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The Vulnerability Cycle: Working With Impasses in Couple Therapy


  • The authors are equal contributors to this article and author order is random.
    The authors gratefully acknowledge the feedback of Michael Fishbane, Jay Lebow, Marsha Mirkin, and Froma Walsh on earlier drafts of this article.

concerning this article should be addressed to Mona D. Fishbane, Ph.D., 1803 St. Johns Ave., Highland Park IL 60035, e-mail:; or to Michele Scheinkman, CSW, e-mail:


In this article, we propose the vulnerability cycle as a construct for understanding and working with couples' impasses. We expand the interactional concept of couples' reciprocal patterns to include behavioral and subjective dimensions, and articulate specific processes that trigger and maintain couples' entanglements. We consider the vulnerability cycle as a nexus of integration in which “vulnerabilities” and “survival positions” are key ideas that bring together interactional, sociocultural, intrapsychic, and intergenerational levels of meaning and process. The vulnerability cycle diagram is presented as a tool for organizing information. We suggest a therapeutic approach for deconstructing couples' impasses and facilitating new patterns through deliberate modes of questioning, a freeze-frame technique, stimulation of calmness and reflection, separating present from past, and elicitation of alternative meanings, behaviors, empathy, and choice. This approach encourages the therapist and couple to work collaboratively in promoting change and resilience.