Monday, August 7, 2017

Relationships Matter II: The Negative Dance


When an internal alarm goes off and tells you that something is off  in your relationship, this is when you as a partner can step back and realize that your relationship might be caught up in an emotional gridlock (what I like to call “negative dances”).  These dances are a result of feeling abandoned or dominated by our partner.   Emotional gridlock is when the content can change with each fight and the defensive dance steps remain the same.  Most couples slip into one of these negative dances once in awhile, but when it becomes a persistence pattern that is easily triggered, emotional connection can disappear.

Dr. Sue Johnson, one of the primary developers of Emotional Focused Therapy for couples identifies three negative dances that she calls “Demon Dialogues” (author of Hold Me Tight and Love Sense).  These negative dances disrupt our sense of safety and connection, placing us in a protected defensive emotional state. 

1.     1. Find the Bad Guy
This is a dance of mutual blame and is a dead end pattern that keeps couples miles of apart.  It blocks re-engagement and the creation of a safe haven.  One partner may blame the other for creating a mountain out of a molehill and overreacting.  The other may respond by making an accusation that their partner is emotionally minimizing their feelings and turning a mountain of a problem into a molehill.  These patterns when kept up over time often morphs into the second negative dance, The Protest Polka.  The antidote is to realize that no one has to be the bad guy.  It is the negative dance that is the virus.

I often tell couples that my systems approach to counseling assumes that no one is to blame and that everyone is responsible for their relationship.  Your relationship is greater than the sum of your individual histories and personalities.  There is you, your partner and the interaction in your relationship.  It is your relationship dance or interaction that is the source of the problem.  Blaming only throws gas on the fire of conflict.

2.      2. The Protest Polka
  One researcher calls this the “demand-withdraw, criticize – defend” dance.  In the Protest Polka, one person is reacting to or protesting the perceived loss of a secure connection.  This criticism is often followed by your partner withdrawing and quietly protesting the implied criticism.  Each partner needs to see beyond the issues and view the whole dance.  Both partners need to recognize how the other’s moves pulls them into this dance.  This dance is about distress over the growing distance in the relationship.  It cannot be solved through more logic, emotional outburst, protests or avoidant behavior.

3.      3. The Freeze or Flee or Withdraw 
This dance of withdrawal usually follows the Protest Polka that has been going on for awhile.   Once the relationship begins to feel hopeless, the protesting partner gives up and put their emotions and needs in the deep freeze.  The avoidant/distancing partner is glad to experience a reduction in the attacks or criticisms.  Both partners are now sitting out the dance of their relationship.  They have left the intimate magnetic field of their relationship.  What is leftover is only numbness and distance.  They may look like a cooperative and polite couple at social events, but deep down the couple has lost any sense of intimacy.  The love relationship is over unless some intervention can reboot their connection.

Being able to hold onto and center your-self while observing these negative dances is an important first step towards building a stronger connection.  This requires learning how to calm your-self and effectively manage your emotions in the absence of feeling your partner’s connection.  But this isn’t about holding our breath!  It is about learning to advocate for those parts of us that are freaking out or shutting down without emotionally going from 0 to 60 mph in a split second.

Turning around these negative dances begins with knowing our own part in the dance. 

  •       How do we create the traps that we are caught in?
  •          Do we get anxious and pursue our partner with implied criticism?
  •          Do we get angry and attack someone for their failure to engage? 
  •          Do we go off line and fail to notice our partner’s distress or attempt to engage? 
  •          Do we move through life emotionally numb, as if we don’t need anyone?
It is important to discover that our defenses are rooted in our attachment styles that were fostered in our childhood.  My next blog entry will review these attachment styles and the impact they have on our beliefs and significant relationships.