You are currently viewing Episode 343: The Cycles — What’s it All About

Episode 343: The Cycles — What’s it All About

In most of our episodes, we use the emotional and sexual cycles to bring coherence to the issues that plague committed relationships. We wanted to explore and summarize the emotional and sexual cycles in one condensed episode. Many couples feel like they are facing unique, specific troubles, when the reality is, these relational upsets are all manifestations of the underlying sexual and emotional cycles. A clear understanding of how these cycles power your relational upsets provides an avenue for hope and change; rather than dealing with hundreds of different issues, you and your partner can team up to clarify the cycles and understand your partner better.

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Attention all therapists! Join Laurie and George in North Texas August 12 & 13 for a 2-day training on integrating sex therapy and attachment theory. We’re tired of Zoom meetings and are so excited to be with colleagues in person to train and have fun! Go to or click the link below to find out more.

Great Love Great Sex for Couples- Integrating Sex Therapy and Attachment Theory Training for Therapists


The following content is not suitable for children. Back to the basics, working with the emotional and sexual cycles.

Laurie Watson 00:07
I’m glad we’re doing this George, this is what people have been asking us for is just like one episode where they can get the whole theory all at once. Welcome to Foreplay Radio — Couples and Sex Therapy. I’m Laurie Watson, your sex therapist.

George Faller 00:24
And I’m George Faller, your couples therapist,

Laurie Watson 00:26
and we are passionate about talking about sex and helping you develop a way to talk to each other.

George Faller 00:32
Our mission is to help our audience develop a healthier relationship to sex that integrates the mind, the heart and the body.

Laurie Watson 00:42
Hey, don’t forget to check out Uber With the coupon foreplay, it really helps us to support the podcast and keep delivering free content. Thanks so much.

George Faller 00:51
All right, let’s do it. We got to start somewhere. Start with the basics. So let’s talk about the emotional and the sexual cycle. I think the first thing I want to say Laurie is really try to invite our listeners to see process. So many of us are raised to see things linearly, right? Like if you stop yelling, we wouldn’t be in a fight. We don’t see how what I do to the yelling often feeds what’s happening on your side. And so, you know, one of the first couples I saw the wife was nonstop talking. She came in George, I really I really need my husband to change. He won’t talk. I don’t know what to do. She talked nonstop and her complaint was he doesn’t talk. Right? How can he talk more if she don’t talk less? How do you start to get couples to see interdependency? To create change both people have to do something differently.

Laurie Watson 01:41
Yeah. And her fear, right is I’m only talking. I’m trying to get him to talk. All my questions, all of that is really to engage him. She doesn’t understand how that pushes him away. And he doesn’t understand how the silence makes her fill that vacuum with talk.

George Faller 02:00
His silence feeds her anxiety, her anxiety feeds his not engaging, right, right, that’s seeing a process that seeing interdependency that’s seeing a bigger picture, which is very different than a lot of us are raised. Both people are fully convinced: she’s convinced that he talked more things would be better. He’s convinced if she talked less things would be better. Right?

Laurie Watson 02:23
Yeah, they’re both right. But also if she were just happy, things would be better. Right? You know, that’s often it. So I want to talk about that, really, in our romantic relationship, we have this cycle that you just described, but it’s going on in two different places, often in our emotional connection, and also in our sexual connection. And we need both of them, right? Emotional connection brings us a sense of security. And sexual intimacy often brings the excitement that our daily life needs, you know, we have a balance of need in relationship for security and excitement. And particularly, I think, in the sexual connection, if we don’t have that the relationship becomes vulnerable. So you know, we’re really worried like, does our partner love us? Do we love our partner, and we can get tempted toward affairs and infidelity? And people say, well, that’s not me, I’ve made this commitment. But I always think you know what, other people kind of sense when that sexual connection is not strong, between two people. And so they kind of capitalize on that and take advantage of that and flirt and interfere. So even if you’re absolutely committed to fidelity, I think if the sexual cycle is not strong between the two of you, then you are vulnerable. And I would say if you’re absolutely connected to fidelity and you’re not strong and your sexual cycle, that’s not a that’s not an absolute commitment. You know, but we can find that without sex our relationship really erodes and there’s there’s just little left so we’re not feeling bonded with our partner.

