All of us can get irritated and reactive with our partner when upset. When this happens, it can cause a chain reaction of volatility. If our relationship is insecure, these reactions turn into negative patterns of interactional behaviour. Some people typically criticize or blame, and others stone wall, avoid or shut down. We all need to defend or protect ourselves at times of distress, especially in an intimate relationship. However, when we feel secure in the relationship, the pattern is short-lived and overcome easily. When we are in a less secure relationship, the negative communication pattern can become habitual, toxic and undermining of the entire relationship. The destructive pattern can become so ingrained and overwhelming that we can feel hopeless about changing it. When we don’t feel safe with our partner, we have to protect ourselves either by avoiding engagement by shutting down, or by becoming critical and fighting to be heard and understood.
In her book Hold Me Tight, Sue Johnson identifies three negative patterns couples often get stuck in. The first she calls ‘Find the Bad Guy’. It is very common for men and women to blame each other when things go wrong. To blame others, rather than accept responsibility for our actions, is one of the most human and frequently made mistakes in relationships. This pattern of mutual ‘Blame-Blame’ effectively maintains distance from each other and leads nowhere.
The second pattern she calls the ‘Protest Polka’ which is what happens when on person criticizes and the other person defends and withdraws. The criticizer is protesting feeling alone or hurt and the withdrawer is defending against feeling inadequate. This is the most common and entrapping interactional pattern.
The pattern that is apt to lead to separation if not stopped, is the third one that couples may fall into when in distress where both withdraw. It is called the ‘Freeze and Flee’ pattern. This happens when couples give up, feel hopeless, avoid and shut down their feelings. They go numb within and to each other’s feelings and become distant.
- How to Stop Playing “Find the Bad Guy” (the Blame-Blame Pattern)
Most of us are very good at blaming. We learn to blame others in childhood. “The dog ate my homework!” “Of course, your brother started the fight, not you!” As adult partners, we can be more honest and mature. This negative pattern must end before trust can be built in a relationship.
- Think of a situation that has recently occurred with your partner in which you were clearly at fault in creating a minor problem. For example, you overcooked dinner, or you forgot to pick up milk on the way home as you said you would. Think now, of four different ways you could have made the other person the bad guy. Think of three ways your spouse might respond negatively to your remarks. What would have happened? Can you see how the loop gets going?
- Think about what you typically do to “win” the fight? What do you usually accuse your partner of? What are your typical comebacks when cornered? When you criticize harshly, do you characterize them with an insulting name? How do you wound and enrage your spouse? When you ‘win’ the fight, do you really feel like you won?
- How to Stop the ‘Protest Polka’ (the Criticize-Defend Pattern)
- In your present relationship, what do you do when you feel disconnected and unsafe? Do you find yourself becoming critical and trying to change your partner? Do you protest or withdraw? Do you shut down and tell yourself that wanting reassurance is too risky and should not be expected? We all do one or more of these things from time to time.
- See if you can take this a bit further and think of a specific incident when withdrawing and not responding worked for you in your relationship? Sometimes this prevents a fight that we worry will threaten the relationship. Now, think of a time when withdrawing and moving away did not seem to work. What happened this time?
- Can you recognize the typical pattern by filling in the following blanks? The more I______________, the more you___________ and the more I ____________, and round and round we go. This is your “Polka dance.”
- How to Stop the Freeze & Flee cycle (Withdraw-Withdraw Pattern)
- If you are caught in the Freeze and Flee pattern, think about where you learned to discount and ignore your needs for emotional connection. Who taught you to do this? When do you feel most alone? Can you dare to share the answers to these questions with your partner? Is there anything that your partner can do to help you with this?
- Try to identify and share with your partner one cue that sparks the distance dance? Perhaps it is as simple as a facial gesture, a behaviour routine or tone of voice. Can you identify how you push your partner away from you or make it dangerous to come close to you?
Once you can identify these negative cycles, and recognize that they trap you both, can you learn to step out of them? Only by understanding and stopping the bad habits in your relationship, are you ready to develop a healthier, more satisfying attachment and connection with your partner.