Unresolved conflict in relationships can create negative patterns of communication that become a “dance” of sorts. Once in the dance, couples find it difficult to extricate themselves from these patterns. These patterns of interaction are fostered due to one or both partners’ limitations in effective communication skills, as well as being able to understand, identify, own, and express their feelings – predominantly fear and vulnerability. They have fear that the relationship will not work out, their partner will not have their back and be available, that they will not feel safe in their relationship and that their safe haven is being jeopardized. These all make people feel equally vulnerable.
Dr. Sue Johnson, author of Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, shares her invaluable insight into these negative, circular interactions and patterns of communication that keep couples stuck. She identifies three types of “Demon Dialogues” that create negative patterns of communication and roadblocks to having a healthy relationship. These “Demon Dialogues” occur when couples are unable to safely connect with their partner.
1.) Protest Polka. This is called “demand-withdraw” or “criticize-withdraw,” and is the most widespread and destructive of the “Demon Dialogues” in relationships. This pattern occurs when a partner has a reaction or a protest against a sense of loss of connection and safety – something we all need in a relationship. The Protest Polka is all about trying to get a response, a response that will connect and reassures. One partner reaches out in a negative way and the other steps back. This pattern is repeated.
The Protest Polka has also been described as the distancer/pursuer interaction: one partner pursues and the other distances. The more one pursues to lessen the distance and the disconnect, the more the other partner distances themselves from the relationship. It becomes a vicious cycle. However, the more they retreat, the more the person demands. The pursuer may become more critical and the other person withdraws even more. Unfortunately, many couples who fall into this pattern early in marriage do not make it to their fifth anniversary – while others are mired in it indefinitely (John Gottman).
Solution. Recognize how the dance between you and your partner started and understand what it says about your relationship. Start to recognize patterns. Look at the process of communication within the relationship, not the content or the topic. Examine and recognize when moments of disconnection occur and start to slow down the “spin cycle” so you can give it closer examination. Create safety in the relationship so emotions and feelings of attachment or disconnect can be discussed.
2.) Find the Bad Guy. A main purpose within this interaction is self-protection. As long as we find fault with our partner, we will not have to take responsibility for our role – the classic “its not me, it’s you.” Finger pointing, accusation, or blame are all common. This is a dead end pattern of mutual blame that effectively keeps a couple miles apart, preventing the couple from moving towards one another rather than away. The couple cannot feel safe. Thus, a “dance” is created, which begins when a partner feels hurt or vulnerable and suddenly becomes out of control because they feel their emotional safety is lost or jeopardized. In an effort to get the control back, they shine a negative light on their partner.
Solution. Ask questions such as: Maybe we can talk about what happened? Can we have a conversation about how we are each feeling about something without it being anyone’s fault? Can each person learn to look at themselves objectively and take their share of responsibility? These will help stop this negative interaction style.
3.) Freeze and Flee. This is also referred to as “withdraw-withdraw.” This type of interaction often occurs after a couple has exhausted the Protest Polka. They feel hopeless over their situation and begin to give up. Both partners are shut down and put their feelings in the “deep freeze”, leaving only numbness and distance. Both partners start to sit out of the relationship. This is the most dangerous situation of all.
When the pursuing, critical partner gives up trying to get their partner’s attention, they go silent. If continued, the aggressive partner will grieve the relationship, detach and leave. There is no emotion left – positive or negative. Ultimately, no one is invested in the relationship. No one will extend the olive branch. No one will take any risks. This interaction is a response to the loss of connection and the sense of helplessness concerning how to restore it.
Solution. Share with your partner about the cue or trigger that ignited the distancing. Also consider what some of the things are that you say to yourself once you have emotionally withdrawn to justify the separation or discourage you from reaching out to your partner. Can you begin to share some of your vulnerabilities with your partner or at least spark a conversation that helps your partner understand where you learned to ignore and discount your needs and feelings?
Distressed couples that are unable to recover from even the smallest slights will allow these to become habitual responses, so that small slights become bigger ones that can not be recovered. These toxic patterns become “ingrained and permanent, and totally undermine the relationship, blocking all attempts at repair and reconnection.” Ongoing and unresolved conflict results in the relationship bearing the ultimate burden – that of becoming progressively worse. (Johnson)
Can you identify yourself in any of these patterns? If so, what will you do to change your communication interactions with your partner to improve your relationship, bridge the gap, and become more emotionally invested to have a healthier relationship? How will you start to lean in and move towards, rather than away, from your partner or spouse?
This blog was originally posted on WomensEmergence.com