Positive cycling is a process that builds towards understanding. It involves moving in tandem with your partner(s) towards that goal. Your partner(s) can be your spouse, your family members, your co-workers, your friends, someone who has hurt you in the past, or even other aspects of your inner self.

Positive cycling can be intuitive. Our inner senses and feelings exist to help us with this process. We must actively engage by listening to our feelings and the feelings of our partners. In doing so, we put together two different stories: one representing our own perspective and one representing that of our partner(s). We use our feelings to fully understand each of those stories. We immerse ourselves in the stories as if we are walking in the other person’s shoes.

There is a rhythmic process to the telling of these respective stories. It is like a dance of two people. On the surface, each story is told in bits and pieces in turn. Little by little, they are unveiled. We get the facts and the timeline. Then we switch and allow the other person’s story to go forward. These are the steps of the dance. But far more happens beneath the surface. It is there that complexity unfolds. New possibilities blossom as we start to see how each story intersects. We begin to see how our behavior affects that of the other person. We have more influence on the other person than we originally thought. We learn that communication is more than just words. With each word comes an emotion or mix of emotions. Those emotions carry with them all kinds of things: feelings of hurt, feelings of protectiveness, feelings of caring, aggression and threats, etc. We get a better feel for where boundaries are. Finally, we work to clarify if the fit is correct.

Your goal is to achieve understanding for yourself. A secondary goal is to help your partner(s) also understand. But you can’t force this. You have to inspire them to want to understand your story and the greater picture–the “third story”– the pattern that has developed.

Through this dance, we begin to see old patterns of behavior for what they truly are. We see them not as personal defects, inherent to each individual, beyond change or redemption, targets for condemnation. Instead, we see them rather as habits that have formed. We suspend blame and instead offer grace and compassion for the past. Each person was acting with their best intent at the time the habit originated. They were not aware of the full consequences. Then each person became complacent in their habits over time. Understanding reveals those old habits for what they truly are. Often, they are impediments to true connection.

Positive cycling is all about working towards understanding. To do that, we need to understand understanding. We will use a Why-How-What framework to break down understanding into its component pieces. We will look at the Why, the How, and the What of understanding. Positive cycling is all about working through these three parts, over-and-over again. We experiment at each stage, then we test our experiment in the next stage. We learn the consequences of our actions and make adjustments over time. We are emotional scientists.

Do this enough, and you will start to develop some common sense rules for building understanding (for positive cycling). Like growing a garden, there are things that understanding will need to grow. Here we will begin to develop some core rules for positive cycling. Those rules will hopefully seem intuitive and simple, at first. Learning how to correctly apply them will take practice.

Do this enough and you will see that as positive cycling builds towards understanding, it also brings with it certain advantageous side effects. It also builds self-esteem, sense of empowerment, freedom from fear, sense of connection, realization of purpose, strengthening of values, flexibility and others.

Positive cycling is a repetitive cycle. It is a new type of habit. Just like any habit, we work at it every day. It takes practice, then it becomes easier. We have to watch out for complacency over time.

This Article Contains:

Growing a Relationship
“The Why” of Understanding – build towards 3 core identity concepts of understanding
“The How” of Understanding – 3 core values of understanding
Gaining Motivation
Building Bridges
Establishing Healthy Boundaries – Seven Common Mistakes Made
“The What” of Understanding (Reflection Step)
What are raw spots?
What are the 10 core rules of positive cycling?
How do we co-author a “third story?”
How do we probe for higher levels of fit?
How do we adjust for changes in fit?
What is co-dependency?
What is negative cycling?
22 common cynical traps
An example of positive cycling – a couple’s weekly check-ins

Growing a Relationship

This can also be understood if you consider the relationship between two individuals. Imagine the relationship as a living thing, like a plant. In positive cycling, the plant is growing and will one day reach its full potential. Some plants are small. Others are big and monstrous. But each plant has an ingrained potential, based upon its genetics, that can’t be changed. That ingrained potential is fit. Fit can’t be changed no matter how hard the individuals try. Our goal through positive cycling is to reach that highest potential.

Here we will briefly touch on Negative cycling and co-dependency. Co-dependency is a type of stagnation. Two or more individuals get locked in a habit where personal growth and greater connection no longer becomes possible. The individuals are far away from their potential state of connection, based upon fit. This means that a great deal of growth and connection is possible, yet the partners behavioral habits prevent further growth from occurring.

Consider the plant again. In co-dependency, the plant is stuck. It is parched looks sickly. It has enough nourishment to keep it from dying, but it certainly isn’t growing, and I wouldn’t want to eat the fruit, if there is any. Alcohol addiction is a terrific example. A loveless marriage is another.

If you further remove what little nourishment exists, then stagnation turns into negative cycling. The plant starts to die.

Negative cycling is when two (or more) individuals get locked in a destructive pattern of behavior that undermines mutual understanding. They create a vicious cycle. Mutual understanding decreases over time. This is a remarkable, yet common phenomenon, where people actively unlearn what they have learned. They are not forgetting anything. Instead, they are actually destroying what they know. How does this occur? Understanding is replaced by cynicism–the suspicious belief that the other person is out to do you harm and/or doesn’t have any respect for your values. Sadly, negative cycling is pervasive in everyday society. American politics, the American news media, and social media are consumed by it. Getting wrapped up in those negative forces is all too easy. They become like a drug that we addict ourselves to. But look around. You will see it in people that you know and in their relationships. It isn’t hard to spot. We will teach you how to identify it.