George Faller 04:04
Right? So really to distinguish there’s a lot of overlap between the two. Yeah, but we encourage our listeners to put a name to your to both of these cycles what emotionally role do you play we we tend to put it into two categories we all do some of both, right? But we call a pursuer or withdrawer. The pursuer is the one who’s pushing for conversation, pushing for sex, pushing for connection.

Laurie Watson 04:32
And sometimes that’s the same person, right? We can we can be that same person but and then the withdraw…

George Faller 04:39
The withdrawer is trying to turn the heat down, doesn’t want things to escalate. You don’t find safety in not fighting and taking space. Right. Both sides make perfect sense. You put them together though, they often create a feedback loop where one person’s pushing feeds the other person’s going away; the other person’s going away, feeds the other person pushing. Right? So how do you start to get curious to identify what you do emotionally? What do you do sexually? What are your positions?

Laurie Watson 05:10
And just for the record my website, there’s a little test. It’s a love and sex test. And it helps you define your cycle, which helps you define the position that you are on the cycle. So so both of these really important parts of our life, were often kind of on a continuum of pursue/withdraw, even if you’re healthy. Many times, we sort of favor one side or the other, in the emotional cycle, is kind of if we’re healthy, there’s this sense of I feel secure with you and safe with you. I long to come home with you, because you’re my champion, you’re my biggest supporter in life, you’re my safe harbor, I come home to you, and you’re my secure base. You support my other endeavors and the purpose of my life. And I would also say, in the sexual cycle, it’s like, I trust you that you want to share a life of physical intimacy with me. Sex is really that romantic evolution of what we had in childhood that was affection, when our parents were careful and gave us hugs and kisses and all of that, and, but even there, we can have a pursue withdraw cycle. So shall we show people what a pursue withdraw cycle looks like in the emotional cycle first, and then we’ll talk about the sexual attachment cycle a little bit later.

George Faller 06:31
So a helpful visual, again, keeping it simple, is we all had these attachment needs, right? We all want to be seen, we want to be valued, we want to be connected, we want to get it right, we want to have success, we want to be desired, desired, right? All that good stuff that makes a relationship thrive. That’s the need. When there’s a threat to that need, we protect ourselves, right? That threat is what we’re calling the vulnerability. There’s a there’s a fear, a fear, I’m going to fail; fear, I’m going to be rejected, there’s a hurt that happens, right? That’s just how we, you know, what is a threat, our body’s gonna respond to that threat, right. So then how we protect ourselves is what we do, you know, when we’re threatened. So there’s a need, there’s a threat to that need, and then there’s our protection to that threat. And that’s what we’re really trying to break down here. In both the emotional and sexual cycle, you say something that could be a threat to me, you might not know that, but that’s the impact, and then I protect myself, and how I protect myself often becomes a threat to your needs. And then you protect yourself. And we get caught in this protective feedback loop that we’re going to give examples of.

Laurie Watson 07:51
And we call that the negative cycle, either emotionally or sexually. And I would just add that our protection, there’s only a few ways that human beings protect themselves. And that’s kind of in a survival instinct, right? It’s fight, flight, or freeze. And so we either flight is we withdraw, fight is we pursue and push; freeze is kind of a withdrawal response. But we don’t know what to do, but we’re not really responding to our partner.

George Faller 08:22
And what you see in the cycle is all those protective moves. One person’s flight triggers the other person’s fight, and they get caught up in this dance that we’re really wanting you to name. What does that look like emotionally? What does that look like sexually for the two of you. Sometimes they’re the same. Both the person sexually and emotionally might be the pursuer and their partner might be a withdrawer. That’s what we’re calling the same pattern.

Laurie Watson 08:54
The person takes the same position in both cycles.

George Faller 08:58
More common though, is the person who emotionally pursues off it becomes the sexual withdrawer. And vice versa, the person who emotionally withdraws sexually, that’s how they try to connect so they become the pursuer. And that’s what we just are calling a different cycle. Right? It’s a flip flop, or crossover.

Laurie Watson 09:19
I want to add, the hope here is that couples often come to us in therapy, and they think all their problems are different. We fight about this, we fight about that. I never know what we’re going to fight about. But this organizes all their conflicts into a pattern into a single pattern. And once you realize there’s a pattern and you realize there are options that you are in control of, then we can solve these problems and we can solve all of them, which is the beautiful thing about thinking about problems as a cycle.

