Have you ever been in a fight with your partner, trying your best to explain just why their actions hurt you, and suddenly, out of nowhere, they throw out a separate complaint of their own?
I call this pattern “tumbleweeding,” because like a tumbleweed rolling down a hill, your argument rapidly starts to pick up debris like old wounds, unresolved fights, and unrelated complaints. Each new scrap swept into the pile adds weight and momentum to the conflict. Your tumbleweed moves faster and faster with every additional grievance. At some point you probably sense that the conversation is suddenly out of your control and start trying to decelerate it, but by this time almost anything either person says will likely add to the rapidly spinning tangle. If one partner decides to stop, the other might be flooded with so much emotion that they can keep the tumbleweed spinning all on their own. Even when both people really want to stop, the tumbleweed may still have enough energy to keep rolling for a while because attempts to repair or reconcile can still be interpreted as attacks and sucked into the tumbleweed’s path. You’re locked in, hurt, defensive, and confused how this happened yet again.
How do you make it stop?
So how do you stop tumbleweeding? When I work with clients who fall into this pattern, the first step we take is to learn how to notice what is happening in the moment. Most couples have some sense of their pattern after the fact, when they’ve made up or calmed down. But noticing the tumbleweed while it’s happening (even if you can't stop it) powerfully disrupts the process.
Notice what’s happening without trying to fix it.
Inside your own head, name that the tumbleweed pattern is happening. You might say to yourself, “we’re doing that thing again, the thing where we each throw our hurts in the pile and things spin out of control really quickly.”
Name to your partner that it’s happening without blaming them. Describe the pattern as neutrally as possible. “I think we’re doing that thing where we both bring up different things that hurt us, and we end up talking about a bunch of different things at once and getting nowhere. Does it feel like that to you?”
Share how it feels to be caught in the tumbleweed once again. This might sound like “I wish I knew how to stop doing this” or “I don’t want to be stuck in this tumbleweed anymore.” Again, it’s important not to blame your partner for the pattern, even if it feels like they contributed to the spin out more than you.
Noticing that you’re caught in a tumbleweed yet again is a type of mindfulness practice. The immediate goal is not to prevent the tumbleweed altogether. Although some relationships have bigger and more out of control tumbleweeds than others, even very happy couples fall into this pattern sometimes. But you can practice noticing the tumbleweed sooner, naming it internally and out loud more often, and sharing your feelings about what it’s like to be stuck in this together.
If you are ready to dig into your patterns, including tumbleweeding each other, I am here to help.