There are no real “secrets” here. All of this, once you get it, should be common sense. You should be able to look back and say that you knew these things all along. You just needed someone to free up what you were holding back. All we’re really doing here is teaching you how to listen to your own feelings.

“The Why” of Understanding (Identity Step)

We have already gone over why understanding is so critical, compared to other values like love and happiness. Here we start to break down the critical “Why” pieces of understanding. When we work towards mutual understanding, what are we actually trying to build? What does it mean to understand ourselves and others? What does understanding look like?

Each social situation will have a different picture of understanding. For mental illness, we may be trying to understand our feelings, ourselves, and our place in the world. For a relationship in distress, we may be trying to understand each other better and the bad habits we’ve both been engaging in (surprise, this is probably not the bad habits you’ve been blaming each other for!). For someone struggling at work, we may be trying to figure out if the value fit is right.

We must first ask “What needs to be understood?”

In each case, there are three common pieces:

  • (Shared) Identity
  • (Shared) Purpose
  • (Expected) Connection

There is a shared identity that should fit between partners. Two people are co-workers, partners, friends, family, etc. We are trying to strengthen that shared identity along with strengthening each person’s individual (separate) identity. See What is My Identity for more work on understanding your individual identity.

From that shared identity, there should be a shared purpose. The partners should agree on what they are working towards. Are we building a romantic relationship, a family, a friendship, a collegial relationship, a business relationship, etc? What values is the relationship based on?

Finally, there is an expectation of connection. What level of commitment do we expect in this relationship? Are we becoming best friends or casual acquaintances? Are you looking for a casual hook-up or a long-term relationship that may build towards marriage? What level of commitment is important to you in marriage? What is the role of family and other pieces that impact the relationship? In essence, what does success look like? Both sides must agree on this from the outset, or else the fit isn’t right.

This is Identity work. Here you agree upon shared identity, shared purpose, and expected connection. There’s no sense going further if you can’t get this part right. But don’t worry. If you make a mistake here, we can correct your mistakes in subsequent stages. After all, we are still experimenting. We may not know if the fit is right until later. Just do your best getting this as close as possible. Make sure you both agree before moving on.

Allow your feelings to guide you. If you don’t know what they mean, working to understand them is another great place to start. They will tell you what fits and what doesn’t, what is important to you and what isn’t. Your feelings come from the impact of your identity with the outside world. Trust them. Where do you feel connection? Where do you feel disconnection?

These three pieces (shared identity, share purpose, expected connection) need to be agreed to at the outset. If you don’t know how to begin working towards positive cycling, this is the place to start. Talk it over with your partner(s). What is your shared identity? What is your purpose? How will you connect over time? What type of connection are you building towards? Burn these questions into your minds. You will come back to them over-and-over again.

Remember to set reasonable expectations. You must fit this partnership in with the other important things in your life. Not everything can be in the “most important” category. Be honest about where this partnership fits. Read here to learn how to create a value hierarchy for your own life. Failing to understand fit is one trap that snares people in negative cycling.

Through positive cycling, our goal is to achieve the state of greatest connection, over time, given the fit. This may be hard to get at first. Keep in mind the growing plant analogy from the previous section.

Now try another analogy. Imagine climbing a mountain. Imagine two people who agree to climb the mountain of understanding. It is a big mountain. We can never get to the very tip-top, because tip-top isn’t stable and will probably send us tumbling down. But we can get close. Remember, you can never fully 100% understand the other person. You are not them. Don’t expect them to get EVERYTHING about you. Give them the grace that they are trying and gaining in understanding over time. Keep your expectations in check.

And so, instead of aiming for the tip-top, instead we will try to get to the highest safe, stable flat landing place. This highest place is the state of greatest connection. It is here that we can safely build a home on solid foundation. It is here that understanding encompasses all those things we strive for: love, connection, respect, admiration, balance, safety, healing, reconciliation, etc. We feel these things as we move up the mountain and after we arrive.

Some couples make it there. Many fall short and “settle.” Building a home down the mountain, far from the peak, is co-dependency. Their connection is stale and inflexible. Here it’s pretty easy to catch the faults in the relationship. How do we know they’re stuck in this place? The couple’s mutual bad feelings towards each other make that plain. Here you will find criticism, contempt, disgust, gossip, stonewalling, bitterness, etc.

This contrasts with another couple who, although at the same place, is still climbing. The couple is filled with positive energy as they see progress over time. The gains in understanding fill them up and keep them going. Even though they high to climb as the stagnant couple, their progress makes them feel good. They might even feel in love. Their connection is growing. This feeling of love is fleeting, however. If they stop climbing, it will evaporate quickly.

This also contrasts with the couple that is tumbling down the mountain, out of control. This couple is caught in a pattern of negative cycling. Bitterness, contempt, disgust, hurt and other negative feelings give way to cynicism. Their relationship is circling the toilet. Their connection is rapidly deteriorating, possibly hanging on by a thread.