George Faller 09:56
Yeah, the really beautiful thing about is you’re externalizing problem. Both partners instead of blaming each other, which the cycle does, right, each partner blames each other, we’re getting them to look at the bigger picture, unite together to start blaming the cycle, the cycle takes away choice, it creates just this really quick, protective atmosphere, that couples get lost it, it’s hard to feel safe and connected when you’re both threatened and protecting yourself. Yeah, well, you start to get a couple to start saying, Wait, this is exactly what’s happening for us. Yes, both of us.

Laurie Watson 10:34
It’s so automated. And that’s why we call it like the third entity in the partnership. It almost has a life of its own.

George Faller 10:44
Right, and that’s, that’s powerful to name that; to start saying, ‘Wow, you’re right, the angrier I get, the more you seem to go away, the more you seem to go away, I get angry’. But to create change, both people have to do something differently. Both people have to help each other do it differently. That’s uniting against something, which is very different than pointing the finger at your partner saying change because you’re the problem. Yeah, it’s really hard to change in that setting.

Laurie Watson 11:16
It is; it is. And I think we want to help people. That’s what the podcast is all about is helping people see the cycle, and learn what they can do instead of those automated responses. So that both of them team up against this pattern. And you know, they say there’s there’s nothing like a fast bond as two people against a common enemy. That’s a quick bond. So if you can see this, as something that the two of you need to work against, it will help right at the beginning to feel more connected and attached.

George Faller 11:53
Exactly one of my favorite quotes from Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning said, there’s an event that happens, there’s a trigger in the world. And then there’s our response to that trigger. And it’s so immediate, you say something I respond, I say something you respond, it’s so quick. But he says there’s actually a space between those two. And that’s what we’re trying to do when we say slow something down. Because in that space is where our choice is, if you can’t slow it down this cycle will make the choice for you. And what we’re trying to do is a wait a second here. When you get hurt, you protect yourself by getting angry, you protect yourself by going away, that makes a ton of sense. But can you start to see with how you protect yourself has an impact, which is very different than the intent it is for you. For you, it’s to feel safe. But the impact on your partner is often something very different. Can we try to figure out something different, when you can slow a cycle down by naming it and seeing it, you start to have a choice. This is where couples have power, they can work together to do it differently, which is so different than just letting a couple make the choice for them.

Laurie Watson 13:06
And just what you said that moment, that tiny moment where it gives us the power of choice feels like, literally, I want to cry, my heart just fills up. It’s like yes, there really is hope there is a moment, we do have a choice and making the choice that will help our partner not be so defensive or defended. You know, we can change everything. People come to me and say my partner would never go to therapy. So it’s impossible, right? Two people need to change at the same time. And certainly that is a better way of approaching something. But even for one person to know that they have a choice that does change a cycle because it’s a system, we change one part of a system, the other part is forced to change.

George Faller 13:56
Yes, that’s the good news here. That you might not be able to catch it when it’s happening because these emotions are fast and they move quick. But the good news, it’s the same moves over and over again. It gets easier afterwards. Maybe it’s a next day to say you know what, we did it again. I got so angry. Yeah, you walked away. You know, we both have good reasons for that. But we both lose every time that happens. And I’m sorry that I did what I did. I’m sorry. And all of a sudden now you’re coming back together. The only difference between master couples and disaster couples is that ability to repair after a fight. The cycle is what gives you the tool to repair after the fight.

Laurie Watson 14:33
Oh, exciting. Okay, let’s give people some examples when we come back from break. All right, George I am so ready to see people in person. We are going to North Texas.

George Faller 14:45
Nice. I agree. we’re zoomed out enough for this kind of talking to each other on screens and muting each other. Let’s get back to the real thing. It’s about connection right Laurie?

Laurie Watson 14:55
It is and we’re going to be teaching about sex and how therapists can help couples with their sexual attachment, you know what they say in Texas about sex, George, keep the Stetson on baby. So come join us; or We have it on our resource section please sign up. We want this thing to be full. We want to see you in person. We’re gonna party; we’re gonna have so much fun. Join us for sex and attachment training for therapists, Dallas, Texas!

