domino

Domino Stacks in Relationships

Written by Rob Giltner, MAMFT

Have you noticed that you and your partner have arguments about the same thing over and over again? Or perhaps the subject matter in arguments gets changed to something in the past or unrelated to what caused the conflict in the first place? This may be a result of emotional dominos being stacked up within your relationship. 

Emotional dominos are under the surface conflicts that are unresolved.

Usually, these dominos are hidden and only surface during a conflict. Often dominos are related to events of inclusion, affection, and influence. For example, whenever your partner does or says something to you that makes you feel unloved, a small domino appears regardless if it was intentional or not. 

If we do not repair this domino, it grows into a larger one and likely breeds more dominos. These dominos then begin stacking up and leaning on each other, and small moments in your relationship can knock them over and cause conflict. 

One such small moment, for example, could be your partner not sitting next to you on the couch. This action knocks all those other dominos down and the event of not sitting on the couch turns into something more emotionally intense than originally warranted. 

The tricky part about dealing with dominos, besides them being hidden, is that we feel like we must solve the domino we are presented with now. In this case, it would be sitting next to each other on the couch.

Couples often make the mistake of trying to solve problems too quickly. Even if your partner just agrees to sit next to you on the couch forever, you are still left with the original domino of feeling unloved. In order to heal these past conflicts, your partner and you have to go through all of the dominos one by one to make sense of why they are there in the first place and then empathize with each one. 

A behavior of listening to understand rather than respond or solve is a great first step. Instead of responding defensively or by immediately problem-solving, we should ask our partners to “tell me more.”