The How of Understanding (Values Step)

Here we use our moral values to perform some type of action. We harness our feelings, which are a type of energy, to propel us forward. Our values will channel those feelings towards our purpose.

Imagine that feelings are the wind. Our values become the sails that we use to capture the wind and drive us through the waves. Again, we are experimenting.

We may go the right way or the wrong way. We will have opportunities to correct the course later on.

There are many types of feelings and values. Figuring out how to pair feelings and values together and use them takes some practice. It isn’t always easy to do. But with some practice, it becomes intuitive. It is, after all, what we teach our children to do in elementary school. It is something we already know how to do, we just so often choose not to do it. Seeing the ramifications of those poor choices is important in IVR.

First, we need to recognize three types of values. We have bridging values, boundary values, and motivation.

Key values:

  • Bridging values: compassion, create safe spaces, listening, acceptance, tolerance, play, curiosity, imagination, grace
  • Boundary values: sanctity, respect,
  • Get to work values: motivation, courage, goal-setting

Building Motivation

Motivation is the easiest. Here is where we need to find courage and motivation to get going. This is probably hardest to do if you’re feeling tired and unmotivated. Getting motivated, then, is like trying to plough into the wind. Instead, try going a right angle to these feelings. Harness the feelings via understanding. How?

Feelings of fatigue, tiredness, and poor motivation come from somewhere. Get to the bottom of them! Ask them what they have to say. Are they being driven by some type of fear? If so, what are you afraid of? Or is it pain and hurt? Or disconnection?

Rather than put all your energy into fighting poor motivation, instead you could build new walls or extend new bridges. You could work to bandage up a wound. Learn to protect yourself from past abuses. Work to reconnect with others.

There are so many tools out there to help with motivation. Figure out what works for you. Maybe its finding courage. Maybe you need someone to yell at you, like a coach or drill sergeant. Maybe you need a group of friends to hold you accountable. Maybe you need to trick yourself with small rewards. If you still struggle with motivation, try Gary John Bishop’s UNFU*K YOURSELF.

Bridging values

Bridging values involves extending bridges of connection to others. There are many different types. With each one, we are basically communicating to the other person, “I care about you.” It really is that simple. Here are a few examples:

CompassionCreate compassion by asking for help or extending it.
AcceptanceAccept the person for who they are, not who we want them to be.
Safe spacesCreate a common space, free from judgment, where listening can occur.
Active ListeningListen first, then speak.
Tolerance Tolerate differences in values and beliefs
Play Reconnect through something pleasurable. Be adventurous!
Curiosity and imaginationBe curious about what’s going on for them.
GraceAllow mistakes.

When is it wrong to extend a bridging value? When is it wrong to communicate, “I care about you.”?

Listen to the other person. They will tell you when.

If they are hurting you, being aggressive or violating your boundaries, then this is the wrong thing to do. If they are running away from you, then this is also the wrong thing to do. If they run, don’t chase! If you do, they will hurt you next.

If this isn’t intuitive, imaging working with a cat. If the cat is hissing or has its claws flared, you probably know to leave it alone. If the cat runs and hides in a corner, you should also know not to chase it and corner it. Cornering the cat will make it desperate. Instead of communicating, “I care about you,” you’ve inadvertently communicated, “It’s time to fight.”

Many parents make the classic mistake of cornering their children. If your child runs in anger to his room, don’t chase him. The worst thing you can do is to enter, uninvited, and corner him. This is harassment and abuse. Do this enough and he will be thinking dark, intrusive thoughts about how much he hates you and wants to hurt you. These cynical thoughts are natural and protective. There’s no reason to be afraid of them. Just give him space and they will stop. Remember that people, like animals, respond to the communication of behavior, not of words. Respecting his boundaries is the easiest way to communicate, “you are safe” and nullify his fear.

When someone runs away, instead of chasing, you should refocus on yourself. Build your own boundaries. Leave an open door to a safe space where the two of you can reconnect later. Be patient and accepting.

Establishing Healthy Boundaries – Seven common mistakes

Boundaries are probably our most important value set. The prerequisite to any functioning relationship is that both parties feel safe. Boundaries are critical to safety.

When someone hurts you, that means you need a stronger boundary. Reinforcing that boundary may be as simple as communicating that you’ve been hurt. If they respect your boundary going forward, you’ve done enough.

If they fail to respect the boundary, then you have more work to do. Now you have to create space between yourself and the other person. You are obligated to get away from them. As you do so, continue communicating what you are doing and why. This is as simple as saying, “You are hurting me, and as a result, I’m trying to get some space between us.”

As simple as this all sounds, people make all kinds of mistakes with this. Such mistakes lead to negative cycling very fast. Although we can’t cover them all right now, here are some common mistakes:

  • Not recognizing that you are hurt.
  • Failing to communicate how you are hurt.
  • Failing to create adequate space.
  • Being judgmental, critical, or cynical, rather than assuming good intentions.
  • Attacking the other person’s identity. In other words, displaying contempt and disgust towards the other person.
  • Violating the other person’s boundaries in turn. An “eye for an eye” doesn’t work in everyday social interactions. It only normalizes boundary violations as behavior that becomes acceptable for the relationship.
  • Not recognizing personal raw spots. Not understanding these and communicating them.

