Over the past few years, I along with my colleagues have lead several transformative weekend events called Hold Me Tight Marriage Intensives. These are based on the groundbreaking work of Dr. Sue Johnson, the founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy and New York Times bestselling author. The following information is presented in greater detail at these marriage intensives and can also be found in Dr. Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. This information can also be found in in various Emotionally Focused Therapy trainings throughout the country, including Canadian Marriage and Family Therapist Gail Palmer’s Emotionally Focused Family Therapy workshop.
Whether we are aware of it or not, our relationship conflict follows a very similar pattern of response. Imagine a dance where both partners have learned the steps and through regular rehearsal know them instinctively; this is how our responses in the midst of conflict occur. Although the music often changes (the reason for conflict and disconnection) the steps of the dance (the response by both partners) remain similar. Partners may find themselves locked into dances that amplify the disconnection and propel them further from one another. Dr. Johnson calls these patterns Demon Dialogues. The Demon Dialogues are:
Find the Bad Guy (or Attack/ Attack)
This is sort of an “it’s not me, it’s you” move. The purpose of it is completely for self-protection and both partners are attacking, accusing and/or blaming the other. This response usually starts because one partner feels vulnerable and out of control. In these moments they do anything they can to regain a sense of safety and control again.
The Protest Polka (or Pursue/ Withdraw)
This is the most common pattern of conflict response for couples. One partner usually pursues the other, making demands or using criticism to make his or her point. The other partner then tries to defend him or herself, but soon gets overwhelmed and begins to shut down or withdraw. The more the withdrawing partner shuts down, the more the pursuing partner chases them through demands and criticism. Neither partner is “wrong” in their responses; both are actually protesting the loss connection in the relationship and in their own way are trying to avoid further disconnection.
Freeze and Flee (or Withdraw/ Withdraw)
This pattern is demonstrated when both partners have shut down into frozen defense and denial. This is a mode od self-protection and often appears as if each individual does not feel and does not need the other. This is often the result of failed attempts to reach the other and a general sense of helplessness (and possibly hopelessness). When both partners succumb to the idea that they are the problem and conclude they are unworthy they withdraw in an attempt to conceal their unlovable selves.
When I present these patterns in counseling sessions and workshops I see recognition on the faces of my audience. They are able to find themselves in one or more of these patterns and their next question is: so how do we fix this? My usual response is to quote Sue Johnson herself: “If you can name it you can tame it”.
If we know what the problem is then our ability to be more specific in our responses is so much easier. Before we could describe and understand the pattern we were in we didn’t know how to respond specifically to it. Now that we’ve labeled our responses we can more directly address the true needs that are driving the pattern of behavior. If I am withdrawing because I don’t feel safe and my spouse has a clear understanding of my actions then they are less likely to be offended if I shut down. If I am pursuing my loved one because I am afraid they will abandon me and they know this is driving my clinging behavior then they can soothe my actual fear rather than react to my perceived criticism
There is much more to be said about the Hold Me Tight conversations and the Demon Dialogues themselves but understanding our steps in the dance is such a functional part of reconnecting with our loved one(s). And helping couples find one another beneath the patterns that have kept them apart is some of my favorite work as a counselor.
If you and your loved one (spouse, child, parent, etc.) find yourselves in one of the three Demon Dialogues and could use some help reconnecting it would be my privilege to sit with you and guide you through that process. You can reach me at my office at (479) 709-9880. You can also find Hold Me Tight: Seven conversations for a Lifetime of Love by Dr. Sue Johnson wherever fine book are sold.