The action tendency can be one of the more slippery parts of tracking the cycle with a couple, and for that reason, we often avoid it or don’t even realize we aren’t naming it.
What happens when we don’t name the action tendency, though, is that we get stuck in a swirling mass of emotions, because we aren’t organizing the emotion into the cycle. I have been here many times, where I end up doing enactments that are all emotion and no organization. This might sound like:
A: I feel really bad when you don’t come to bed with me, like I’m not wanted.
B: Well, I’ve got stuff to do! I’m not doing it because I don’t want you!
The enactment explodes, and we feel awful. R.I.P. Enactment and my self-confidence as a therapist.
This is because when we just share the emotion, our partners can feel more pressured or blamed, and then they get defensive. Sometimes this works ok if someone is thrilled to hear more emotion, but more often that not, I see these enactments get stuck.
The really hard part about getting the action tendency is that 1) self-awareness is hard, and 2) clients can feel shame in naming the thing they do in the cycle.
The best way I’ve found to work with those blocks is to think of the action tendency as the protective coping mechanism. Tracking this might sound like:
Me: So when she doesn’t come to bed with you, what does it feel like in those moments?
C: Really bad. Really frustrating. Like what’s wrong with her that she can’t just do this one thing?
Me: Really frustrating! What’s the message that sends to you, if it feels like she’s just not doing this small thing that would help you feel better?
C: Like I don’t matter! Like I’m not worth it.
Me: That would be so tough. Of course you could come to that terrible conclusion, that you don’t matter. So how do you cope with that? How do deal with it when you feel like you don’t matter to her?
C: Well, I withdraw then. And won’t even be able to talk to her the next day, I’m just so frustrated.
Me: Your frustration makes sense, you don’t know why your message doesn’t get through. You don’t understand why this doesn’t change, and it sends you a pretty scary message that you don’t matter to her. So could you share that with her? When I get this reminder that tells me I don’t matter to you, I do pull away. I don’t want to tell you yet again that I’m hurting. So I pull away because it’s just too hard to talk to you in that moment.
You can see in that dialogue I’m staying almost totally with the client’s secondary emotion. We’re dipping into some primary cognitive thoughts, but I’m not going to evoke the primary emotions until we organize the cycle more. I’m also validating that their action tendency/coping strategy makes sense. Why would they come to their partner with a vulnerable reach when they’ve told them 1,000 times how upsetting them coming to bed late is?
Why this is so important is that:
1) Their partner gets to hear more of the speaker’s self-reflection, and accountability, instead of only finger-pointing.
2) Their partner gets more clarity and organization, because to them it probably just looks like the speaker is randomly angry again, punishing them, pouty, or childish.
Of course, we need to anticipate that we might still get a yellow light (as George Faller would say) from their partner. This is still Stage 1, their partner could still feel defensive or blamed. But at least you are starting to track what’s happening when the couple gets stuck versus only what they are feeling. And what’s happening is needed to help organize their emotions into the cycle. If you need help with what to do if the enactment goes poorly, follow up with this video!