The Vulnerability Cycle

The Vulnerability Cycle

 You can’t sew a stitch with one hand
While you’re taking it apart
— Matisyahu

In 2004 Scheinkman & Fishbane (Family Process, Vol. 43, No. 3, 2004) published a seminal paper describing their ”vulnerability model” for understanding and working collaboratively with high conflict couples stuck in seemingly endless repetitive out-of-control cycles of criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. These highly reactive couples demonstrated a volatile angry projection process with little to no self-focus. Guerin et al. would place these couples in stage III marital conflict characterized by intense pain and distress, a polarized position of fixed distance, an unrelenting blaming stance and an unsafe turbulent emotional climate. Both sets of authors highlight the importance paying particular therapeutic attention to the concurrence of multiple transition points or “cluster stress”. These may arise from either the “normative crises” of the family life cycle and/or existential dilemmas of job loss, alcoholism and chemical dependence, chronic and severe potentially life-shortening illness, natural disasters and societal violence.

Scheinkman & Fishbane define a vulnerability as a heightened sensitivity arising from interactions, either current or historical, that originated outside of the couple relationship. Sources include past traumas, family of origin issues, contextual power imbalances and concurrent major stressors. When inflamed by abandonment fears these vulnerabilities translate into the inherently traumatizing experiences of loss, deprivation, rejection and meaninglessness. The resultant attachment injuries are “an abandonment or betrayal of trust that maintains relationship distress” which create moments of “core impasses” that essentially block any and all attempts at healing and repair. Resolving these attachment issues supports problem solving, reconciliation and reinvestment.

Ronald B. Cohen of talks about how vulnerability is definied in the context of high-conflict relationships.States of high emotional turmoil and despair engender turbulence, volatile reactivity, angry projection and a loss of credibility. The first two goals of treatment are therefore to create a safe climate and increase self-focus. This in turn helps leads to work on personal productivity, relationships and individual well-being. Each partner then feels more empathic and empowered to create multiple options for problem solving. Beneath anger is often hurt, loss, sadness and unrequited need.

John Gottman suggests a number of transformative strategies and identifies “four simple things you can do” to resolve arguments, disagreements and grievances. Gottman’s strategies are;

  1. Learning to calm down
  2. Listening and speaking non-defensively
  3. Validation and understanding
  4. Practice, practice, practice

Strengthening the foundation of love and affection helps to curtail repetitive negative cycles of anger and despair thereby promoting a secure base from which to reduce vulnerability, diminish conflict and repair attachment injuries.

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Ronald B Cohen, MD, PC Ronald B. Cohen, MD
Bowen Family Systems Coach
1 Barstow Road, Suite P-10
Great Neck, NY 11021
(516) 466-7530
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  1. Sherry Palmer on February 26, 2013 at 6:01 pm said:

    I love the quotes on the side of this article. It is so true. This is the kind of therapy needed after a parent-child end their relationship on a stressful event. When they have had no further interaction after that under nonstressful conditions, the relationship gets stuck in this same cycle.

    • Ronald B Cohen, MD on February 27, 2013 at 11:54 am said:

      Hi Sherry,

      Thank you for the positive comment. You speak to the negative destructive consequences that persist even up to seven generations after cut-offs and estrangements. Family relationships are indeed not optional. None of us can ever emotionally leave our families of origin nor do we have a choice as to whether or not we deal with them. Even choosing not to deal with them is a way of choosing to deal with them. It just means we leave an awful lot of what’s going on unspoken and have no control over the outcome. There is no differentiation without connection, no autonomy without healthy interdependence.

      The generic first task is to help people be less angry and less critical. Conflict must disappear before any issues can be productively resolved. The most productive way to help family members let go of their blame and bitterness is to work on self-differentiation which Bowen described as the process of changing one’s part in old, repetitive, dysfunctional emotional patterns so that one is able to speak one’s personal views calmly and nonreactively regardless of who is for or against them. Ultimately we are all responsible for our own emotional well-being.



  2. Darlene Lancer, MFT on March 22, 2013 at 12:54 pm said:

    Thanks for this post. Original trauma and shame usually lead to high reactivity.

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