George Faller 15:30
Join us August 12 to 13th for the after party too!

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George Faller 16:55
So Laurie, let’s just get some practical examples. And really going back to those simples simple, there’s a need, there’s a threat to that need. And then we protect ourselves. I really invite you all to think about that in this example. So let’s start off with this emotional cycle. Laurie has a need to connect. She wants to have a conversation with me. I have a need I want to connect to but I also want to feel successful. You know, so we’re gonna see what happens in this this conversation. Okay. See if you all can figure out who’s who’s the pursuer, who’s the withdrawer, because there’s not a little bell that comes out and tells us what we are; we got to figure it out.

Laurie Watson 17:36
Okay. Honey, did you get the text that I sent today?

George Faller 17:43
Yeah, I gave you that smiley face remember and I responded back.

Laurie Watson 17:49
But I’m not even sure you read it, because there were like three parts to it. And I, you know, I really wanted you to see kind of what I was feeling about that stuff that we’ve been talking about in you know, with the kids and, and it was like, I don’t know, I you know, sometimes I think you send that smiley face. Just when you’re busy and you’re kind of I felt blown off.

George Faller 18:13
Listen, you might be the only person I’ve ever met that can get mad at a smiley face. Seriously. I mean, I’m I am busy. And I’m just trying to let you know, like, if this matters, you matter like we’re good and likely, you know, we’re sure we’ll talk about this later tonight.

Laurie Watson 18:27
Yeah, but I sent it before lunch. I mean, you could have at least read it. And you know at least said said that okay, I’m reading it I will we will talk about it over cocktails or over dinner or something. But it was like a smiley face like seriously.

George Faller 18:44
Really busy. Can we like talk about this later? Because again, is what’s Why are we fighting over a smiley face? I don’t really have time for this.

Laurie Watson 18:52
Okay, there you go. You’re shutting down again. It’s like this is important to me. And I just feel like you don’t care about me. And when you do that.

George Faller 19:00
And you blow everything into some huge thing. This is not a big deal.

Laurie Watson 19:04
Not a big deal to you. It’s not a big deal to you, but it is a big deal to me.

George Faller 19:09
All right, I like I said I gotta go my boss is calling me click.

Laurie Watson 19:17
No, I felt the heat. I was mad at you. You weren’t even my husband.

George Faller 19:23
Okay. Well, we could see how quick these triggers are. Familiar. So again, we can see the need for Laurie to connect. This is important. She needs a conversation she’s wanting to be understood and seen. So she initiates and she pushes and she wants to process. Right when I hear that tone wanting to process. I’m getting the message the threat and that is I’m doing something wrong. I’m failing. I tried to defend myself. I tried to get her to calm down like it’s just a smiley face like our Aren’t you to just chill out? Get what is that impact how I protect myself, which is try to turn the emotion down? What did that do to you, Laurie?

Laurie Watson 20:09
Yeah, I mean, it escalated in me, you know, just this sense of here. I didn’t get the response that I wanted the first time. Now I’m bringing it the second time, you know, I, I tried to ask in this nice way, Hey, did you get my text and, and then I immediately get defense. And so inside me, I’m like, Okay, this is so important. I gotta push my partner to see the content. But it’s no longer about the content. It’s about this feeling that he’s not responding to me. And that makes me crazy inside.

George Faller 20:43
So you can see Laurie’s protection starts to rev up, she starts to point out what I’m not doing. This is exactly why I didn’t want to have the conversation. My body’s anticipating the anger, the criticism, the negativity, I don’t have the space for that. I don’t want to deal with it. So I tried to then shut it down. I tried to pull out of the comversation. I tried to get her to do it at another point when things will be calmer. Again, the more I try to turn it down, the more she turns it up, the more both of us are lost in a negative cycle. I have good reasons to want to turn it down. She has good reasons to want to turn it up.

Laurie Watson 21:23
Right, I’m pursuing; he’s withdrawing. And his withdrawal triggers something inside me that I get bigger, more critical, more angry, which of course makes him want to shut down. First he gets a little defensive pushes back a little bit, maybe a little bit of sarcasm, who could you know, who could be upset about a smiley face. But then eventually, he actually leads, he hangs up the phone.

