Every relationship creates its own dance – whether it be with your spouse, your children, or your siblings. These dances are about security and connection, but unfortunately sometimes the emotional connection gets lost in the shuffle.
In the secure marriage relationship, couples can have disagreements, but still remain connected at the core. They experience security and love in enough of their interactions that times of disconnect are not threatening to them. However, when the times of misattunement become more frequent, couples find it difficult to find the attachment and security they crave in the relationship – they begin to feel lonely even when they are together.
Dr. Sue Johnson identifies three “Demon Dialogues” in her book titled Hold Me Tight. The first dialogue is called “Find the Bad Guy”. Good to its name, the partners each try to blame the other for the problems in the relationship. It’s much easier to point a finger at another than to look at our personal contribution to a negative relationship cycle. We look at our partner’s faults and ignore or dismiss any concerns expressed to us about our behaviour.
The second dialogue is called “Protest Polka” and is considered the most common cycle in which relationships get stuck. In this dance, one partner steps forward and the other steps back. One partner pursues dialogue because he or she is protesting the disconnection and the other retreats because it feels like criticism. To the ones that withdraw, the pursuit feels like: “I’m not good enough,” or “You think I’m a failure in this relationship.” They then withdraw because they feel stuck and do not know how to respond. The withdrawing is a type of protection. This withdrawal then feels like rejection and abandonment to the pursuers, who then may increase the protest, and the dance spirals into a negative cycle.
The third dialogue is called “Freeze and Flee.” This cycle usually occurs after the Protest Polka – the pursuing partner has given up and also becomes distant. Both partners feel distant and trapped in the hopelessness. Partners are choosing to step out of the dance and begin to move in opposite directions. The relationship is mired in loneliness and separation, and if the couple does not find help, it leads to the end of the relationship.
In her book, Dr. Johnson provides guidelines for conversations between partners to begin to heal their disconnect. To start the healing, the couple must first recognize their cycle. If the couple can begin speaking about the cycle in which they get stuck, they can work together to fight the negative pattern. The negative cycle becomes the problem rather than the other person. The other key to changing the pattern is understanding our own triggers and contributions to the negative cycle. If we can honestly look at our behaviour and make small changes in the dialogue, it can be the first step to healing the relationship.
Stopping the negative cycles is the first step to enhancing the emotional connection in the relationship, but it’s definitely not the whole dance. Couples who want to maintain emotional connection need to continue to work on their relationship and have conversations that continue to strengthen their bond. If we stop working on the relationship, we step out of the dance.
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