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Section 10
Arguments, Vulnerability, and Impasses

Question 10 | Test | Table of Contents

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In the last section, we discussed the "Address with Respect" problem solving technique I use with couples in therapy. The five steps in this technique are discussion, agenda setting, brainstorming, agreement and compromise, and follow-up.

In this section, we will discuss dealing with core impasses in couple’s therapy by using the vulnerability cycle model. We will specifically discuss core impasses, the vulnerability cycle, survival positions, and diagramming the vulnerability cycle. I have found that helping clients identify their vulnerability cycle can enhance the process of learning more effective communication strategies.

♦ Core Impasses
As you have observed in your practice, many couples seek couple’s therapy as a result of feeling stuck, caught up in impasses that are characterized by intense reactivity and escalation. In these impasses, each partner displays consistent rigid positions, irrationality, and the inability to empathize with each other. In a recent article in Family Process, Scheinkman and Fishbane proposed the term “core impasses” to describe these recurrent dynamics between couples.

Scheinkman and Fishbane state that core impasses are experienced as such a difficult entanglement because core impasses involve the activation of vulnerabilities and survival strategies. This activation complicates the couple’s ability to work together. During this activation, partners may experience emotional overlap between the events with their partner and experiences in their past. Clearly, such core impasses may also arise from tensions related to power imbalances within the couple.

♦ Vulnerability Cycle
According to Scheinkman and Fishbane, core impasses arise from a vulnerability cycle. The authors use the term vulnerability to refer to a sensitivity that individuals bring from their personal histories to the intimacy of their relationship. These vulnerabilities may be the result of a past trauma or of chronic patterns from the partner’s family of origin, past relationships, or social context. Some examples of vulnerabilities are loss, abandonment, betrayal, humiliation, rejection, and insecurity.

In the vulnerability cycle model proposed by Scheinkman and Fishbane, when an event in the relationship, or an external event, triggers one of these vulnerabilities, the individual tends to perceive risk and anticipate pain. Once the vulnerability has been triggered, the individual reacts in an automatic way.

For example, Roy and Dinah, both 25, had been married for two years when Dinah began graduate school. The amount of work Dinah needed to do for school greatly reduced the amount of time she was able to spend with Roy. Roy began to feel neglected and rejected by Dinah, and reacted by angrily pursuing her for attention. He would instigate arguments that often resulted in him verbally abusing Dinah. Dinah reacted by withdrawing and becoming depressed, which made her even less available to Roy. Of course, this triggered Roy’s feelings of neglect even more.

♦ Survival Positions
Scheinkman and Fishbane use the term “survival positions” to refer to a set of beliefs and strategies that individuals adopt to manage their vulnerabilities. These positions are usually the best way an individual learned in the past to protect him or herself, or other members of the family, and to maintain a sense of control in emotionally difficult situations. Scheinkman and Fishbane use as an example, the child of an alcoholic who attempts to gain love and approval by being a caretaker.

Over time, these patterns may become mottos that the individual adopts when under stress; "If I take care of my spouse and don’t complain, they’ll stop hurting me." Clearly, Roy’s survival position involved reacting with anger. Dinah’s survival position involved withdrawing into herself. These conflicting patterns entangled Roy and Dinah in a core impasse.

♦ Diagramming the Vulnerability Cycle
Scheinkman and Fishbane suggest constructing a Vulnerability Cycle diagram as a learning tool to help couples gain insight into their core impasses. According to the article, the impetus for Roy and Dinah’s core impasse was Dinah beginning graduate school. Dinah’s unavailability triggered Roy’s vulnerability to abandonment, neglect, and rejection. Roy’s survival strategy of anger and demanding attention triggered Dinah’s vulnerability to being overwhelmed. This activated Dinah’s survival strategy of withdrawal. Dinah’s withdrawal further triggered Roy’s vulnerability, starting the process over.