George Faller 21:51
And we see, Laurie’s hope is in her pursuit, that’s the only way she’s going to get me to engage is to kind of get me to see the importance of this conversation. So that anger gives a hope it gives us some power; it has a beautiful intent. But the impact for me is it’s it’s making me more nervous that things are emotionally getting out of control. And my trying to disengage is my safety to that emotion. I’m not doing it because I don’t care. I’m doing it because I don’t want this to get too turned up. Because really bad things happen when it does. So the intent of mine is to create safety; create calmness. And yet it has the opposite impact. And that’s what protection does. It’s short term, it protects the person, but then the person doesn’t see the costs the impact to that behavior on their partner. And that’s what we’re trying to get couples to see interdependency, my protection to go away that makes sense to me, is pretty horrible for Laurie.

Laurie Watson 22:49
right? The impact of You’re going away, hits me as you don’t care about me. And of course, as I ramp up and get more critical impact on you is you’re failing, you’re not good enough.

George Faller 23:02
Exactly. And we’re lost. And we do this fight a million different ways over a million different issues. But the dance moves those protective moves are very similar over and over again. And if you can name those protective moves, you can see the cycle you’ll see the interdependency, so let’s look at it sexually.

Laurie Watson 23:21
Okay. All right. Okay, so let’s do a little roleplay you’re a sexual pursuer. Okay?

George Faller 23:28
Which a lot of times it is this role reversal, right? Because I’m the emotional withdrawer. I don’t ask for what I need emotionally in relationships. So sexuality becomes the one area that becomes important. And it’s often more to sexual pursue. It’s much more than just the orgasm. Right, which we can talk more about. So. So Laurie, what do you think tonight? A little a little alone time? a little action me and you.

Laurie Watson 23:54
You know, I don’t know. I just, I don’t feel I don’t. I’m not really feeling it. I got so much to do tomorrow. It’s gonna be a late, late night already with just what I gotta get done. I just, I don’t know. I don’t. Maybe Maybe later. I don’t know. Maybe.

George Faller 24:14
It’s always maybe with you. It’s always tomorrow. It’s always another time. I mean, this is the problem. What is what like, when do you want it? When do you initiate like, Yeah, well, yes. Why is this always like on me and never in a mood?

Laurie Watson 24:28
That is not true. That is not true. I am in the mood sometimes. And I think, if you will just think about it. You know, we recently had sex. I mean, it was like, I don’t know, a couple days ago, honey.

George Faller 24:42
This is like I’m living in another reality a couple days ago. That was two weeks ago. I mean, this is what happens to you. You have sex once like you throw me a bone and like all of a sudden we’re good for a month or something. I mean, really,

Laurie Watson 24:56
and this is partly why I don’t want to have sex with us. You get so mad at me, you get so angry. It’s like, why would I want to have sex with you? When you’re always mad at me?

George Faller 25:05
I wouldn’t be mad at you if you want to have sex more.

Laurie Watson 25:09
I I do want to have sex. I feel like you don’t even give me credit. You know, I, I mean, last time for crying out loud. I, I dressed up for you. And it’s like you don’t even see my efforts.

George Faller 25:25
Again, sex once or twice a month, that doesn’t feel like a huge effort for me. Again, this is part of the problem, you just won’t do your work around this. Try to figure out what was going on with you.

Laurie Watson 25:36
You know, it is just so unfair, what you’re saying. It’s like you are always all about sex. You are always all about sex. And I just look it I can’t even talk about this tonight. I am exhausted as it is. I’m going to just I gotta go upstairs and and get ready for bed.

George Faller 25:53
What else is new?

Laurie Watson 25:55
Okay. Thanks for that.

George Faller 25:59
All right. So you can see, my hope is in trying to get her to engage; to see the problem, right that if she wanted to focus on this and read a book or do something, maybe she’d want to have sex more. I’m trying to fix the problem by pushing her to engage to have a conversation to want to have sex. My hope is that she’s going to do something different. I’m trying to motivate her. But the impact? Does it actually motivate her? It actually does what to you Laurie?

