment to promote "Acceptance", "Belonging", "Comfort", and "Safety" in the marriage. The speaker and listener roles are often hijacked because of emotional outbursts (critical attacks) and reactive interruptions (counter-attacks) when a couple is in the Criticize-Defend Cycle. While your partner starts speaking through The Feedback Wheel, you have the opportunity to actively show them L.O.V.E. in return by "Listening" with an "Open heart and mind", "Validating and acknowledging them", and "Expressing your thoughts and feelings softly, simply, and slowly". Tune in with empathy and first listen more than you talk. Be open to your partner. Demonstrate respect for what they saw or heard, the story they made up about what happened, the way it made them feel, and what they need you to do moving forward.


Nurturing a safe haven and a secure base in a marriage requires consistency with a regular time to connect, reflect, and share both of what’s working well and what needs to be addressed. This can help a couple work through and fine tune their relationship over time. Put it on the calendar once a week. The agenda should start with giving praise and expressing gratitude for five things that your partner did in the past week that you appreciate, and why you appreciate what they did. Next, discuss what went well over the past week. After a few exchanges, it’s time to focus on one regrettable issue to discuss that needs to be addressed using The Feedback Wheel and The L.O.V.E. Conversations framework. Finally, you can ask your partner what you can do over the next week to make them feel more loved and supported. Checking in on a weekly basis for 15-20 minutes in this way, even in our fast-paced world, can help both partners join each other through the truth to feel more "Acceptance, Belonging, Comfort, and Safety" in the marriage.


Not all relationship problems are 50/50. You can have the subjective debate on who's right or who's wrong, all day long. It doesn't really matter. What does matter is impact. Do you want to be right or do you want to be married? Give your marriage a chance, take responsibility, and change your "Stance". The more you do this for the better, the more your partner may follow your lead.

Therapist for Men, New Dads, and Their Partners in Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, and New York
Matthew, Your Right Hand Therapy Man

The average divorce costs $16,000 per person in the United States. One year of weekly therapy is around half of the cost.

If you're located in Connecticut, Georgia, Maryland, or New York and could benefit from therapeutic support on building intimacy, healthy communication, and emotional security in your relationship, then you're in the right spot to take the next step.

Ready to get started? Book an intake appointment here.

As your Right Hand Therapy Man, it's my mission to empower your verve.


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