How I Work
Where You Are – Our Starting Point
The Dances We Do:
Where are you starting from now? Difficult relationships typically fall into one of three types or patterns, based upon whether one or both partners tend to move forward (“attack”) or withdraw (“avoid”) in difficult moments. This is the dance that we do, what the renowned couple’s therapist Dr. Sue Johnson (2008) calls “The Demon Dialogues.”
Attack-Attack: This dance is marked by a circular cycle of conflict. We criticize anrd blame and our partner does the same. The cycle may be about consistent topics (e.g., money, parenting, time together, etc.), or eventually, about most any and everything.
Attack-Avoid: In this case, the dance is marked by a sense of going around and around and getting nowhere, as one of you complains, criticizes, or blames, while the other avoids in some way, whether by being emotionally unresponsive or by simply physically withdrawing. Maybe you’ll switch roles from time to time, but for the most part, the dance is the same: “when I ____, you ____, the more I ____...” and on it goes.
Avoid-Avoid: In this case, most all connection is lost. Whether out of apathy born of conflict or to avoid conflict altogether, you both have basically given up and in. The relationship is then rather cold and lifeless.
Obviously, everyone’s dance is unique and there are flavors and mixes of these dances, but in general, these are the destructive cycles that many couples follow. Do you recognize aspects of your relationship here?
The Steps of the Dance:
Struggling relationships are fueled in general by three key factors.
First, we are generally only vaguely aware of the painful feelings of hurt, sadness, and fear that are triggered by our partner’s actions. And that goes for both those who “attack” and those who “avoid.” Both of you are trying to cope with difficult, rather insidious emotions.
Second, we don’t have a strong ability to pause in moments of difficulty and act with care, thoughtfulness, and support. Instead, for some, we are acutely aware of our anger and we defensively lash out. Or for others, we emotionally or physically withdraw. We use one of what the couple’s researcher John Gottman (1999) calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (Demons…Apocalypse…see a consistent theme in the imagery?).
Criticism: We express negative judgment or disapproval of our partner, globally, rather than voicing complaint about specific issues.
Contempt: We despise our partner and seek to make them feel worthless, through mocking, sarcasm, etc.
Defensiveness: We make excuses and at times, try to turn the tables, fight back, and place blame on our partner.
Withdrawal: We simply remove ourselves from the situation, emotionally or physically.
It is critical to recognize the paradox of The Four Horsemen: our typical attempts to get our needs met actually do exactly the opposite --they drive our partner away!
Finally, in moments when we are relying on one of the Four Horsemen, we miss an opportunity. We don’t constructively ask for what we need. And we don’t really hear what our partner needs and try to meet them. We don’t repair breaks, nor accept repair attempts by our partners. And as a result, the dance continues, while our emotional music plays on.
But, there is hope for breaking the cycle. Continue on to “Our Goal.”