These mistakes will trap the relationship in co-dependency or negative cycling. The last one, not recognizing personal raw spots, is probably the most common mistake.

What are raw spots?

We all have raw spots. Raw spots are places of previous injury and trauma. When someone else touches the spot, it hurts. Often, the person doesn’t realize they are touching a raw spot. The pain they are causing is inadvertent. Yet the pain is so great, that we lash out. Our reaction is extreme. The punishment we cause is disproportionate to the crime, so to speak.

Raw spots are places where we still have a lot of work to do. It is our responsibility to care for our own raw spots, not that of our partner. We need to work towards healing, which requires greater personal understanding of the past injury. We can communicate the existence of raw spots, and a caring partner will be sensitive to those. But we must also take care to apologize whenever we lash out, especially if we violate the other person’s boundaries in turn. Hopefully the partner will apologize for touching one inadvertently. Hopefully they will display caring, curiosity, and listening whenever they realize they’ve found one. Again, the goal here is not to assign blame, but to build greater understanding.

“The What” of Understanding (Reflection Step)

This step is all about reflection. What are the results of our actions thus far? How did the other person respond?

Ultimately, we want to know if our efforts built understanding or diminished it. Everything thus far has been experimental. It’s ok if mistakes were made. We will have opportunities to course correct.

Reflection is all about listening. We listen to ourselves and to our partners. We listen to our rational selves and to our emotions. We ask lots of questions.

  • What were the costs of our actions?
  • What benefits were achieved?
  • What did we learn?

We must also recognize that understanding is a moving target. We have three goals:

  • Understand yourself
  • Understand others
  • Be understood

Every time we are successful with one piece, we need to start thinking about the next one. We cannot stick to the previous value. We must be prepared to change up in the next go-around. Even if something worked well, we can’t go back to it just yet. We have to be flexible and try something new. After all, learning is not about doing the same thing over and over again.

Reflection is a great opportunity to correct previous mistakes. If we made an error in the Identity Step, we can fix it here. It is here that we might realize the fit isn’t good, and that two people are better off friends than romantic partners. It is here that we question our values. Did we choose the right one? Do we need to explore new values?

The IVR Cycle

Each of these three steps creates a cycle: Identity-Values-Reflection. Each step builds upon the next. With each revolution, we should learn something. Over time, a pattern will emerge. We will learn if we are gaining in understanding, losing in understanding, or remaining stagnant.

Key to note here is that each step of the IVR cycle is self-correcting. If we are negative cycling or stagnant in co-dependency, that means that we are failing at all three steps. We are failing to understand our identity, our values, and failing in reflection / listening. Efforts put towards any of these three steps can help kick-start us back into positive cycling.

10 Core rules of positive cycling

The goal here is to keep the rules few, simple and intuitive.

Even though there are ten rules below, each of these rules is really an application of a very simple concept. We need to have awareness of our environment, the environment being everything that is not in our direct control. The environment includes other people around us, our past, also our own present subconscious mind (our feelings, memories, our Identity, experiences, abilities, etc.) Next, we become aware of what is in our control (our values). We use our values to maneuver across our environment towards mutual understanding. We are not here to battle or change the environment, but rather to use its energy to our advantage.

Here are the 10 rules:

  1. Keep mutual understanding as the primary objective. There is no other singular objective besides understanding. All other objectives are secondary.
  2. We do not attack, judge, or criticize people for things that are outside of their control. These things include their identity, feelings, and core values. Instead, we work to point out how the choices they make (their behavior) impacts us. Do not battle a person’s feelings. Instead, channel them towards your mutual purpose (mutual understanding). If you channel them effectively, they will naturally work with you.
  3. Judge another person’s behavior as being problematic only when they violate your boundaries. Keep in mind, just because someone causes you discomfort or inconvenience that doesn’t mean they’re violating your boundaries. Judgement should be withheld. Only point out the impact of their actions.
  4. Work towards understanding each person’s personal story and the full pattern of the “third story.” This requires seeing many revolutions of the cycle to the direction determine fit, contributions, and the direction of cycling. From there, you can judge the cycle, on the whole, as positive, as negative, or stagnant (co-dependency).
  5. Listening is your most important tool (value). When you get stuck, try listening to someone you haven’t listened to in a while. Make sure to listen to the persons’ behavior, including emotional state, not just their words.
  6. Give grace. If all parties are working hard towards mutual understanding, remember that everything is an experiment. Expect everyone to make mistakes as part of the process. Grace should be given so long as understanding remains the mutual goal.
  7. Keep thoughts and conclusions that you reflexively make as hypotheses to be tested. Don’t assume you know what the other person is thinking or feeling. Best to ask.
  8. Remain genuine by always keeping your identity, values, and beliefs in concordance with each other. Your feelings will tell you if there is discord between these elements. Work to resolve this discord.
  9. The three most important ingredients for positive cycling are time, listening, and effort. Avoid complacency and channel cynicism towards a productive endeavor.
  10. Take extreme ownership of a negative or stagnant (co-dependent) cycle. Everyone is responsible for arresting a negative cycle or helping to break free from co-dependency. When it becomes clear we are in one of these situations, we judge the cycle as being problematic (not the people caught in it) and work to identify everyone’s contributions to that cycle. It’s best for each person to start with their own contributions.