Laurie Watson 26:32
Yeah, it just makes me feel like I’m not good enough. I’m not making him happy. And he’s getting angrier, which makes me just feel terrible inside. And I keep getting this message. Like in my mind. I had sex recently. And I did a good job and he was happy. And now that’s just gone away. It doesn’t even matter. And it does begin to feel like all he really wants is sex. He’s you know, he’s not really seeing; he’s not seeing me, he’s not seeing my effort.

George Faller 27:03
Right. And it sounds to me all it’s just excuses and deflection. And her not wanting to take responsibility. It’s a really simple problem to me. If she did a little bit of work, this would be we could change the numbers that you need new numbers together. We know sex once a month not cutting it. So I’m really trying to pound her with this message. And I’m really believing that it’s gonna sink through. But that’s the definition of insanity. I keep pounding her with a message they get it’s going to change things. And all it’s doing to Laurie’s it’s shutting her down more, making her feel more pressured, more like a failure, more discouraged, and she wants to get away from that message. It’s hard to feel turned on when your body’s like ready to kind of feel like it’s gonna go to war. It’s gonna be kind of beat up.

Laurie Watson 27:49
Yeah, I just want to defend myself. And then I want to get out of it. It’s like this conversation, we’ve had this a million times, I end up being the bad guy, the person and you know who and I’m not seen for my efforts, which makes me feel more discouraged. People tell me all the time, in both cycles, the withdrawer says no matter what I do, it’s not good enough anyway. So why should I do anything? And the pursuer says, Damn straight, because you don’t do enough. And I mean, it’s just this constant feeling of push, withdraw, push withdraw.

George Faller 28:25
Exactly. So let’s break it down simply, right, we both have these beautiful needs to connect, to want to be intimate, to want to get it right. All this good stuff. There’s a threat to that when Laurie is not in a mood, it’s a threat to my needs. I protect myself. I protect myself with anger and criticism because I’m trying to motivate change, that protection becomes a threat to Laurie. She gets the message she’s failing me, I’m upset with her. She protects herself by I don’t want to have this conversation. I don’t want to feel worse about this. I want to get away from this conversation. She tries to get away makes me feel more rejected. I protect myself more with anger. She feels more like a failure. She protects herself more with going away and were lost in this cycle. The cycle is winning, trying to get the couple to be able to claim the cycle. We have both good reasons for what we’re doing. And we’re feeding each other my protection feeds her protection. Her protection feeds my protection. When you get a couple to see that you get two heads nodding saying yes, this is exactly what’s happening. You’re on your first step towards recognizing the problem. The problem isn’t your partner. The problem is the cycle.

Laurie Watson 29:41
And we spend lots of time in Foreplay, to really help you solve this problem. Today we wanted to lay it out, map it out for you, give you the basics again, so that you could start to identify which protective strategy do I use? Am I fight? Or am I flight? Am I push? Am I pull away? Am I pursue or am I withdraw and thinking about them in both cycles, the emotional cycle. And the sexual attachment cycle is so important. We need both of them. They kind of overlap a lot. But we really want you to think about it. Again, if you’re confused, if you don’t know who you are Go and take the little love and sex test that that’s a helpful thing people tell me, it really identifies their position.

George Faller 30:33
So the two critical things we want you to end with is one Yes. Name, your protective move. What do you do when you’re threatened? Two, and what do you think the impact of your move is to your partner? Because that’s when you’re really going to start seeing a cycle. You have good reasons for it. Yes, that’s one, two, what does it do to your partner? Can you see that; couples that can see the impact of their protective move on a partner is starting to get the negative cycle

Laurie Watson 31:04
That is really central I love that you just made emphasize that point. Because when I see as a sexual withdrawer, that this makes my partner frantic. Like he’s never going to get his sexual needs met in a relationship where he’s promised fidelity. Just what a trap what a bind, it’s so painful. And when I can see that when I go away, it makes it worse for him or emotionally when my partner can see him going away him hanging up. I am I am desolate, right? I’m so frustrated and so abandoned. I mean, it’s really important to see the impact of your move. We know it makes good sense on the inside to you, to use this protective strategy, but just ask yourself, what do I think that does to my partner?

George Faller 31:52

Laurie Watson 31:53
Okay, thanks for listening.

George Faller 31:55
Keep it hot! And beat that cycle.

Announcer 31:58
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