As part of their treatment plan for Roy and Dinah, Scheinkman and Fishbane constructed a Vulnerability Cycle Diagram depicting Roy and Dinah’s impasse. The diagramming process began by drawing a circle to represent Dinah on one side of a sheet of paper. Next, the therapists drew a square on the other side of the paper to represent Roy. The outside of both the circle and square represent each partner’s specific vulnerability. The inside half represents each partner’s survival position.

In Roy and Dinah’s case, Scheinkman and Fishbane labeled the inner half of the circle "withdrawal," and the inner half of the square "angrily pursuing." Scheinkman and Fishbane then drew arrows on the diagram to illustrate to Roy and Dinah how their vulnerabilities and survival positions interacted.

To extend the Vulnerability Cycle Diagram, Scheinkman and Fishbane suggest including five elements to the diagram.

5 Elements of the Vulnerability Cycle Diagram
1. Premises and beliefs, such as Roy’s belief that "If you do not demand attention, you will be abandoned."
2. Vulnerabilities.
3. Survival positions.
4. Influences of personal history and family of origin on vulnerabilities and survival positions.
5. Contextual and sociocultural factors, such as Dinah’s academic pressures.

By deconstructing Roy and Dinah’s core impasse according to the vulnerability cycle model, Scheinkman and Fishbane were able to create a “snapshot” of the processes behind the impasse. The vulnerability cycle diagram helped both Roy and Dinah better understand their conflict. Scheinkman and Fishbane found that providing this diagram assisted Roy and Dinah in beginning a productive discussion about the concerns they both had about the state of their relationship. Would your Roy and Dinah benefit from constructing a vulnerability cycle diagram to deconstruct their core impasse?

In this section, we have discussed dealing with core impasses in couple’s therapy by using the vulnerability cycle model. We specifically discussed core impasses, the vulnerability cycle, survival positions, and diagramming the vulnerability cycle.

In the next section, we will discuss preserving and protecting friendship within marriage. We will specifically discuss five roadblocks to friendship in marriage. These five roadblocks are there’s no time, "we’re not friends, we’re married," "we don’t talk like friends anymore," the ravages of conflict, and reckless words.

- Rognmo, K., Torvik, F. A., Idstad, M., & Tambs, K. (2013) More Mental Health Problems After Divorce in Couples with High Pre-divorce Alcohol Consumption than in Other Divorced Couples: Results from the HUNT-study. BMC Public Health, 13(1), 1-11.

- Scheinkman, M., CSW., & Fishbane, M. D., PhD. (Dec 2004) The Vulnerability Cycle: Working with Impasses in Couple Therapy. Family Process, 43(4), 279.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Beard, C., & Björgvinsson, T. (Sep 2013). Psychological vulnerability: An integrative approach. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 23(3), 281-283.

Briñol, P., McCaslin, M. J., & Petty, R. E. (2012). Self-generated persuasion: Effects of the target and direction of arguments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(5), 925–940.

Bruk, A., Scholl, S. G., & Bless, H. (Aug 2018). Beautiful mess effect: Self–other differences in evaluation of showing vulnerability. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(2), 192-205.

Korobov, N. (2020). A discursive psychological approach to deflection in romantic couples’ everyday arguments. Qualitative Psychology. Advance online publication.

Maaravi, Y., Ganzach, Y., & Pazy, A. (2011). Negotiation as a form of persuasion: Arguments in first offers. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(2), 245–255.

Moss, J., Kotovsky, K., & Cagan, J. (Jan 2011). The effect of incidental hints when problems are suspended before, during, or after an impasse. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 37(1), 140-148.

Neff, L. A., & Geers, A. L. (Jul 2013). Optimistic expectations in early marriage: A resource or vulnerability for adaptive relationship functioning? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(1), 38-60.

Safran, J. D., & Kraus, J. (2014). Alliance ruptures, impasses, and enactments: A relational perspective. Psychotherapy, 51(3), 381–387.

Tuskeviciute, R., Snyder, K. A., Stadler, G., S., & Patrick E. (Sep 2018). Coping concordance in couples. Personal Relationships, 25(3), 351-373.

Impasses are characterized by what behaviors? To select and enter your answer go to Test.

Section 11
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