I purposely kept the number of rules few and simple. This isn’t really about memorizing rules. Instead, the goal is to understand them. Do that, and you should easily and intuitively know the following:

  • the difference between being honest vs being vulnerable vs oversharing
  • how to be genuine
  • positive vs negative cycling,
  • the purpose of feelings and what they mean
  • how to listen
  • how to put together a “third story” even when you don’t have a lot of information
  • how to clarify and separate what is controllable vs not controllable
  • the difference between working with someone and “using” them
  • how to kindly divert someone, who is causing you injury, from further violating your boundaries without attacking them

Co-authoring a “Third story”

As both stories get told, as both parties feel heard and understood, the “third story” reveals itself naturally. It grows organically like garden. It doesn’t belong to one person. It is the story of the relationship.

In the “third story” is contained all the feelings, wants, hurts, values, observations, thoughts, and identities of the participants.

The “third story” is also a story of habit. Chances are the partners engage in a lot of good, productive, healthy habits together. There are lots of things to celebrate and admire.

But like any garden, it needs pruning and care. There are bad habits growing there also. Bad habits are small at first, growing from seed. We never know what they will look like, what they will turn out to be. Over time they take shape and soak in sunlight. We thoughtfully gaze upon them. It’s not that they don’t deserve love and compassion. They, too, are reverent. They, too, demand life. The problem is that they’re choking the garden. And so, they must be carefully trimmed down or moved to a new place. Eventually, we learn, through careful listening, that a weed is not a bad thing, an evil thing deserving of judgement. It is just a plant misplaced.

The garden itself changes over time. Beautiful plants sometimes die. We want new things to eventually grow there. So, we honor the soil by tending it.

We never choose exactly the way the garden should look. It grows the way it wants to grow. We are only there to nurture it. We are caretakers. We are there, always, to admire the beauty, the awe, the wonder.

Probing for higher levels of fit

Understanding is never over. We never “achieve it.” We can never stop. Remaining connected requires battling complacency or else you will inevitably slip down.

What if we think we’ve achieved a decent level of connection but want to go higher? We can certainly probe to see if the fit is right. Make sure, before you do, that your values line up. Your shared values should support a greater fit. Verifying this, feel free to probe for the opportunity.

Consider friends Nick and Nicole who want to explore the possibility of developing a romantic relationship. Nick remembers that listening is probably his greatest probing tool. Adventure, play, curiosity and imagination are additional tools that go hand-in-hand with listening. Nick listens to Nicole person to see if she is open to the possibility of a greater fit. He listens to the point that Nicole feels heard and understood. In turn, Nicole begins to display her own curiosity and asks Nick more intimate details about himself. As they share an emotional vulnerability, their connection grows.

Adjusting for changes in fit

Fit changes over time. This is normal and natural. A great example is when children grow up and leave the home. Their connections to their parents change. Their relationships with their teachers change.

As fit changes, so does independence and dependency. Often people gain greater independence. Sometimes they begin to lose independence due to infirmity. At each case, individuals should be supported in maintaining the greatest agency which they can manage.


In positive cycling, it is important to recognize and actively avoid both co-dependency and negative cycling. Positive cycling is as much about avoiding these two problems, which can easily ensnare a person, as it is about doing the right thing.

Modern psychologists struggle to come up with a comprehensive definition of co-dependency. The definition seems to change depending on the situation. For example:

  • “[Co-dependency is] a psychological condition or a relationship in which a person manifesting low self-esteem and a strong desire for approval has an unhealthy attachment to another often controlling or manipulative person (such as a person with an addiction to alcohol or drugs).” (Mirriam-Webster)
  • Alternatively, “[Co-dependency is] dependence on the needs of or on control by another.” (Mirriam-Webster)
  • “Codependents, busy taking care of others, forget to take care of themselves, resulting in a disturbance of identity development.” (Joaquin Selva)
  • “Codependency is a dysfunctional relationship dynamic where one person assumes the role of “the giver,” sacrificing their own needs and well-being for the sake of the other, “the taker.” (Psychology Today)

There are many issues with these definitions of which we can’t get fully into here. The biggest question is that in a relationship where one person is dependent on another, how do we distinguish between healthy dependency and (unhealthy) co-dependency? Only Joaquin Selva’s definition comes close to addressing the issue as being one of a disturbance of identity development. But none of these definitions get at the root cause of co-dependency. And so, as one might imagine, there is a wide degree of disagreement in the medical literature about co-dependency. Some characterize it is as a personality disorder, while others question whether it is a problem at all.

All relationships involve dependency. If there is no dependency, there the relationship is nonexistent. And so, the problem with co-dependency isn’t dependency. The problem is whether two people grow together and become better people over time, which is the cardinal sign of a healthy relationship.

