Cycle of punishing vs trying to please

Delyse Ledgard, RCCRelationships



A dynamic I often see – particularly in couples recovering from infidelity, although not exclusively,  is a punish vs trying to please dynamic.

Couples get Stuck  …..  Here is Why.


Feels wronged and is hurting.  Needs consequence to occur to the ‘offender’.   ‘They need to be hurt as much as I have been’.

‘Perhaps if they hurt as much as I do they wont do it again’.   Hmm … has a certain ring to it – makes sense !

So how does the punish-er get them to feel their pain ?

Here are some typical ways this happens:

  • venting anger on an ongoing basis,
  • shaming them,
  • withholding affection and intimacy,
  • threatening to end the relationship,
  • using every opportunity to identify ‘evidence’ that they are going to do it again.


Feels guilty.  Secretly feels angry when treated with punishment.   Wants to be forgiven and tries really hard to do the ‘right’ thing.  Looses patience or gets angry, then feels more guilty.

They go round and round

As the pleaser keeps trying to ‘make it up’ to their partner this can overtime have the opposite effect of recovering and keep the relationship stuck.

This is because it is implied that ‘trying to make up for the breach’ will end once they are forgiven.   The partner who is punishing is afraid that once the ‘trying to make it up behaviour’ stops there will be no ‘safeguards’ to prevent the breach from occurring again.  Hence they have to keep the offender thinking about their behaviour and so continue to punish.

Moving On ………

The relationship is both partners responsibility to heal.

Once you get this there is less focus on the partner who has caused the breach as the one to fix things.   The ‘punish-er’ may need to express their hurt and anger but being the best partner they can be means being curious not furious.

‘Trying to make it up’ to your partner  will not create trust.  As identified above this can be experienced as temporary behaviour

This does not mean you don’t take responsibility for your actions but you continue to work on what is important to you and communication that to your partner.  Learning to be responsive to your partner does not = trying to meet all their needs and demands. 

 What creates trust…

is being truthful about how you are feeling – even if that is not what your partner wants to hear.  Developing the space for each to be their own person in relation to the other.

Both of you have experienced the disruption to the relationship in different ways.  Trust does not come from guarantees but a leap of faith and as scary as that may sound this is how you will trust your partner again.  As hurtful as it was,  you can begin to view it as an opportunity to create a better relationship.  For most of you it already has.

What  do you think ?