Consider a healthy child-parent relationship. Such a relationship would meet the 2nd Mirriam Webster definition and the Psychology Today definition of co-dependency. Certainly, there are some unhealthy parenting relationships that probably should be categorized as co-dependent. How do we know the difference? How do we separate out the healthy parenting relationships from the unhealthy ones?

What about relationships where someone has mental or physical illness and becomes dependent on another person; the caregiver sacrifices much to care for their partner. Who are we to say that this represents a “disturbance of identity development?”

I offer an alternative, simple definition for this common phenomenon: Co-dependency occurs in a relationship where individuals are mutually dependent upon each other and there is stagnation of the relationship’s growth, preventing it from reaching its full potential.

The issue with co-dependency is not the existence of mutual dependency. Most healthy relationships involve some degree of dependency. What separates a healthy relationship from an unhealthy one is the stagnation of growth over time. The relationship itself never blossoms into its full potential.

The definition also gives us two root causes for co-dependency: complacency and enabling. Two or more people become complacent and stopping feeding their relationship. Or they only provide it with just enough sustenance to keep it from deteriorating further. In essence, we have relationship laziness. As a result of this complacency, individuals enable each other’s individual faults, rather than encourage personal growth.

Consider a child who doesn’t know how to tie his shoes. It is far quicker for the parent to just tie the shoes. And so, the parent never takes the time, care and patience to teach the child. The child remains unnecessarily dependent on the parent. This creates emotional neediness, poor self-esteem, and resentment. The child may whine to the parent that she can’t do other age-appropriate things for herself even as she watches her peers be successful in these tasks. Both individuals blame each other. If the parent later on encourages the child to tie her own shoes, she responds by saying, “You don’t care about me.” The parent’s own self-esteem struggles as he wonders why other parents taught their children these skills some time ago.

The definition that I offer for co-dependency is broad, simple, and encompasses many different types of stagnant cycles, including substance abuse.

Within the definition, we see that feelings again become all-important. If a relationship is progressing towards its potential, feelings surrounding the relationship will be positive. If the relationship stagnates, there will be negative emotions on all sides. We will see bitterness, resentment, and poor self-esteem. Relationships become fixed into place. There is loss of social mobility: for instance, children who don’t grow up in relation to their parents or parents that stop growing their own independence in relation to their children.

Using this definition, we can distinguish parenting relationships as healthy or co-dependent. Are children growing up as expected? Do parents maintain their own healthy identities outside of the parenting relationship? If so, feelings surrounding the relationship will remain good. If not, expect resentment, blaming and poor self-esteem.

Next imagine a relationship involving an ill individual and a caregiver. This relationship can be co-dependent or healthy. How do we distinguish between the two? Simple. We rely upon the feelings of those involved to tell us. Does the caregiver see their efforts as a sacrifice, or are they being genuine in providing care? This will inform us if the relationship has reached its potential or if it has fallen short. If the ill individual stops progressing in their healing process, this will inevitably cause resentment on part of the caregiver. They will see their efforts not as genuine caring, but as a needless sacrifice.

Let’s use our definition to imagine the common signs of co-dependency:

  • Poor boundaries
  • Self-sacrifice of one’s own identity (as opposed to genuine giving)
  • Lack of listening on part of the partners (loss of imagination, curiosity, possibility)
  • Bitterness, resentment, expression of grievances
  • Contempt and disgust
  • Defensiveness
  • Loss of social mobility
  • Inflexibility
  • Blaming

Different people react to co-dependency differently. Often, one partner goes emotionally flat and robotic. This typically pairs well with another partner who becomes the opposite: highly emotional and erratic. They become like a boiling pot that inevitably and frequently will blow its lid. These are coping strategies. Another coping strategy is to develop high anxiety and walk on eggshells. Here are some coping strategies that suggest co-dependency has taken place:

  • High anxiety. Partners walk on eggshells around each other.
  • Suppression of feelings due to fear that the relationship could further deteriorate. Often one partner goes cold or robotic. They exhibit poor emotional expression.
  • Erratic behavior that doesn’t make sense. There is a mismatch between behavior and words which indicates the person is no longer genuine.
  • Neediness and enabling – one person does things for the other who otherwise should be capable of doing them for themselves.
  • Being overly critical
  • Stonewalling

Each of these coping strategies is a response to fear. People are trying, in unhealthy ways, to prevent further deterioration of the relationship. The relationship is stable. It may not be good. But at least it’s not getting worse.

Unfortunately, without much effort, co-dependency typically leads to deterioration over time. The deterioration happens slowly though. Partners stagnate at one level for a while. When enough resentment and bitterness has built up, they will drop down to another rung on the ladder. And so, co-dependency is a slow slide in the negative direction that occurs over years or decades.

This contrasts with negative cycling, which is a rapid deterioration over weeks or months. In negative cycling, the fear of deterioration is gone. Partners have abandoned their coping strategies, listed above. They are in full fight-or-flight mode. Each person is only looking out for themselves. In co-dependency, the relationship is still important to both. In negative cycling, the relationship is abandoned.

Negative Cycling

Negative cycling is a rapid process of relationship deterioration. Here we unravel previously understood parts of the relationship. Mutual understanding decreases quickly.

An example of negative cycling is when one person betrays another. This creates such intense, hostile feelings that sends both sides spinning out of control.

Consider two people who get in a car accident with similar injuries. One person focuses on positive cycling towards healing. Eventually they do heal without any lingering feelings. The other person gives in to bitterness and negative cycling. For that second person, the accident becomes traumatic. They are let with a chronic injury that crosses the physical, psychological and spiritual domains.

The primary mechanism for negative cycling is giving in to cynicism. A person questions another person’s intentions and values. They inevitably conclude that the other person is a bad person, deserving of punishment. This faulty conclusion destroys the possibility for mutual understanding.

Positive cyclingPutting in effort towards understanding.connection, healing, respect, honesty
Co-dependencyGiving in to complacency, which leads to enabling. stagnation, poor self-esteem, blaming
Negative cyclingGiving in to cynicism.bitterness, resentment, disconnection, contempt, disgust, delusional thinking

In each of these three processes, there are feelings of doubt. A person should, on occasion, question the value of any relationship. They should also, on occasion, question the intent of their partner(s). Doubt is a normal, healthy feeling to have. Without doubt, we become unbalanced and delusional.

Doubt is supposed to be channeled towards effective listening. This requires work. When we fail to do the work, doubt leads to complacent behavior. When triggered by a potentially traumatic event, like injury or betrayal, doubt becomes cynicism. Cynicism is simply an extreme version of doubt. Again, cynicism should prompt a person to reach for listening. Failing to do so, they give in to cynicism. Cynicism becomes bitterness, resentment, disconnection, contempt, disgust, inflexibility blaming and delusional thinking.

Cynicism is the underpinning of negative cycling. Giving in to cynicism is antithetical to understanding. Instead, we need to recognize that cynicism is only an extreme form of doubt.

Much can be said about negative cycling. Like all cycles, it is a type of habit. There are a few key points that I will make here, which can hopefully help the reader understand positive cycling better:

Negative cycling is a type of theft. One group is stealing from another. Usually, the emotional theft exceeds any physical theft. For instance, an armed robbery may only take a small amount of money but leave the person feeling fearful and suspicious for the rest of their lives. Or consider one spouse betraying another. Or consider one group of people robbing the dignity of another. All of these processes typically lead to negative cycling unless a great deal of effort is put in to stop the downward spiral.

22 common cynical traps

Here are some common cynical traps. Any of these could snare a person into negative cycling. Avoiding them is parament to maintaining a path of positive cycling.

Consider these to be the deadly sins of understanding. The first four are perhaps the most common errors people make without realizing they are wrong. Fixing and judging are the sins that I commit the most and have had to work very hard to stop.

Each of these problems is a type of theft that undermines mutual understanding. To truly understand the problems, look closely at what is being stolen. Then look closely at how this is happening. We are using one value to rob from another value. Next look at why. There is a cynical belief underlying that theft. Find the cynical belief.

For instance, in fixing, we are impatiently fixing somebody else’s problem. There is a cynical belief that they are unable to solve things for themselves and also that our “fix” ought to be their “fix.”

ComparingA person minimizes another person’s hurts (or other emotions and experiences) through direct comparison. “My trauma is worse than yours, and so yours isn’t worth exploring.” Can include comparing material goods, relationships, abilities, people, groups, etc. Comparing robs people and experiences of their inherent beauty and dignity.
FixingRather than work together towards common solutions, a person works only towards the solution that satisfies them. Even if the “fix” benefits the other person, because they were robbed of their agency in the process, there is resentment. In other words, while it’s ok to fix things, people are not things. Instead, we must empower people, through patience and love, to help themselves.
Blaming / judgingBlaming / judging is a defense mechanism that leads to disconnection and cynicism. This happens because blaming others erodes their self-esteem and undermines understanding. Blaming robs one person of the ability to tell their story and robs the other the ability to listen. We remove the ability to have healthy disagreements.
Not being genuinePutting on a fake smile or going through the motions. This includes most types of lies, lies by omission, or deception. Certain lies would be excluded that are both harmless and genuinely intended for the other person’s benefit, such as making children believe in Santa Clause. Fibs and white lies, intended to spare someone of harm, are not excluded.
Singular focus (other than understanding)A singular focus on one particular value or objective, other than mutual understanding, will lead to negative cycling when taken to the extreme. Any other value, when left unbalanced and allowed to grow to excess, produces negative cycling. This includes love, compassion, happiness, respect, etc. Consider that the consequence of having a singular value focus is to split the population into people who agree with you and those who disagree. This split undermines the possibility of mutual understanding going forward. Instead of being a good listener, you become a “persuader.” This change in roles puts the other side immediately on the defensive. It quickly becomes all-or-nothing thinking, identity attacks, and other problems listed below.
StonewallingRefusing to engage in meaningful conversation that would lead to understanding even though a safe space for such conversation has been established. Stonewalling is different from simply creating space from someone. It is healthy and normal to break off a relationship with someone, inform them you are doing so (rather than ghosting), and then opt for no further contact. Stonewalling occurs when you maintain a relationship but refuse to talk.
DefensivenessA posture of avoiding challenge or criticism. This occurs when we fail to interpret another person’s intentions correctly (fail to listen) and instead interpret their intentions only from the lens of how they affect us. We can also fail to recognize the complexity of both their intentions and the feelings driving those intentions. This includes failing to recognize that their feelings may be muddled, and their intentions may be mixed.
Identity attacksAttacking someone’s identity erode their self-esteem and activates their defense mechanisms. This will backfire when they reciprocate by attacking your identity in turn.
All-or nothing thinkingThe “my way or the highway” approach.
Zero-sum gameMy gain is your loss.
Ego trap (narcissism / sycophants)Falling into the extreme love of self or putting another person on a pedestal.
Fear of changeHere a person can prevent growth by giving in to fear. This leads to fixed mobility within a social hierarchy. For example: not allowing children to grow into adults, not allowing an amicable divorce to proceed, a university present refusing to eventually step aside, a congressman on his sixth term, etc.
Forcing change too fastForcing change too fast will also precipitate negative cycling. This creates an excess of fear, which undermines listening, patience, generosity, and grace.
Feelings vacuum (no energy, no connection)Focusing only on logic and reason creates a feelings vacuum. We need feelings to truly listen, empathize and understand what others are saying. Without feelings, we become flat stagnant, and disconnected.
Reason vacuum (no moral values / lack of integrity)An excess of feelings that are unbalanced by logic and reason leads to emotional dysregulation. People become erratic. They succumb to their feelings. Remember that feelings are energy. Without reason to guide those feelings, we simply go where the wind blows us.
Temporal focusThis involves being stuck on either the past, the present or the future. A hyperfocus on one leads to a neglect of the others. This will eventually lead to cynicism as understanding deteriorates. Consider someone who is stuck on their trauma of the past who allows present relationships to atrophy. Someone who focuses only on the present moment will build up moral debts that will eventually come due.
Fickle, unstable boundariesOtherwise known as “being a doormat.” Not protecting and reinforcing one’s own personal boundaries. Or allowing those boundaries to be fickle according to convenience (rather than according to true value flexibility).
Extreme trust / skepticismThe person develops extreme trust in one group that is balanced by extreme distrust in another group. With all relationships, there must be healthy amounts of both trust and skepticism. Any relationship going too far in one extreme will inevitably cause cynicism and negative cycling.
IntoleranceAn intolerance for emotional discomfort and inconvenience leads to cynicism. Such a person may (mis)interpret every inconvenience as a type of boundary violation. This produces emotional fragility and inflexibility. Anyone that questions their line-of-thinking is suspected of having ill intent.
VictimhoodAn extreme type of comparing, this focus on one’s own loss erodes understanding. This hyperfocus on one’s own pain creates resentment. Resentment further feeds victimhood, and it becomes its own vicious cycle.
ConformityAn intolerance for identity differences
DisrespectFailing to recognize the importance of another person’s core values.

One could imagine thousands of potential traps that cause cynicism and negative cycling. Any excess or deficiency in a common, important value leads to cynicism. Anything that detracts from mutual understanding as a core purpose will cause a person to go in that direction. Any giving in to an emotion, especially a strong one, is also problematic.

Each of these traps involves three common elements. There is disconnection, weaponization of values, and delusional thinking. Disconnection replaces shared identity. We attack other people’s identity using our own values, which we have transformed and perverted into weaponized form. Finally, delusional thinking replaces genuine listening. We use delusional thinking to cover up the negative impact of our actions.

As we continue to cycle downwards, the problem exacerbates. We see further disconnection and erosion of shared identity. People become increasingly fixed on certain values, which they use in weaponized forms to attack the identity of others. Finally, greater delusional thinking is required as the negative impact of collective actions worsens.

Here we see the contrast between negative and positive cycling. Each cycle creates a spiral as it gathers inertia. Positive cycling spirals towards understanding, while negative cycling spirals towards greater cynicism.

Positive Cycling

Negative Cycling

An example of positive cycling: a couple’s weekly check-ins

Here is one example of positive cycling. A couple, whose relationship has been in distress for some time, decides to practice better listening. After learning about one partner’s infidelity, they went through a year of therapy. They got everything out. Now, both people understand each other better. There is still a lot of healing to be done. But overall, both people feel much better.

To maintain positive cycling, every week the couple has a dedicated date night away from the kids. They dress up and go out. They spend the entire night together without their phones. They spend part of the night talking about serious things that are important to each. They explore feelings. They carefully ask questions about raw spots. They spend other parts of the night being playful and having fun. Sometimes it’s bowling, sometimes skiing, sometimes pickleball, sometimes they’re at an arcade, miniature golf. They avoid static activities like the movies.

Healing occurs slowly over time. Each person understands their role in what happened. They uncover blind spots and misplaced values. They unravel bad habits and relearn how to do things in healthier ways. They truly come to know each other and connect.


Unfu*k Yourself: Get Out of Your Head and into Your Life
Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love


  • Mirriam-Webster Dictionary. Accessed 2.23.23. online https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/codependency
  • Joaquin Selva, 9/2/23. “Codependency: What Are The Signs & How To Overcome It” Accessed online on 2.21.23 at positivepsychology.com
  • Psychology Today. “What Is Codependency?” Accessed online 2.21.23. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/codependency